Climate Change and the Ocean Century
The ocean is our lifeblood on Earth. It covers 71% of the planet, provides us oxygen, and regulates our climate -- and increasingly severe weather events -- by determining the strength of storms, droughts, and floods. It even shapes the very size of our continents. And, most importantly for us now, over the last two hundred years the ocean has absorbed at least one quarter of all the carbon released into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. As a result, the global scientific consensus is that the ocean is warming, sea levels are rising, ocean acidity is increasing, glaciers are shrinking across the globe, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are melting fast, snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere (our built-in air conditioner) is decreasing, and the frozen ground on which most of the Arctic is built is also melting. In other words, the very essence of our existence is fundamentally changing -- and as a result, so will every living thing on the planet, especially us.
"...over the last two hundred years the ocean has absorbed at least one quarter of all the carbon released into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels."
We can blame ourselves for that, since it is our carbon addiction that changed the chemistry of our global life support system. And we must curb this addiction or it will kill us eventually. But as we face the global challenges posed by climate change today, our new ocean reality is already upon us. No matter what we do now, the changes in the ocean are irreversible on any timescale that matters -- they are literally baked in. Our only choice is to do what life on Earth has always done in order to survive. We must adapt to the changes in the ocean as if our lives depend on it -- because they do.
To succeed, and indeed just survive to reach the twenty-second century, the twenty-first century must become the century of the ocean. The twentieth century was when we conquered space -- air space, outer space, and cyberspace. We leapt boundaries by inventing the airplane; we vaulted ourselves beyond Earth's boundaries by going to the Moon and even Mars; and we created a world that is intimately connected and unbounded by distance through internet and satellite communications. Meanwhile, we have left the largest part of the Earth -- more than 80% of the ocean -- unexplored and unknown. Now, it controls our fate. In the twenty-first century, it is imperative that we close the ocean information gap, and fast. Fortunately, due to new technologies it is possible to map the entire seafloor, survey the depths of the ocean from pole to pole, and to learn what lives at every level below its surface. The ocean is our moonshot. But we have other immediate ocean priorities too.
"...scientists now project there are more than 150 million people living today on land that will be below the high-tide line by 2050, including some of the most populous cities in the world like New York City, Alexandria (Egypt), Bangkok, Shanghai, and Mumbai."
First, we must prepare for sea levels rising globally. According to the most recent United Nations report on oceans, 28% percent of the people across the globe live along coastlines, and 11% of the population lives on land that is less than 10 meters above sea level. In recent months we've been flooded with stories about sea level rise causing "sunny day" flooding in places like Miami, and coastal subsidence along the California and Gulf coasts causing headaches and worse for millions. In fact, scientists now project there are more than 150 million people living today on land that will be below the high-tide line by 2050, including some of the most populous cities in the world like New York City, Alexandria (Egypt), Bangkok, Shanghai, and Mumbai.
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This is triple the impact previously projected -- we are three times more vulnerable than we thought. We have to get moving -- literally -- to higher ground before major cities drown. We cannot simply build walls to hold back the water -- that has been a dismal failure, as the people of Venice can attest. And we have to move not just from along the coast, but also we must anticipate inland areas that will flood more habitually in the future, according to new research. Indonesia's President is the first to announce that it will move the country's capital from Jakarta because it is too vulnerable to sea level rise, but he won't be the last. More governments need to similarly plan and pay for climate migrations.
"So far, only roughly only 3% of the ocean is fully protected, while approximately 8% has some level of protection. Scientists tell us that we need to reach a target of 30% protected land and sea by 2030 and 50% by 2050."
Second, we must improve global ocean governance so we can sustainably use ocean resources we will need. Currently, the ocean is governed by a patchwork quilt of global rules -- but they are mostly ineffective due to the sheer size and scale of the blue areas of the planet. Thanks to the advances of the twentieth century, it is now possible to monitor and manage ocean spaces and resources in ways we never could before. Still, what we lack is real law and regulation for the parts of the ocean beyond national jurisdictions -- roughly 200 miles out. This need will become particularly important as ocean resources shift due to climate impacts (like ocean warming and acidification) that do not respect traditional legal boundaries.
We can no longer afford the "tragedy of the commons" in the ocean -- ocean space and resources will be at a premium in the decades to come. We need the minerals found in the ocean that will provide us more sustainable energy than fossil fuels, powering our cell phones and batteries. We need the space to develop aquaculture to grow food as our ability to feed ourselves off the land and from wild fish stocks diminishes. And we need to find ways to make these uses transparent to all, so we can ensure that no country or company cheats the global system, and to ensure equitable distribution of the bounty from the high seas that rightfully belongs to everyone.
"Indonesia's President is the first to announce that it will move the country's capital from Jakarta because it is too vulnerable to sea level rise, but he won't be the last."
Third, we must set aside some areas in the ocean to keep it healthy and able to sustain us for the duration. So far, only roughly only 3% of the ocean is fully protected, while approximately 8% has some level of protection. Scientists tell us that we need to reach a target of 30% protected land and sea by 2030 and 50% by 2050. Conservation organizations are working with governments today (even during the pandemic) to ensure that we reach our initial and immediate goal of 10% by the end of 2020. But that is only a down payment on what we will need going forward. There are three sets of negotiations that will be key in 2020 and beyond. First, a UN agreement on governance in areas beyond national jurisdiction with the intent of creating marine reserves on the high seas, which is nearing completion. In addition, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity will meet later this year and must adopt the 30% by 2030 goal for both land and ocean. Finally, the UN Framework on Climate Change Agreements must include ocean health issues as integral to (not separate and apart from) solving the climate crisis.
So the challenges ahead of us are clear. We must fully explore the ocean, get out of its way as it rises, set up better legal regimes to ensure the sustainable use of ocean resources, and conserve a third or more of it to ensure we can sustain humanity and all life on Earth for the foreseeable future. Whether we like it or not, this will be the ocean century. The choice is ours whether we meet the challenges the ocean presents, or succumb to them. As is often said, water finds a way. And so must we.