Stop separating climate policy from ocean policy

Stop separating climate policy from ocean policy
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Climate change is receiving renewed, and much deserved, attention by federal policymakers this year. When discussing climate policy — for most, the ocean rarely comes to mind. Similarly, in developing ocean policy, few think of climate. But we should!

There is no more powerful control on rising global temperature than the ocean, which has taken up 93 percent of the excess heat generated by greenhouse gas emissions. Without our ocean, this planet would already be too hot to support human life. The ocean has removed about one-quarter of our carbon dioxide emissions. Key to these life-sustaining activities is ocean biodiversity — the plants, algae, and bacteria that remove carbon in lighted surface waters through photosynthesis, and the animals that consume them and move up and down, transferring carbon into deep waters where it can be sequestered.

Ocean policy controls offshore energy, fishing, shipping, mining, as well as activities like ocean dumping, scientific research and exploration, tourism, national security and marine conservation. Ocean industries affect climate change, with direct links to greenhouse gas emissions, from offshore oil and gas, or emissions reduction in the case of offshore wind energy. There are also effects on ocean life — from algae to fisheries — that influence the removal and sequestration of carbon, and ultimately our climate.


At the same time, climate change also affects nearly every aspect of the ocean. Changes in ocean temperature, pH and oxygen content control the distribution and abundances of fisheries and aquaculture species — how many and what types we can harvest, and where. Sea level rise resulting from a warmer ocean and melting ice caps as well as warming-intensified storms and flooding will greatly reduce the habitability of our islands and coastal cities. It will also damage energy and communications and transportation infrastructure, alter tourism and recreation through beach and wetlands habitat loss. Climate change will damage and diminish the coral reefs and wetlands that protect our coastal communities from storm surge and flooding. 

Despite these strong interconnections among climate, and ocean policy, it is difficult to find either industry regulation or conservation planning based on climate projections. We tend to respond after rather than before damage occurs, spending billions to help people cope with loss of housing, food, roads and livelihoods after major storms, floods, drought wildfires and heat waves.

Our climate policies can be ocean-smart. They can work to conserve, maintain, restore and enhance the marine ecosystems and processes that remove carbon from the atmosphere and bury it. They can avoid activities on land and in the ocean that degrade these ecosystems and processes or that release carbon. Some of our proposed negative emission technologies may need a closer look in this regard. 

We can also build smart climate policy into every ocean management action and policy we make and into the scientific research agendas we develop. This might involve:

  • setting coastal water quality criteria that reflect the threats of ocean deoxygenation or ocean acidification
  • creating environmental impact assessments that include climate change as a cumulative impact
  • determining whether and where we fish, drill for oil and gas, exploit seabed minerals or dispose of waste
  • designing marine protected areas that serve as climate refugia for climate-vulnerable species
  • developing ocean mapping, exploration and observing networks that improve our climate models, especially nearshore

Often, we forget that most of the ocean is deep water. This is true even for the 3.4-million square miles of U.S. waters, the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone. In the deep ocean, the animals can live hundreds to thousands of years. They grow slowly and have evolved in very stable conditions. Many are small, unknown and undescribed, but hold vast potential as providers of pharmaceuticals, industrial agents, biomaterials or as carbon removal workhorses. The animals and the cycles and processes they support are vulnerable to disturbance from direct human activities and climate-induced changes in deep-ocean conditions.

In addition, most of the climate solutions being considered, whether electrification of the auto industry, offshore wind farms or active geoengineering could affect deep-ocean ecosystems directly or indirectly (through new resource exploitation) with consequences we have yet to grasp. Thus, the deep ocean must feature in how we incorporate the ocean into climate policy and climate change into ocean policy across all sectors and levels of governance. To be successful both must align with national and international ambition to sustain ocean biodiversity that is so critical to stabilizing our climate.

Lisa Levin is a biological oceanographer at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.