How our oceans and coastal communities can adapt to a changing climate

John Tanzer, WWF International’s Oceans Practice Leader

© Shutterstock / Debra James / WWF

I was five years old when I first swam in the clear waters of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. As a native north Queenslander, my holidays and weekends were spent at my grandparents’ house on the ocean at Saunders Beach, exploring this unique marine ecosystem. It inspired a career in marine conservation, including a decade helping to run the government body which protects the Reef.

Its severe degradation over the following decades — the result of ocean warming that periodically kills its coral, more frequent cyclones, overfishing and the pollution that triggers damaging algal blooms — is therefore a very personal loss, as well as an ecological disaster. It is also an economic blow; the Reef supports almost 70,000 jobs and generates A$6 billion each year from tourism and fishing.

This triple tragedy — ecological, economic and personal — is playing out around the world, as the health of the world’s oceans comes under unprecedented pressure. A forthcoming landmark report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN body responsible for assessing the science related to climate change, will shine a spotlight on the threats our oceans face, from greenhouse gas emissions, global temperature rise, pollution, increasingly intense storms and over-exploitation.

We expect the report to particularly highlight the human dimension — how many millions of people around the world, most living in poor and vulnerable countries, face a loss of lifestyles, livelihoods, culture and even homes as climate change affects the oceans and coastal ecosystems.

© Anthony B. Rath / WWF

These impacts are already being felt. I was recently at a meeting with senior leaders from the atoll nations of the world. Their stories provide stark evidence of the damage climate change is doing now to their ocean communities. Their countries have contributed almost nothing to the causes of climate change and is unjust for them to bear the brunt unaided.

The IPCC report will not make policy prescriptions. But we hope that the advice and warnings it contains will encourage governments and the public to embrace policies, initiatives and solutions that can make ocean ecosystems and vulnerable communities more resilient to a changing climate, and that can ultimately avert the growing climate emergency.

Certainly, those warnings are likely to be stark. Last year’s report from the IPCC on the effects of 1.5°C of global warming confirmed that the oceans have absorbed 93% of the extra heat captured as a result of our greenhouse gas emissions since the Industrial Revolution, and almost a third of human-produced carbon dioxide.

This is causing unprecedented changes in ocean temperature, including increases in underwater heatwaves which are wreaking massive damage to critical ecosystems such as coral reefs and kelp forests. Rising temperatures at the poles threaten to destroy ecosystems that depend on sea-ice.

© Cat Holloway / WWF

The absorption of carbon dioxide is changing the acidity of the oceans, affecting food webs with implications that are difficult to predict — but which are likely to be very damaging. Warming oceans are generating ever-more destructive hurricanes and typhoons, which, as sea-levels rise, cause particular damage to coastal communities and small-island states.

From the Arctic to the Tropics, these communities are on the front-line of the changing climate and its impacts on the oceans. They face reduced local food supplies, the loss of natural shoreline protection, damage to coastal tourism attractions and infrastructure, increases in disease, and the loss of cultural heritage — all as coastal populations continue to grow.

But there is much that can and must be done. It goes without saying that governments, businesses and consumers need to be making every effort to cut emissions. At the same time, supporting and enhancing natural ecosystems such as coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass beds can help them adapt to the effects of global warming and protect local communities.

Reducing non-climate stressors — such as pollution, over-fishing and industrial development — can allow these natural ecosystems to rebuild and thrive, making them more resilient to the effects of climate change. These so-called nature-based solutions can reduce or remove the need for conventional ‘hard’ infrastructure, such as sea-walls, often at a fraction of the cost.

They can also help mitigate against climate change itself. Mangroves and seagrass can capture and store huge amounts of carbon dioxide, helping to reduce the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.

WWF and our partners are working with local communities, governments and businesses around the world to help them restore and protect their coastal natural infrastructure and fisheries. They know that improving the health of coastal and marine natural environments, their ‘blue infrastructure’ — coral reefs, seagrass, coastal wetlands and mangroves — is critical for their future and for those to come.

The IPCC’s oceans report is likely to make sobering reading. It will erase any doubts about the peril that climate change poses to the health of the world’s oceans and, as a consequence, to human wellbeing. It is likely to trigger in many of us the feelings of loss and despair I have sometimes felt as I’ve witnessed the damage we have wrought on the Great Barrier Reef. But it should also inspire all of us to take action, to support nature to provide resilience and strength, to change behaviour, and to push for the policies we need to protect our oceans and to halt climate change.

Building a future in which people live in harmony with nature.

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