Climate Change & The Global Ocean
From The Guardian by David Miliband, José María Figueres and Trevor Manuel are co-chairs of the Global Oceans Commission
Despite a key role in cutting emissions, the ocean is completely absent from Ban Ki-moon’s climate meeting for world leaders
On Tuesday, the UN headquarters in New York is hosting the largest gathering of world leaders ever to address climate change.
It is an enormously important event, intended to catalyze action ahead of next year’s Paris conference – where leaders have pledged to reach a new global climate agreement, and a great credit to secretary general Ban Ki-moon and his team.
But the summit is guilty of a major sin of omission: the ocean, over two-thirds of the planet, is completely absent from the programme.
It is neither one of the eight “action areas” on which governments and other key players are invited to announce bold new commitments, nor one of the “thematic sessions” where states and stakeholders will share solutions.
The summit is keeping its feet firmly on dry land and is highlighting the huge gap between scientific knowledge and political action.
The Global Ocean Commission is dismayed that the ocean appears to have been relegated to the status of an afterthought, something to bring up occasionally in the context of other, apparently more essential, concerns.
This is particularly shocking coming at the end of a year in which the ocean has been consistently listed among the most critical elements of the climate change challenge, by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), and numerous scientific studies and reports – including our own report released in June.
This short introductory video offers the opportunity to explore the complexity of the relationship between ocean and climate and the many ways they affect one another.
Science is showing us that there can be no solution to the climate challenge without a healthy ocean, which is currently in sharp decline.
The ocean absorbs a quarter of man-made CO2 emissions, and has taken on 90% of the extra heat generated since the industrial revolution.
Without the ocean to clean up our mess, the impacts of climate change would already be far more severe.
This is where the alarm bells about ocean health should start ringing: human pressures on the ocean – both its chemical composition and its immeasurable biodiversity – are undermining its ability to carry out the essential services on which we all depend.
The latest edition of the WMO Greenhouse Gas Bulletin warns that the increasing acidification of the ocean has caused its capacity to absorb our carbon emissions to drop to 70% what it was at the start of the industrial era, and this could fall to just 20% by the end of the century.
While ocean acidification is a big problem for marine life and humans, there are things we can all do to slow the rate of change.
Alarming current rates of ocean acidification, unprecedented in 300 million years, are directly caused by that fact that it takes in 4 kg of CO2 per day per person on the planet.
It is therefore right that the overriding goal of negotiations must be to reduce carbon emissions as much, as rapidly and as equitably as possible.
But, in parallel, we must boost resilience to climate change.
This includes taking urgent steps to reverse ocean decline and stimulate its recovery.
Sea creatures are not only valuable for food, they are directly involved in the climate equation.
A study we commissioned earlier this year found that deep-sea life alone absorbs 1.5bn tonnes of CO2 and buries half a billion tonnes of carbon on the seabed every year – a sequestration service worth US$148bn, compared with the paltry US$16bn that high seas fishing fleets get for their annual catch.
This adds up to a convincing climate argument for taking rapid steps.
It is ludicrous to perpetuate a situation where governments and businesses are scrambling to try and reduce their carbon emissions, while we carry on squandering a natural resource that is providing that service for free.
By omitting the ocean, the summit is sending a very negative message.
As an event billed as an opportunity to catalyze commitments to action in the areas most important for keeping global temperature increase below 2C.
Yet the message is painfully clear: despite the science, for some at least the ocean is not a top priority for climate action.
It is not enough for the ocean to be an uncredited crosscutting issue; it must be front and centre as the world puts together its long-awaited plan of attack.
The ocean is both a victim of, and a fundamental part of the solution to, climate change.
It is completely out of step with reality not to highlight it as a major concern at the upcoming climate summit or at forthcoming climate negotiations and meetings.
Even at this eleventh hour we believe it can and must be done.