Katharine Hayhoe, chief scientist for the Nature Conservancy, is calling for action to protect and rebuild ocean ecosystems that are endangered by climate change.
“Climate change’s impacts on the ocean are so massive that when I’m asked why we aren’t talking about it more, the only answer I can think of is, ‘Because we aren’t polar bears or corals,’” Hayhoe writes in Scientific American.
“If we all lived on or in the ocean, the catastrophic changes we’d be seeing there would dominate our headlines daily.”
Oceans are being drastically altered by human-induced climate change, after absorbing 90% of the energy trapped so far by global greenhouse gas emissions. In comparison, much of the climatic change people experience on land is driven by just 1% of that energy. As people suffer climate impacts like wildfires, extreme heat, droughts, and flooding, the ocean has also undergone significant temperature changes, with devastating consequences like bleached coral, algal blooms that trigger fish deaths, and the poleward migration of marine species.
Many of the changes affecting the ocean have consequences on land, too. The species forced to migrate from adverse environmental changes include “phytoplankton that produce at least half the oxygen we breathe” and “the fish and shellfish stocks on which more than three billion people depend for their primary source of protein,” Hayhoe says. Warming waters also expand, causing sea levels to rise even higher and powering stronger atmospheric rivers, hurricanes, typhoons, and tropical cyclones that dump greater amounts of water on land.
While the most effective way to address these impacts is to stop their direct causes—the human emissions that are driving climate change—the massive changes already under way require more immediate action to help ocean ecosystems cope.
Hayhoe describes some of the creative tactics available: The Nature Conservancy plans to reach its goal of conserving 10% of the world’s ocean area by 2030 using debt refinancing to “generate new funding to help countries implement their biodiversity and climate commitments.”
So far, more than 140 countries have used debt forgiveness or financing to conserve land and ocean areas. Some recent examples include a project with Barbados to protect up to 30% of its marine area, and a “debt-for-nature deal” with Ecuador to preserve waters around the Galapagos Islands.
But conserving ocean environments won’t be enough, so some projects are aimed at making ecosystems more resilient to warmer conditions. Working with researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution at Stanford University, The Nature Conservancy is using computer modelling to plan and design “super reefs” that place resilient corals in prime locations, and can help restock surrounding reefs.
“As we begin to understand the vast impact our choices have on the ocean and, consequently, on us, the need for urgent action becomes even more apparent,” Hayhoe says.
“It’s still possible to shape a future where people and the ocean can thrive together,” she adds, “but to do so, we must act now.”