Protecting the ocean, the heart of Earth’s climate system

The week of September 10, people from around the world are gathering in San Francisco for the Global Climate Action Summit. Convened by the State of California, the Summit brings together leaders—representing nations, states, cities, companies, investors and citizens—to celebrate climate action, and step up their ambitions to meet the targets set by the Paris Agreement. Monterey Bay Aquarium Executive Director Julie Packard reflects on the central role of the ocean, the heart of Earth’s climate system, in this historic moment.

To solve the climate crisis, humanity must address the health of the ocean—the largest ecosystem on our planet. The ocean is our first line of defense against the impacts of climate change, absorbing a significant share of the excess carbon dioxide and heat we produce by burning fossil fuels. And a healthy ocean helps protect humanity from the intensifying impacts of climate change.

Monterey Bay Aquarium Executive Director Julie Packard. Photo courtesy Motofumi Tai.

For too long, the ocean has been left out of climate conversations. That will change at the Global Climate Action Summit, where for the first time ocean stewardship is on the priority agenda.

A group of government and nongovernmental representatives, including the Monterey Bay Aquarium, are calling on all sectors of society to protect the ocean—our most powerful tool to mitigate, and adapt to, the impacts of climate change. We’ve outlined that challenge, and provided a blueprint for action, through an Ocean-Climate Action Agenda.

The attention is overdue. And the need is urgent.

Our lives depend on a healthy ocean

As land creatures, we may not be wired to think much about the ocean—how its cycles are directly linked to our own survival, and how our choices affect it.

Seafood from the ocean provides one-sixth of the protein that sustains our population. Photo courtesy NOAA.

Selfishly, we should. We depend on the ocean in so many ways. Its marine life provides one-sixth of the animal protein we eat. Its waters carry more than 90 percent of the world’s trade—moving goods and raw materials more cost-effectively than any other mode of transport. Its shores are home to nearly half of all people on Earth.

The ocean drives global weather systems. A warming ocean and atmosphere is sparking changes in stable weather systems that have allowed civilization to flourish. Photo courtesy NASA.

The ocean is the heart of Earth’s climate system; its currents and winds circulate heat and moisture around our planet. The weather patterns we associate with different regions of the world have been relatively stable throughout human history, thanks to the ocean.

And the ocean buffers us from the most severe impacts of climate change, absorbing about 30 percent of the carbon dioxide—and over 90 percent of the excess heat—we’ve produced by burning fossil fuels.

Stable systems, disrupted

Now, climate change is disrupting fundamental ocean processes that sustain life on Earth.

Sea level rise fueled by climate change will affect where people can live along the coast. Photo courtesy NOAA

Sea levels are rising, placing tens of millions of coastal residents in harm’s way. Intensifying storms are costing human lives and causing billions of dollars in property damage. It’s time to recognize that human health is directly tied to ocean health.

We’re seeing other signs of how the ocean is being affected. Warming water is choking tropical corals and stunting kelp forest growth along the California coast. Carbon pollution is making seawater more acidic, dissolving the shells of plankton that are the foundation of ocean food webs.

The ocean must be front and center in the climate conversation.

Moving forward, the ocean must be front and center in the climate conversation. When we protect Earth’s living heart, home to the greatest diversity of life on our planet, we safeguard ourselves.

The good news is that the ocean is resilient. It can recover. But it isn’t “too big to fail.”

World leaders realize that acting on climate change is about human survival, and there’s no time to waste. The 2015 Paris Agreement was a hopeful turning point, signaling the willingness of almost every nation on the planet to work together. That momentum continues this week.

A call for action

At the Global Climate Action Summit, ocean leaders will call on governments, businesses and citizens to protect our living ocean. We must reverse the destruction of coastal habitats, create more global marine protected areas, and improve the sustainability of fisheries and aquaculture. We must help coastal communities prepare for, and adapt to, the growing impacts of extreme weather and sea level rise. We must invest in science, the bedrock of sound decision-making.

From Tanzania to Taiwan, solar power and other zero-emission energy sources are coming on line. Photo courtesy Redavia Solar

Finally, and most importantly, we must redouble our commitment to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

I couldn’t be prouder of my home state for its climate leadership. California is advancing ambitious climate policies and moving toward a zero-emission economy.

Coastal cities are factoring climate change into their land-use planning, building resilience for the challenges ahead. California created the first statewide network of marine protected areas in the nation. Innovators in the private sector are turning their creativity to climate solutions. Philanthropists are investing in science, and in science-based climate solutions.

World leaders gather in San Francisco the week of September 10 for the Global Climate Action Summit.

At a moment when federal leadership on climate change has receded, the Global Climate Action Summit is proof that states, cities and businesses are moving forward toward a low-carbon, clean-energy future.

In pursuing this vision, we must ensure that the ocean gets the attention, and the protection, it deserves. The lives of seven and a half billion people depend on it.

Featured photo: Point Lobos State Marine Reserve; © Bill Morgan.

Learn more about the Ocean-Climate Action Agenda presented at the Global Climate Action Summit.

Discover all the Aquarium is doing—through science, policy action and public awareness—to address global climate change and ocean health.


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