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It’s been a few weeks since the announcement of the “historic” COP21 agreement, wherein a majority of the world settled on goals for mitigating and adapting to climate change. Since then, I’ve been asked by countless family members at holiday gatherings how my experience in Paris was and what I... Read More


December 9, 2015 | No Ocean, No Climate: COP21’s "Big Blue Elephant in the Room"

“Imagine Earth without an ocean. We’d look a lot like Mars,” says Sylvia Earle, oceanographer and explorer. Discourse surrounding the perils of climate change is largely confined to the reduction of carbon emission without proper links to the ocean, even at COP21 where hundreds of nations made calls to action on mitigating the effects of fossil fuel consumption.

Earle and a community of marine biologists argue that relegating oceans to second-class citizens on the climate agenda can have deep implications on the planet’s chemistry. Perhaps it’s the very "mystery" of the ocean that eludes negotiators from internalizing the repercussions of damaged oceans. As the single largest resource in the world, the consequences of not incorporating oceans into climate change policies affect not only those communities who are in direct contact with large bodies of water, but also the global community at large.

 photo P1000467_zpsm9gtosea.jpg
Sylvia Earle speaks at the UN Foundation's "Earth To Paris"
conference on December 7, 2015.

Rising sea levels, changing water currents, and warming temperatures are steering towards what scientists refer to as a "point of no return."  Take acidification, where the ongoing decrease in pH levels is caused by an ever-increasing uptake of CO2 from the atmosphere. It is estimated that nearly 30-40% of CO2 produced by human activity is absorbed by oceans, rivers, and lakes. Since few species can thrive in high CO2, there has been a significant reduction in oceanic species and marine life diversity. The disruptive and cascading effect weights strongest on food networks that rely on marine ecosystems. Fish alone composes the largest source of protein in the world.

Vague emphasis on oceans is due partly to the lack of visceral connection to the consequences of ocean neglect. Even these links, however, are clear. Rising seas are already claiming low-lying communities like Sibai and the Marshall Islands.

A recent study estimates that nearly 187 million people may be displaced as a direct result of rising sea levels by 2100. The Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology has also recently released its latest national climate change assessment report predicting that 40 to 60 centimeter increase in sea levels will jeopardize its coastal lands.

 “We are breaking the links that make up the chemistry of the planet — and ultimately the chemistry of life," Earle states emphatically. The link between ocean health and climate is clear and the bottom line is that any meaningful international climate change agreement must incorporate oceans into the equation. Calls to cap global warming may not be enough to protect oceans since their pivotal role in the absorption of heat require stronger language and action to reduce carbon emissions.

Its exclusion from the COP21 agenda indicates a larger problem of not internalizing the consequences of depleted and degraded oceans until the externalities are far too great to bear. These externalities weigh the heaviest on those who rely directly on ocean ecosystems, but already disruptions in non-coastal communities and nations is evident. 


Salwa Shameem is one of Conergy's Future Solar Leaders. Salwa is a second-year Master's in Public Policy candidate at the University of Chicago with a special concentration in development economics and international policy.