Article: Include the ocean in climate negotiations

Most people are familiar with the fact that temperatures on our planet have increased for decades. But not all know the impact this has on the ocean.  

I am sitting on a balsa raft in the middle of the Pacific. A sentence I never thought I would write. But I just did.
I see rolling swells, the sun and rain competing for attention, the wind that blows from the east. We check the weather forecast – when will it turn to the northeast?
We are 700 nautical miles from Easter Island and have been at sea for one month.

I am sitting on a balsa raft in the middle of the Pacific. A sentence I never thought I would write. But I just did.

I see rolling swells, the sun and rain competing for attention, the wind that blows from the east. We check the weather forecast – when will it turn to the northeast?

We are 700 nautical miles from Easter Island and have been at sea for one month.

We are dependent on the ocean
It’s beautiful here, infinitely beautiful. And peaceful. All seven of us onboard have gone a few rounds in our minds and set our boundaries. 

The raft squeaks and creaks, the water intrudes everywhere. But peace reigns. 

Yet, something is amiss. I think: The ocean surrounding us should have been the center of climate negotiations in Paris. 

We are dependent on the ocean in order to live. 

The sea produces food we can eat, the oxygen we breathe, it tempers the climate on land, produces energy, medicines, cleaning our fresh water, gives us easy transport routes around the globe, and is of infinite delight for everyone, including us out here on the rafts. 

Yet, it has no representative at the negotiation table. 

I think: wouldn’t it be wise if someone spoke for all of us, regardless of nationality?

We get our oxygen from the ocean
The ocean is destroyed by climate change. It all starts with the burn of fossil fuels. 

This results in human-induced carbon dioxide emissions, which are heating the atmosphere. 

Most people are familiar with the fact that temperatures on our planet have increased for decades. But not all know the impact this has on the ocean.  

We start with oxygen: “Plants” in the sea (algae) produce oxygen, just like plants on land. Actually, plants in the sea produce so much oxygen that we “animals” on land get almost half of our oxygen from the sea.

And just like these on land, the animals in the ocean need oxygen to live. What will then happen when the sea, just like the air, is heated up due to climate change?

The water surface, where the plant algae live, becomes lighter – it gets more buoyancy. This makes it more difficult for the wind, usually mixing the surface water with the deep water, to do its job. Therefore, the oxygen does not reach the deep ocean where the animals live.

Making it even worse: plant algae need nutrients from the deep ocean. When the wind is not able to do its job properly, nutrients from the deep ocean becomes less.

The result is fewer plant algae, less production of oxygen for the animals in the ocean and for us on land.

Difficult for animals to breathe
Reduced production of oxygen is only one consequence of climate change. Let’s have a look at the greenhouse gas itself, carbon dioxide.

The ocean takes up a third of the emissions. No one should doubt the oceans will to cooperate!

But what happens when that much carbon dioxide is taken up by the ocean? Again, life in the sea must bear the brunt.

First of all, it’s difficult for animals to “breathe” when there is more carbon dioxide in the water.
 
Second of all, the acidity in the ocean is increased by the CO2, giving both known and unknown consequences for wildlife. 

I mentioned the heating of the ocean. It may not seem a lot in degrees Celsius, a tenth of a degree a century, in the upper layers of the water. 

Estimating how much energy is needed to heat the ocean, one finds that almost all energy accumulated on earth because of greenhouse gases, has heated the ocean.

More than 90 percent.

The few percentages that have heated up the atmosphere, have given us more than enough to contend: heat waves, extreme weather, floods and drought. Having this in mind, it’s not difficult to imagine the wildlife in the ocean reacting to the increased temperatures. 

We are all dependent on the ocean
There is lots of documentation showing that species that can adapt, do this by moving geographically.

Just like on land, some are adaptable, others are not.

But it takes more to adapt to a triple attack from climate change; oxygen reduction, and increased carbon dioxide and temperature.

“The sea is the food basket for the future population (explosion)” becomes a cliché if climate change isn’t stopped.

Here on the Pacific, our rafts are packed with the latest and finest instrumentation to measure climate change (temperature, oxygen, acidification, CO2), pollution (plastic, micro plastics and pollutants), ecosystem (plant algae and wildlife) and El Niño (meteorology and ocean currents).

The data set is a gift package for a researcher who thinks “system” rather than “silo”, and that I thank our research partners for.

But this has little value when the water is not able to advocate in the important fora, the value of the ocean is not seriously considered, and devastation is not being taken seriously. 

We are all, I repeat: ALL, dependent on the ocean.

I’m now looking forward to seeing Easter Island, and hope to be home for Christmas. But more than that, I hope for success at COP21 in Paris.

The only thing that can get the ocean back on track – as a reliable main supplier of oxygen and food for the world’s population – is to phase out all emissions of carbon dioxide. It’s that simple. 

By Cecilie Mauritzen, Head of Research, Kon Tiki 2 expedition, and author of fourth and fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC.

Aftenposten, December 10th, 2015.