Oceans Have Saved Us from the Worst of Climate Change So Far — Now We Must Save the Oceans

Without oceans absorbing greenhouse gases that are heating up the planet, "we'd all be gone by now," which is why we must work hard to protect them, says Oceana's Jackie Savitz

grand turk island
Turk and Caicos Islands. Photo: Getty

Oceans play an important part in combatting climate change, which is why they must be protected.

"The oceans are helping us fight climate change because they absorb a lot of heat and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere," explains Jackie Savitz, Chief Policy Officer for North America at Oceana, which works to protect and restore the world's oceans.

"If they weren't, we'd all be gone by now," she says.

Had it not been for oceans absorbing all that heat from greenhouse gases, "global temperatures would've already been about a hundred degrees higher Fahrenheit than they are now," she adds.

The oceans, says Savitz, "are saving us. But that's also making the ocean sick."

To underscore that point, on Wednesday, June 8, the planet is coming together for United Nations World Oceans Day, a time to celebrate our oceans and figure out ways to better protect them — and save humanity in the process.

This year, the theme of World Oceans Day is Revitalization: Collective Action for the Ocean.

"People talk about the impacts of climate change on humans, and they think of people that live on low lying islands in the middle of the Pacific or people who rely on the glacier ecosystems and Northern Alaska," Savitz says. "But the truth of the matter is climate change is actually hurting all of us already. Not just those far away people."

"We are already living in a climate emergency. We have deadly heat waves, coastal flooding, frequent and stronger hurricanes, and wildfires," she remarks. "One of the biggest wildfires in New Mexico's history is currently ravaging the state. We have a record drought in the west. And that's just the beginning. We don't know where that's going. It could be getting a lot worse."

Climate-fueled disasters, she says, "are literally coming at us fast and furious, one after the other, and they're expensive."

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That's why we need to take strong action to slow the amount of heat and carbon dioxide the oceans are absorbing.

"The only way to slow the pace of this, if not stop it and turn the clock back, is to transition away from fossil fuels," she says. "And we have to do it fast."

Moving from Offshore Drilling to Offshore Wind

Driving electric cars, installing solar panels, recycling and reusing, composting, conserving energy and using less water and plastics are all ways individuals can help.

But governments and corporations — including oil companies — need to do more to protect the oceans.

"A lot of fossil fuels are coming from offshore drilling and from our oceans," Savitz says. "The solution there obviously is that we have to stop taking oil out of the ground underneath our oceans."

Not only does drilling pollute the oceans and lead to spills, "but when we burn it, it's contributing to the climate impacts that we are experiencing."

She explains, "We're taking oil out of the oceans and essentially pumping that carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We got to stop doing that."

By comparison, oceans offer clean energy energy from offshore wind power.

"It's the solution that's most effectively positioned to help us solve climate change," she says. "It's funny because people think, 'You're an ocean group. You should be against industrializing the ocean.'"

She admits, "If you had asked me that when I first got interested in this years ago, I would've said yes."

However, she says she's come to realize "it's the solution to all the problems that we humans are facing and that the oceans are facing."

But it has to be done right.

"We don't just want to like go into the offshore area and start building wind in places where whales are critically endangered, which is something Oceana is very focused on," she says. "We need to find safe places to do it and start running on wind and solar instead of running on oil and coal."

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"Some people are very quick to tell you can't run a car on offshore wind, but you actually can," she adds. "Yes, it requires a transition in how we think about powering our automobile fleet as a society. But that transition has begun, and it needs to be stimulated. It needs to happen as fast as possible because then we literally can live without oil."

The Oceans Can Feed the World

The warmer and more acidic the oceans become, the more that threatens to collapse the food chain.

More acidic water, for example, makes it harder for clams, oysters, mussels, lobsters and crabs to build their shells.

"That also hurts economies," she says.

Additionally, saving the oceans means providing the world with a more climate-friendly source of food.

"We have fisheries that are not managed well right now, and so they're not producing sort of the maximum that they can produce," she says. "If we rebuild those fisheries, we can actually feed more people."

"We believe we can create meals for a billion people every day by properly managing them," she shares, explaining that would displace the need for land-based meat sources, which have a lot bigger carbon footprint.

We Need to Act — Yesterday

The stakes for the future are higher than ever, but we can save our planet, says Savitz.

"We're kind of in this moment now where we have this opportunity to really kind of go all in on what we know is essentially our existential savior," she says. "It means shifting our energy economy, and the oceans can help with that."

Economically, she says, "we really can't afford not to make this transition, because it's costing us billions of dollars just in storm damages and fire damages and people's lives being lost because of this.

"The fossil fuel industry is hurting people," she adds. "It's hurting the people where the fires are burning and it's hurting people where the hurricanes are hitting."

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