National Geographic Society Newsroom

Uniting Ocean and Earth for Climate Action

This winter, the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris will feature one of the largest gatherings of world leaders to ever address global warming. The stage is set for all United Nations member states to come together and create an international agreement on the climate with the goal of keeping global warming below...

This winter, the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris will feature one of the largest gatherings of world leaders to ever address global warming. The stage is set for all United Nations member states to come together and create an international agreement on the climate with the goal of keeping global warming below 2°C. In anticipation of this opportunity, President Barack Obama announced an action plan to combat climate change in June. Also this summer, Pope Francis demonstrated a masterful understanding of the science behind global warming and urged Catholics to take immediate action to combat greenhouse gas emissions in his recently released encyclical. Even China, the world’s heaviest polluter, has committed to significantly reduce its carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Yet the largest factor in our climate cycle isn’t on the COP21 agenda: the ocean.

Mission Blue founder and National Geographic Explorer in Residence Dr. Sylvia Earle highlighted the irony of overlooking the ocean in climate negotiations in her 2014 Huffington Post op-ed:

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.

She continued by noting that when one looks back on Earth—our blue planet—from space, the role of the ocean in regulating climate is quite obvious. The ocean covers over 70 percent of our planet’s surface and sends water vapor into our atmosphere, insulating us from the extreme conditions of space and creating clouds that distribute life-giving moisture to complex ecosystems and countless species—including our own. Water in the form of ice crowns Earth’s poles, providing habitat and reflecting energy from the sun that would otherwise overheat our planet. Simply put by Dr. Earle, water “sets Earth apart from other places in a beautiful but inhospitable universe.”

Perhaps it’s because we lack gills and most of us don’t think about the ocean on a daily basis that we tend to overlook our greatest resource. Out of sight, out of mind. Or maybe we think the ocean is, as Dr. Earle puts it, “too big to fail,” and is too vast to be affected by all of the fish and fossil fuels we extract from it or the CO2 and other pollution we dump into it. Whatever the reason, it’s time to give the ocean the credit (and protection) it deserves, particularly where climate negotiations are concerned.

GreenhouseEffectBy this point it is widely accepted (and scientifically proven) that burning fossil fuels like coal and oil to create energy, manufacturing concrete, and implementing disruptive land use practices like slash-and-burn deforestation release gases, including CO2, that get trapped in our atmosphere and create a sort of thermal blanket around Earth. Like the glass windows of a greenhouse, these “greenhouse gases” keep heat from the sun from leaving our atmosphere, thus warming the planet. Earth is already beginning to exhibit negative effects from this human-induced phenomenon including warming sea temperatures, melting ice caps and glaciers, rising sea levels and extreme weather events, which in turn are threatening key habitats and vulnerable species as well as local and global economies, food and water security, and safe living conditions. As we pump more CO2 into the atmosphere, this familiar yet hazardous gas is already accumulating at levels never before measured in human history—a foreboding sign of what changes it has yet to cause.

The ocean is a massive carbon sink that has absorbed nearly half of all human-produced CO2 since the Industrial Revolution. Climate experts warn that the ocean’s ability to absorb so much CO2 may soon hit a tipping point once it becomes saturated and thus unable to keep this gas from rapidly accumulating in the atmosphere, throwing global warming into overdrive. As the ocean absorbs increasing amounts of CO2, the chemistry of seawater is changing too. Often called climate change’s “equally evil twin,” ocean acidification is occurring at a rapid pace as CO2 molecules dissolve into seawater and convert to carbonic acid, lowering the ocean’s pH. The effects of this reaction are already becoming apparent in the stunted growth and erosion of reef-building corals in the tropics, the thinning shells of baby oysters in the Pacific Northwest, and those of sea snails in the icy waters of the Antarctic.

A pteropod shell dissolving over time.

But there is hope. Because plants need CO2 to photosynthesize and grow, they remove large quantities of this gas from the atmosphere and help mitigate the harmful effects described above. Phytoplankton (microscopic marine plants) literally take up tons of CO2 and pull it from the ocean’s surface down into the depths as sinking organic matter churns through massive ocean currents, locking vast quantities of dissolved carbon dioxide in the water. Closer to shore, mangroves, marshes and seagrasses also take up large quantities of CO2. And on shore, in places where humans have allowed forests and grasslands to grow unabated, the terrestrial ecosystems with which we are so familiar sequester tons of CO2 as well.

Researchers are finding that restructuring land management techniques to reduce industrial tilling and other agricultural practices that remove carbon from the soil can help maintain key carbon sinks on land. This sort of “carbon farming” is also applicable to marine systems. In the sea, protected areas can be established with the intent of leaving carbon below the waves. Industrial fishing clear-cuts ocean food webs, removing millions of tons of marine wildlife like tuna and shrimp that are, as Dr. Earle says, “like trees, carbon-based units that capture and sequester carbon, ultimately in long-term storage within deep sea sediments.” She continues:

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 one percent of the ocean is protected with safe havens for fish and other ocean wildlife.

This short video by cartoonist and ocean advocate Jim Toomey explains:

With this knowledge, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has established the Blue Carbon Initiative alongside Conservation International and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (IOC-UNESCO) to push for the restoration and sustainable use of coastal and marine ecosystems to combat climate change. By developing strategies to help policy makers establish and enforce marine protected areas and supporting scientific research into how protecting ocean systems can play a role in mitigating climate change, the Blue Carbon Initiative is an excellent example of how international policy negotiations surrounding climate can include the ocean.

This winter’s COP21 climate meetings in Paris already plan to consider reforming agricultural practices to restore and maintain carbon sequestration on land. They would be remiss to overlook the connections between all of Earth’s systems and the immense role blue carbon plays in balancing our climate. We must develop an international climate plan that includes protecting carbon stores in the ocean—actions like President Obama’s recent commitment to expand the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument and Palauan President Thomas Remengesau Jr.’s decision to protect his island nation’s entire exclusive economic zone from industrial fishing. International agreements through the United Nations (like at COP21) could even result in commitments to extend these kinds of protections to the High Seas—areas beyond national jurisdiction that cover nearly half of our planet. Protecting these vast expanses of marine habitat and the blue carbon within them would directly enhance the ability of our planet to be resilient in the face of climate change. As Dr. Earle says, now is the time to act:

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.

Add your name to this petition launched by Tara Expeditions’ Romain Troublé urging world leaders at the COP21 climate summit to give the ocean a voice. #OceanForClimate

About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

Courtney Mattison
Courtney is dedicated to sparking public and political support for the protection of marine ecosystems. With a Master of Arts in environmental studies from Brown University, she has a deep understanding of marine conservation science and policy—particularly regarding coral reef ecosystems—and believes in finding creative ways to bring ocean issues above the surface to inspire conservation. Courtney works as Special Projects Consultant for Mission Blue—an ocean conservation organization founded by famed oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle—and is also a prominent environmental artist. She was born and raised in San Francisco and lives in Los Angeles.