The world’s oceans are increasingly feeling the heat from climate change, threatening marine life, islands and coastal communities, a new United Nations report says.
The new report, compiled by a U.N. panel of hundreds of climate change experts and released Wednesday, lays out the serious consequences for oceans as the world continues to feel the effects of climate change.
The ocean has absorbed over 90% of the heat from global warming in the last 50 years, as well as excess carbon dioxide, which raises the temperature of the water, makes it more acidic and displaces oxygen, which can be devastating for sea life.
This Sept. 12, 2019, photo shows bleaching coral in Kahala’u Bay in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.
“The ocean has been taking the heat, we’ve seen changes on land, we haven’t been paying too much attention to what happens in the ocean,” said Jane Lubchenco, former administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and distinguished professor at Oregon State University.
The same panel released a report last month that found temperatures are rising more quickly on land and warning that countries will need to address land use and deforestation to meet goals to limit warming from climate change.
(MORE: Protecting critical resources like forests crucial to slowing climate change: UN)
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An aerial view from a drone shows Kivalina, which sits at the very end of an eight-mile barrier reef located between a lagoon and the Chukchi Sea on September 10, 2019, in Kivalina, Alaska.
The report says the ocean could become a more difficult place for sea life to survive, which could threaten seafood production in the U.S. and around the world. At the same time, another group of experts and world leaders say eating more seafood could be a big part of combating climate change as a way to replace the resource-heavy red meat that’s a staple in some western diets.
“There is a lot of opportunity in the ocean to help address the climate change problem. So we need to think about the ocean not just as a victim but the ocean as a powerful source of solutions to climate change,” said Lubchenco, who served as an expert for the High Level Panel for A Sustainable Ocean Economy.
That panel of experts and world leaders found the ocean could help reduce up to a fifth of the greenhouse gas cuts needed to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2020, in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement. The panel called for expanding renewable energy sources like offshore wind power, protecting marine ecosystems that can trap carbon dioxide, cutting carbon dioxide emissions from the shipping industry and shifting diets to rely more on seafood as protein.
In this Sept. 12, 2019, photo, fish swim near bleaching coral in Kahala’u Bay in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.
One of the solutions discussed in that report is that making protein from seafood and other sea-based products, such as seaweed, a bigger part of our diet would cause less emissions than producing food on land, especially resource-intensive areas like beef. The report cites research that sustainably produced food from the sea can have the lowest greenhouse gas footprint per unit of protein than any other source of protein and that reducing the carbon footprint of seafood production and including more seafood in diets would “contribute significantly to climate change mitigation.”
“You don’t need to fish for other fish to feed them and we don’t need to grow soybeans to feed them, so there’s very little environmental impact,” said Craig Hanson, vice president of food, forests, water and the ocean at the World Resources Institute, which sponsored the report.
(MORE: Altering global diets, food systems could help combat climate change: UN)
The diet portion of the recommendations mirrors discussion in the earlier U.N. report that shifting food systems away from production of livestock, such as beef and lamb, could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.
Hanson said making our food system more efficient could make a big dent in climate change, both by maximizing the food we produce and limiting how much is wasted. Most of the recommendations are in line with a healthier diet, too, including eating more fruits and vegetables and smaller portion sizes.
“If every human did that we’d have a huge impact on climate change and your health,” he said.
Hanson said consumers can check resources on sustainable seafood like the Marine Stewardship Council to see the most sustainably fished sources and types of fish.
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This file photo taken on August 21, 2019, shows an aerial view of villagers using boats to cross a flooded River Ganges as water levels in the Ganges and Yamuna rivers rise, in Allahabad.
The U.N. climate panel warns that Arctic sea ice and permafrost could also release more greenhouse gases as they melt and that ice melt is becoming more severe and possibly irreversible, which would contribute to additional sea-level rise. Warmer waters also impact tropical storms — which bring severe rainfall and more dangerous storm surge — increasing the risk to islands and coastal communities.
(MORE: Greenland ice sheet loses 11 billion tons of water in one day amid historic heat)
The combined benefits of those changes could reduce more greenhouse gas emissions than all the coal-fired power plants around the world, according to the report released on Monday.
“Coupled with land-based emissions cuts, it shows that ocean-climate action could provide a lifeline for the economies, food sources, coastal communities and sea life at the frontline of climate disruption,” Erna Solberg, co-chair of the panel and prime minister of Norway, said in a statement.