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Greta Thunberg, speaking to the significance of a landmark report on the threat of climate change to the world’s oceans, promised to talk briefly so as not to distract from the science itself.
“The climate and ecological crisis is beyond party politics. And our main enemy right now is not our political opponents. Our main opponent is physics,” the teenage Swedish activist told the assembled world leaders Wednesday morning at a launch event for the report in New York. “This is an existential crisis for the biosphere and for humanity.”
The oceans are, in fact, hurting, according to a new landmark report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Its findings, based on 7,000 individual studies, are the deepest dive into the state of the world’s waters to date and authored by more than 100 scientists.
If current rates of greenhouse gas emissions continue unchecked, according to the report, between about 10% and 20% of all life in the oceans will disappear by the end of the century. And if emissions stay the same or increase, seas will rise by up to nearly six meters. If greenhouse gas emissions drop off sharply now, however, the seas will level out at less than a meter of sea-level rise by 2300.
“For most of human history, the ocean was thought of as being so immense, so bountiful, but it was endlessly bountiful, endlessly resilient,” said Jane Lubchenco, an environmental scientist and marine ecologist at Oregon State University, who addressed the world leaders alongside Thunberg Wednesday. “That is no longer true. It is not too big to fail.”
Glaciers are melting more quickly, and the oceans, as they get hotter, are expanding, both of which are causing sea levels to rise more quickly than they have at any point in the last 2,000 years. Arctic sea ice, the report finds, is also likely melting faster than it has at any point in the last millennium. And as the tides rise, they could displace or disrupt the economies in the low-lying coastal regions around the world, where 680 million, or about 10% of the world’s population, currently live, and force those people to consider moving or find costly adaptation measures.
Those higher ocean temperatures are also leading more algae blooms and the proliferation of some bacterial pathogens, like vibrio, which can infect shellfish and make people who eat them sick.
But it’s not entirely doom and gloom. The report also makes clear that indigenous knowledge will have to be a part of the solution to the oceans’ woes. Adaptation efforts around the world, the authors find, have already benefited from that kind of knowledge.
A slate of ocean-based solutions, including shifting global diets to include more fish protein from the oceans, harnessing electricity from wave energy, and making shipping across the oceans more environmentally friendly, could collectively contribute to a quarter of the emissions reductions required to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
“We must listen to the science. We must unite behind and the science, and act in line with the science,” Thungberg said. “We can still fix this. It is still possible.”
Cover image: Environmental activist Greta Thunberg, of Sweden, addresses the Climate Action Summit in the United Nations General Assembly, at U.N. headquarters, Monday, Sept. 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)