Although last week's UN General Assembly meetings in New York City included the largest gathering of world leaders ever to address climate change, the largest factor in our climate cycle was missing from the discussions -- the ocean.
Disregard for the ocean as the primary driver of climate and weather might be forgiven 50 years ago, but now we know: the living ocean governs planetary chemistry; regulates temperature; generates most of the oxygen in the sea and atmosphere; powers the water, carbon, and nitrogen cycles; and holds 97 percent of Earth's water and 97 percent of the biosphere. Quite simply, no ocean, no life. No blue, no green. If not for the ocean, there would be no climate to discuss or anyone around to debate the issues.
From space, it is obvious: the world is blue, shrouded by water as a vapor in clouds, crowned with water as diamond-bright polar ice, and wrapped with water as a liquid that embraces all land masses and sets Earth apart from other places in a beautiful but inhospitable universe. It is water, filled with life that makes our lives possible, represents biodiversity, feeds us, and sustains vitally important systems and economies.
Since the 1950s, half of the coral reefs, much of the phytoplankton, and 90 percent of many kinds of fish in the sea -- sharks, tunas, swordfish, marlin, cod, halibut and many other kinds of ocean wildlife -- have been extracted as commodities. While fishing to feed populations and sustain economies is critical, technologies have been applied to finding, catching and marketing ocean wildlife on a scale that is both unprecedented and unsustainable. The ocean has also been a place to discard our wastes, now coming back to haunt us with hundreds of toxic dead zones. Now we know: the ocean is not too big to fail.
Is it because humans have lungs, not gills, that the reality of the ocean as Earth's life support system has not come into focus? Is it because the ocean is so vast, so far from the day-to-day experience of most people? Is it because most people don't know that even if they never see or touch the ocean, the ocean touches them with every breath they take, every drop of water they drink?
Whatever the rationale, it is not rational that Earth's dominant feature is not sufficiently addressed in important policy discussions about energy, the environment, economy, health, and security. It is especially perplexing that the ocean is getting short shrift in the current climate policy discussions.
Much attention is given to the impact of burning of fossil fuels on accelerated warming, inundated shorelines, and adaptation strategies for where and how people will live in the future. Far less note is being accorded to the changes in ocean chemistry as excess carbon dioxide absorbed by the ocean is increasing the acidity of the water. The effects are already being observed in the thinning shells of young oysters in the Pacific Northwest, the disintegration of the skeletons of young corals, and of sea snails in Antarctic waters.
Although much remains to be discovered, now we know that most of the oxygen in the atmosphere is generated -- and much of the carbon dioxide is taken up -- by mangroves, marshes, seagrasses, algae and especially microscopic phytoplankton in the ocean. One of the many responsible for producing oxygen is the marine microbe Prochlorococcus, discovered in 1985, that yields about 20 percent of the oxygen -- one in every five breaths we take -- while capturing carbon and providing the base of great ocean food webs. As Trevor Manuel, Co-Chair of the Global Ocean Commission, recently observed, "The ocean is both a victim of and a fundamental part of the solution to climate change."
Climate policies take into account the release of carbon dioxide when a forest is cut or burned, and the losses caused by destruction of terrestrial systems that naturally sequester carbon. But where on the balance sheet is an accounting of losses incurred by industrial fishing that clear-cut ocean systems, extracting millions of tons of fish, squid, krill, shrimp, lobsters, clams, oysters and other marine life that are, like trees, carbon-based units that capture and sequester carbon, ultimately in long-term storage within deep sea sediments? Where is the recognition of damage to Earth's great blue engine that is driven by photosynthetic organisms that shape planetary chemistry? Where is there an accounting of the ocean's fundamental role in holding the planet steady, distributing heat and cold, delivering water to the sky as clouds that yield rain, sleet and snow?
While it is recognized that it is important to protect forests and other natural areas on land to contain carbon and harbor biodiversity vital for adaptation to changing climate, less than 1 percent of the ocean is protected with safe havens for fish and other ocean wildlife. Scientifically sound goals to restore and maintain the health of our oceans should be established with clear structures and plans in place to meet them and annual progress reports to galvanize further action.
Part of such a plan should include actions like President Obama's commitment to protect an area of the Pacific Ocean under U. S. jurisdiction that safeguards a small but important part of the country's Exclusive Economic Zone, an area larger than the terrestrial part of the nation. Meanwhile, President Thomas Remengesau of Palau has committed protection for the entire exclusive economic zone of his small island nation, an area the size of France that will be off limits to industrial fishing, thereby safeguarding the nation's tourism-based economy and resisting climate disruption. Many other nations are extending unprecedented protection to waters under their jurisdiction while considering policies that may affect the ocean beyond national jurisdiction -- the High Seas. Responsible governance of the High Seas, about half the world, could enhance the potential for holding the planet steady against the sweeping effects of climate change. Such action should be central to current climate discussions.
Now we know. As goes the ocean, so goes the fate of life on Earth. The ocean doesn't care one way or another about us, but for all that we hold dear, including life itself, we must care about the ocean as if our lives depend on it, because they do.
Dr. Sylvia A. Earle is an oceanographer, explorer, and author, and is a former Chief Scientist of NOAA. She is featured in a new documentary film, Mission Blue, just released on Netflix in 46 countries. John Bridgeland was former Director of the White House Domestic Policy and co-led the Cabinet Level Review of Climate Change in 2001. To see Mission Blue, visit here.