Our Ocean and Climate Change

Our Ocean and Climate Change

This past Monday marked the beginning of Climate Week, an annual international summit that brings together leaders, activists and non-profit organizations—all calling for greater climate action, making new climate change commitments and sharing success stories.

While I was able to attend Climate Week in person last year, I’m proud that we at Ocean Conservancy will still be participating virtually this year and hosting numerous events. We launched a new report about how we can transition to a zero-carbon shipping industry, are convening a high-level government panel to advance climate ambition and ocean-based climate solutions on the international stage, and will cohost an event showcasing leadership from U.S. states on ocean-climate action.


This year, we put the call out to send us your questions on the ocean and climate change. Let’s dive in:

How do we get people to see the link between climate change and the ocean?

A group of 23 individuals of vary ages pose atop a small hill of discarded oyster shells.
Hama Hama is a fifth generation family-run shellfish farm on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. © Courtesy of Hama Hama Oyster Farm

At Ocean Conservancy, we try to connect climate change and the ocean by highlighting the stories of those people, communities and industries that are either already wrestling with the ocean impacts of climate change or will have to wrestle with those impacts in the future. Climate change is not only altering our ocean and the essential services it provides us—such as a livable climate, fish to eat and important industries like shipping and tourism—but it’s also happening here and now.

One of the impacts of climate change that we are already seeing is ocean acidification. Ocean acidification happens when sea water absorbs carbon dioxide from greenhouse gas emissions and the sea water becomes much more acidic, making it difficult for shell-building organisms, like oysters, to survive. Hama Hama Oyster Farm is a fifth-generation family business in Lilliwaup, Washington and is one of the many family-owned businesses hit hard by ocean acidification. Lissa James Monberg and her brother Adam James are part of the current generation working at the farm.

Lisa+James+Monberg

“Our family farm has been around for five generations and we’d like it to continue. But that might not happen with ocean acidification. This is a big deal for our industry and for Liliwaup, the little town I live in, because there aren’t a lot of jobs.”

Lissa James Monberg
Hama Hama Oyster Farm

If we don’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address climate change, businesses like Hama Hama and the communities that they are important parts of, may not survive. Real changes are happening in our ocean today and there is an urgent need for action.

What are you doing as an organization to combat climate change?

An old whale skull rests on dirt ground as a container ship passes in the background.
A bowhead whale skull and container barge off the coast of Burrow, Alaska. © Design Pics Inc.

To combat ocean climate change, we need to do two things: reduce greenhouse gas pollution and build resilience to those changes that are already underway.

In the United States, we work with coastal states to make sure they recognize the role that the ocean can play in their climate goals, both in reducing emissions and adapting to climate impacts, as sea level rise and other ocean changes threaten their communities.

 We also are seeing many of our Congressional ocean champions embrace the idea and advocate for ocean-climate action. We bring voices from across the country to Capitol Hill to testify and advocate for their Congressional leaders to take action to protect their homes and livelihoods from climate change.

Internationally, we’re working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the global shipping fleet and ensure that the ocean is included in international climate negotiations. At last year’s United Nations climate conference, COP 25, our team worked to help include the ocean in the conference’s final decision text for the first time ever. We also lead an international leadership coalition, the Pacific Rim Ocean-Climate Action Partnership, which is devoted to climate ambition and ocean-based climate solutions. 

How much does climate change affect corals?

A small pile of dead, branched corals litter the bottom of a clear, blue sea floor.
A small pile of dead corals near American Samoa. © THE OCEAN AGENCY/XL CATLIN SEAVIEW SURVEY

Corals are particularly sensitive to climate change. When ocean temperatures warm, corals can bleach. Coral bleaching occurs when they’re so stressed that they expel their symbiotic algae that they rely on for food. If there’s a mild bleaching event, corals can recover, but if the bleaching is severe, they won’t recover and will die off.

As ocean temperatures warm and marine heatwaves become more common, we’re seeing more widespread coral bleaching. If we are able limit temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius, we may be able to save about 30% of coral reefs. However, if warming reaches 2 degrees Celsius, we stand to lose almost all of the world’s coral reefs—which would have huge implications for our ocean and for coastal communities.

Can we reverse climate change, and do we have time before it’s too late?

A fisherman gathers netting, silhouetted by a colorful orange and pink sunrise.
A fisherman gathers netting under The Calcasieu River Bridge in Lake Charles, Louisiana. © Wesley Hitt/Alamy

We can’t immediately reverse the changes that have already happened in the ocean because of climate change, but there is hope.

We can adapt and help our ocean and communities become more resilient and more importantly, we still have time to take meaningful action on climate change and dramatically help the ocean and all of us who rely on it. We can do that by reducing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions and making a widespread systemic transition away from fossil fuels and towards clean energy sources.

Individual actions are crucial to combating climate change and we should all do what we can in our own daily lives, but we also need to exert pressure on our government and industries to make this change and employ all of the different climate solutions available to us—including ocean-specific solutions.

The ocean can help slow climate change by providing offshore renewable energy and natural carbon storage in blue carbon ecosystems. The ocean isn’t only a victim of climate change, it’s also a powerful source for solutions.

How is climate change linked to environmental and racial justice?

GGFA Protesting Oil Drilling
Queen Quet and the Gullah/Geechee Nation at the #StoptheDrill Rally in South Carolina. © Courtesy of Queen Quet

Right now, we’re not only facing the COVID-19 pandemic, but we’re in the middle of a moment in history where the injustices and systemic racism that Black people in our country face has been laid bare by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others.

Black, Indigenous and other communities of color are all on the frontlines of climate change and are experiencing its devastating impacts the most. We cannot solve climate change without righting the racial and environmental injustices. This will take a lot of work, but it’s necessary work.

Janis-Searles-Jones_Ocean-Conservancy_Ries©2020_3137-e1587564156153-1198...

“As the CEO of Ocean Conservancy, as a mom and as a citizen in my everyday life, I am committed to racial and environmental justice.”

Janis Searles Jones
CEO, Ocean Conservancy

At Ocean Conservancy, we’re working to diversify our Board, change our hiring practices to increase diversity and equity, and add justice and equity considerations to our work and partnerships. But these are just the first steps—we have a long way to go. We need to evaluate who is benefiting from our work and who is participating in the decision-making process. We need to hear from and work with frontline and marginalized communities such as Black, Indigenous and other communities of color that are already hurting from environmental degradation.

We also need to consider how resources are distributed and if the conservation actions we take will only further the power and wealth of white communities or if it will redistribute those resources to Black, Indigenous and people of color who have historically been denied the same wealth and opportunity.

I hope all of you will join us in not only tackling climate change and making sure the ocean is protected, but also in our commitment to tackling environmental injustice. We need to dramatically slow climate change if we want to protect everyone and everything that we love—and we need everyone to join us in that effort.


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