Steve Trent, CEO and Co-Founder of the Environmental Justice Foundation, argues that we can’t protect our climate without ocean action
The ocean is our most important ally in the fight against the climate emergency. We must recognise this and act to protect it. We can’t protect our climate without ocean action.
The ocean, climate, and human rights
Most people now recognise the importance of terrestrial ecosystems like tropical rainforests in taking carbon out of the atmosphere and minimising the impacts of the climate crisis. We are rightly alarmed at rampant deforestation, which threatens to push critical ecosystems such as the Amazon over a tipping point and into a mass die-off. However, we do not offer the same concern and protection to the ocean, despite it being fundamental for the future of life on Earth.
Our seas and ocean cover over 70% of the Earth’s surface, contain 78% of animal biomass and produce more oxygen than all the world’s forests, giving us our every second breath. The ocean regulates our rainwater, drinking water, weather, climate and coastal environments. The ocean makes the Earth inhabitable for humankind. It is our planet’s ‘blue beating heart’.
Crucially, as our planet heats, our global ocean absorbs around a third of the CO2 we release into the atmosphere. It has taken in over a nuclear bomb’s worth of heat every second for the past 150 years. A healthy ocean, teeming with life, is a vital tool to tackle global heating; marine wildlife stores more than half of biological carbon. Yet “blue carbon’s” inclusion in climate policies is paltry – this must urgently change.
The ocean connects three issues: mitigating climate breakdown, protecting biodiversity and defending human rights. What links them is “blue carbon” – the carbon stored in living marine life and the habitats that support them.
Wildlife on the brink
For the ocean to keep playing its role as one of Earth’s vital life support systems, it must be home to abundant, thriving marine life. Animals, from fish to whales, and plants, from seagrasses to mangroves, are central in taking carbon out of the atmosphere and sequestering it safely. The essential carbon storage mechanism of the ocean is lost when habitats and their diversity of life are destroyed.
The onslaught on the oceanic world should worry us all. Hundreds of millions of tonnes of CO2 are released every year through marine habitat destruction. Since industrial fishing began in the early 1950s, we have lost 90% of the world’s large ocean fish, such as sharks, cod and swordfish. Mangrove forests are disappearing, coral reefs may be gone at 2C of global heating, and “bottom trawling” can wipe out seabed ecosystems in the “blink of an eye”.
Suppose we don’t act to protect and restore marine ecosystems. We will accelerate the climate crisis and give wildlife nowhere to turn. We will undermine the fundamental human rights of millions of people at risk from climate change and the overfishing that diminishes their food security and livelihoods.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Action now to protect the ocean will reap vast benefits for future generations. The ocean is a “Bank of Nature” that will keep on giving if we treat it with respect and care.
Solutions for sustainable seas
The organisation I lead, the Environmental Justice Foundation, calls for ocean protection to be at the heart of climate policy. It should be part of every political decision our leaders make, not just nature and climate laws. The reasons are simple: we know we can’t solve the climate crisis without protecting the ocean. We know too that “delay means death” – the rallying cry from activists in countries currently experiencing devastating climate impacts. We know that delay also makes climate action more expensive, with academics in Oxford estimating the cost of delay would be U.S. $150 billion a year. Governments failing to act now are locking in massive and completely avoidable costs for the future.
Combine these clear facts, and you get a compelling message for our leaders – act to protect our ocean and end the climate crisis. Leave a healthier, more sustainable planet for those who follow us. Use the unique power governments have over fiscal and monetary policy to funnel money to clean, green progress, rather than pumping subsidies into fossil fuels, overfishing and harmful agriculture.
A future where everyone has a safe place to live, supported by a thriving natural world, isn’t some abstract, idealistic vision. It’s the most significant investment we could make, and nations like Seychelles show that with climate vision and ambition, it can be done.