Authors: Catarina Lorenzo & Lydia Rysavy
Right now, politicians from around the world are wrapping up their meetings in Glasgow to discuss climate action at COP26. All of their decisions – or lack thereof – will determine almost every aspect of our lives and those of generations to come. Climate may be at the centre of the conversation, but we cannot forget about the ocean.
Climate change, simply defined by the National Geographic Society as: the long-term alteration of temperature and typical weather patterns over time. At present, the Earth’s average temperature has increased by 1.1℃, with the climate crisis already impacting every part of our planet, including ecosystems and communities around the world. The ocean, making up 71% of our planet’s surface, is no exception. Producing around half of the world’s oxygen, and providing us with countless other essential ecosystem services, it plays an essential role for humanity. But, once again, our oceans are under threat! And this is not a problem far in the future – it is something we can see and feel today. One clearly tangible example is the rising frequency of marine heatwaves. Due to climate change, heatwaves are becoming more common, causing corals to bleach and wiping out entire reef ecosystems, which impacts countless other forms of life and biodiversity in the ocean, particularly those species that depend on corals for their habitat.
“I saw the corals full of white spots and saw how little algae it had compared to before. This place, a natural coral reef pool, which is a place where I grew up swimming, and my grandparents and parents swam there for years, was different and strange. But the eeriest thing was not only the coral bleaching but also how hot the water was. It was so hot, like a shower hot, even when I dived deeper into the ocean and touched the sand. I had to leave the water because of the temperature and was very worried about the living beings in that area.” – Catarina Lorenzo, Brazil
But the loss of invaluable corals is only one of many consequences of rising global temperatures on our ocean. The ocean is also being impacted by increased acidification, which is causing difficulties for many organisms to build their shells and to survive. Due to abnormal heatwaves and increasing water temperatures, species are migrating to places with cooler waters dramatically changing the balance of local ecosystems. With the planet’s rising temperatures, we also see major habitat loss in Arctic and Antarctic regions due to melting ice . As a result, many marine species are being pushed to extinction every day. Biodiversity loss is happening worldwide and is imbalancing nearly every ecosystem, with climate change exacerbating the effects of other harmful practices such as overfishing and pollution (plastic, sound, sewage), all impacting nature, the ocean, and the high seas.
What we cannot forget is that climate breakdown and massive biodiversity decline all have direct impacts on communities around the world. The most affected communities are contributing the least to climate change, yet they are at the frontlines of its impacts. Small-scale fisheries and coastal communities are the ones hit the hardest by the degradation of ocean ecosystems despite contributing the least to the crisis. The ocean also is of great significance for many cultures; it’s directly part of their day-to-day life, especially for Indigenous coastal communities. These communities rely upon the ocean for food, money, and work, but it is also of great spiritual significance. For example, for Aboriginal (indigenous community of Australia) cultures, water acts as a link between the spiritual and physical world and is also associated with sacred sites. At the same time, we know that Indigenous people are at the front lines of protecting biodiversity worldwide.
However, Indigenous communities are not the only ones dependent on the ocean. We all are! Around 3.5 billion people worldwide rely on the ocean as a primary source of protein, from fish in particular. But, this demand for seafood can and has negatively affected ecosystems, especially the already fragile ones. Many times we don’t associate the effects and consequences of climate change with social issues. We tend to separate climate and environmental justice from social justice, but in reality, they are directly and indirectly connected. Just as with the climate crisis, ocean health is a social justice issue, with those least responsible being hit the hardest by its consequences. When the ocean is unhealthy or unbalanced, communities are unhealthy and unbalanced. Our generation, today’s youth, as well as all future generations are the ones mainly affected by these consequences and the imbalances between humans and nature. We will be the ones in the future having to pay the price of the actions–and inactions– of the present. We are the ones who are going to inherit the ocean, nature, and the planet in crisis, and will be the ones who must solve these intensifying environmental challenges. Although youth are impacted by a rapidly changing planet, we are not powerless; we are the leading changemakers when it comes to ocean and climate. We are solving challenges, bringing forward solutions, making our voices heard in demand for a rightful future and the effective protection of nature, the climate, and the ocean.
And the good news is – the ocean is not just a victim of the climate crisis, but also an invaluable part of the solution. In fact, our climate is regulated and balanced by the ocean, by ensuring long-term climate and weather stability and having taken up more than 90% of the excess heat caused by anthropogenic emissions. Around a quarter of those very emissions have also been sequestered by the ocean, making it one of the world’s greatest carbon sinks.
When hearing the term ‘carbon sinks’, you might first think of rainforests or grasslands – but plants and algae in the ocean fulfill the same role as trees and other plants on land. Through photosynthesis, phytoplankton feed off CO2, nutrients, and light energy and turn it into oxygen and biomass. These tiny organisms are then consumed by larger animals, and the carbon they have taken up is stored in higher and higher levels of the food chain. For example, many species of whales – among the most gigantic animals on earth – feed exclusively on plankton, tiny animals which in turn get their energy directly from consuming primary producers. In just two steps in the food web, the CO2 taken up by algae has moved to and been stored inside a huge whale! At the end of its life, it sinks to the ocean floor, transporting all that carbon to the deep sea, where it can be stored for extensive amounts of time. Many marine organisms play a role in similar processes, collectively referred to as the “blue carbon pump”. With healthier ocean ecosystems comes an increased capacity to store atmospheric carbon in the depths of the ocean, decreasing the amount of heat trapped in the atmosphere.
Besides playing a huge role in mitigating climate change, ocean ecosystems are also a crucial part in helping us adapt to its consequences. Coastal ecosystems such as coral reefs and mangrove forests have been shown to greatly reduce the intensity of storms and floods, safeguarding coastal communities. Additionally, the ocean – if protected – can provide a reliable food source for billions of people, with various opportunities for sustainable ocean farming, including foods like algae and oysters that can filter the water and require little to no input of energy or freshwater. The ocean can even offer solutions for sustainable energy sources – like offshore wind power and wave energy. To prevent and adapt to the effects of climate change, the ocean is an invaluable asset in every regard.
There are countless reasons why protecting our ocean and climate is a task of unmatched importance. To do so, however, is not possible when ignoring what covers almost half of our planet’s surface – the high seas. Ecosystems don’t exist separately from each other, and the ocean is connected without regard to the arbitrary borders that determine their governance. A High Seas Treaty is a crucial first step to sustaining the ecosystems and protecting biodiversity that, in turn, sustain our own lives.
By establishing marine protected areas in international waters, we can safeguard the biodiversity that helps regulate our climate and constitutes the lives and livelihoods of billions of people. Right now, activities with a negative effect on the high seas and on the ocean in general are also contributing to climate change, and vice versa. For example, the emissions caused by bottom trawling,one of the most harmful fishing practices, are estimated to exceed the emissions from the entire aviation industry. Establishing a binding framework for environmental impact assessments for all activities with a harmful impact on the high seas can prevent those activities from taking place at all, and substantially mitigate their effects on ocean health.
Furthermore, an ambitious High Seas Treaty can ensure that ocean ecosystem services, in particular marine genetic resources, are equitably distributed and accessible to all, which is crucial for ensuring sustainable development across the world. A treaty built on global solidarity that takes into account the rights of Indigenous people as well as small-scale fisheries and their communities, is a crucial step towards climate and environmental justice – a cornerstone for slowing the climate crisis and the degradation of ecosystems.
To achieve this, we need to push governments to show the necessary ambition in the treaty negotiations, and not to compromise on the health of our planet and all of our lives. The final treaty negotiating session, tentatively scheduled for March 9-17, 2022, must be the last. We need an ambitious High Seas Treaty and we need it now – and we, as young people from across the world, will not accept anything less.