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Oceans are taking the brunt of climate change

September 28th, 2013

By Jack Wilson

As politicians, scientists and the world's media begin to respond to the latest IPCC report, Jack Wilson reminds us of the critical role that oceans play in mitigating the impacts of climate change and explains just how detrimental this role is to many marine ecosystems........

The oceans have absorbed more than 90% of the warming

Following the latest IPCC report released yesterday, the urgency for unified world action regarding climate change is at its foremost. Introducing the report from a high level UN panel of climate scientists, Ban Ki-moon said, "The heat is on. We must act." 

The IPCC has stated that even if the world begins to seriously moderate greenhouse gas emissions, warming is likely to cross the critical threshold of 2C by the end of this century, with serious consequences to humanity. US Secretary of State John Kerry also stated that, "Once again, the science grows clearer, the case grows more compelling, and the costs of inaction grow beyond anything that anyone with conscience or commonsense should be willing to even contemplate." 

A significant yet often underemphasised issue raised by the IPCC report is that the oceans are shielding humanity from climate change impacts at significant cost to their own health, and have already absorbed more than 90% of the warming so far. Our atmosphere holds only one per cent of the extra heat that our greenhouse gas emissions are trapping on Earth, the ocean more than 90 per cent – so by focusing on atmospheric temperatures we have been missing a huge part of the story. 

The ocean is the dominant life support system on the planet and is central to our quality of life on earth. Unfortunately, there is a profound, widespread ignorance about the ocean and its vital importance to everyone, everywhere, all of the time. Even what is known to scientists is not widely appreciated by the public, and certainly not by most policymaking officials. You can rarely prove something to someone who does not want to see it proven, or has financial or ideological reasons to not see it proven. 

90% of many fish species are now gone from the oceans and the disappearance of fish species has recently been accelerating. If this long term trend continues, all fish species are projected to collapse by 2048. By then, around 4 billion of the projected 9.3 billion people on the planet could be without their primary source of protein, creating a global food security problem.                                                              

The oceans are home to the greatest diversity of life. As the oceans are changing, the character of the planet will change. It took about 4 billion years for living systems, mostly in the sea, to transform the lifeless ingredients of early Earth into the climate which makes our lives possible. It has taken less than 100 years for us to destabilise these ancient rhythms. 

We are witnessing a complete re-organisation of ocean ecosystems, with unknown global consequences. The stability of the system is declining. Losing species changes the predictability of the oceans. The ability of the system to absorb shocks and disasters and deal with climate change is diminishing at a rapid rate.

Changes in climate are affecting ocean systems and ocean life just as on land, and those impacts in turn are influencing the atmosphere and terrestrial systems. As the principal driver of planetary climate and weather, changes in the ocean resonate globally. The rhythms of growth of our vegetation are directly tied to the rhythms of ocean surface temperature. The oceans control, or at least, significantly correlate with the growth patterns and the rain patterns on the continent. However, present climate change policies are focusing on the atmosphere and largely neglecting the ocean. This is despite ample evidence that the ocean drives and regulates planetary climate, weather, temperature and chemistry. 

Nearly two-thirds of the world’s population now lives within 40 miles of the coast. Projections of what is possible by mid-century are not comforting to those who live on a waterfront or island. At the current rates of sea level rise, some of the most beautiful places on Earth such as the Maldives are predicted to be underwater before 2100. Nevertheless, the one unequivocal response to this melting has been to facilitate the capture of the oil and fish it exposes. It seems like the corporations that have caused this disaster are scrambling to profit from it. 

Numerous models have been crafted to anticipate the consequences of increasing greenhouse gases, with the conclusion that by the end of the century we would have at least 6C of warming and reach a runaway tipping point where the process begins to feed itself. The world would be riven by conflict, famine, flood and drought. This could bring about the extinction of 95% of species on the planet as undesirable plants and animals proliferate. Water supplies would dry up, agriculture would be disrupted and super extremes of weather would occur. Hundreds of millions of people could be forced to leave their homelands and be met by armed conflict, which could become a permanent feature of life on Earth.

The oceans provide 97% of our planet’s living space, yet less than 5% of the ocean has been seen, let alone explored. Marine ecosystems hold far more biological and genetic diversity and density than the tropical rainforests which tells us that we don’t know much about this planet at all. The world register of marine species found that up to three-quarters of the world’s marine animals and plants are yet to be discovered which means it may well be the next rainforest for pharmaceuticals. 

Since the science of marine biotechnology was kick-started five years ago, scientists have found micro-organisms that contain millions of previously unknown genes and thousands of new families of proteins that could be used to create innovative medicines, industrial solvents, chemical treatments and other processes. For example, a cancer drug Halaven was derived from sponges, a particularly promising marine resource. 

But tragically, we are destroying marine biodiversity 1,000 times faster than normal, before we’ve even had a chance to benefit from it. Overfishing, pollution and climate change are all interacting in a way that may prevent the Ocean from ever recovering. But the problem isn’t about overfishing, pollution or climate change. It’s about our need for growth and our greed and our inability to imagine the world as different to the selfish world we live in today. 

The problem that we are seemingly unable to countenance is the end of growth. Today's system is predicated on the progressive conversion of nature into products, people into consumers, cultures into markets and time into money. We are trying to extend that growth for a few more years by fracking and deep-sea oil drilling, but only at a higher and higher cost to future generations. Now that most of the best, easy to access oil is running out it is becoming less and less economically viable to extract crude oil to the extent that the average price per barrel has tripled in just 7 years. This has increased the cost of everything and helped place most Western economies into an on-going recession. Sooner or later we may have to transition towards a degrowth economy. 

Sadly, many people need to endure something themselves before it touches them. It may well be that only disaster will effectuate change. It may take a cataclysmic example of extreme weather for people to wake up and do something. 

The future of the ocean, the creatures who live there, and our own future are inextricably linked. The future of life depends on us doing something. The next 40 years may be the most important in the next 10 thousand. In the end, our snippet of time representing the human race will be defined not only by what we create, but by what we refuse to destroy. 

Jack Wilson is the Communications Officer at ReefDoctor  a marine conservation organisation based in Madagascar.  

Follow him @OceanKarma 

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