Rainforests may be known as the lungs of the planet, but as we stand in front of the seas, with their roaring waves and the ever-cycling tides, we feel the Earth breathe. The ocean, scientists say, is the source of all life on Earth. It is also, philosophers say, the embodiment of the greatest terror of life: the unknown and the uncontrollable.
This duality is increasingly reflected in the discourse on the climate of recent years, when the ice is melting, the sea is rising and the banks everywhere are facing storms of fury that no one has seen in their living memory. But while the ocean has become the subject of manual squeezing over what we have created, it has also become a cornerstone of hope that we can reduce the damage if we act now.
First, the bad news. While the front lines of climate change are emerging around the world, the first major blows of global warming have occurred in the low-lying island countries of the South Pacific, where communities have always lived and died by the sea and its generosity. Many more have been dying for several years as they are destroyed by storms and floods related to climate change. When these countries begged the larger and richer – and more guilty – countries to do something, they were mostly silent. Indeed, at a recent summit in Bonn, Germany, delegates from rich countries refused to support efforts to ensure that the debate on compensating poorer countries for the damage caused by climate change is on the agenda of COP27, the UN climate conference to be held. November in Egypt. But it will not be long before these powerful nations will also face the wrath of the sea. The United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Brazil, China, India, Japan and Indonesia are among the countries with a large population living on land, which is likely to be below sea level by 2100.
Beneath the waters, which make up more than 70% of the earth’s surface, another escalating tragedy is approaching, from the mass bleaching of corals to the destruction of marine biodiversity. There is no way back. But in order to keep the damage at these already terrible levels – and even dream of meeting the goal that the world theoretically agreed on in Paris in 2015 – we will have to find some way to work with the sea, not against it. As Jane Lubchenco, a marine ecologist and former head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under President Obama, told my colleague Aryn Baker a few years ago, “It’s time to stop thinking of the ocean as a victim of climate change and start thinking about it as a powerful part of the solution.”
We can begin down. The Pacific floor is littered with the precious metals we need to build the batteries needed to power carbon-free travel. By moving upwards, using the power of the tides, we could connect another source of renewable energy to our struggling networks; Offshore wind farms are also ready to expand exponentially as a primary energy source. And while we can see road vehicles as the focus of electric mobility efforts, the decarbonisation of maritime transport can be what really brings the global economy to a green future.
Meanwhile, the oceans are the central banks of carbon on Earth. Scientists are working hard to capture CO2 from fossil fuel power plants in an affordable way and inject gas into the rock beneath the ocean floor. And efforts are already under way to protect and restore ocean ecosystems, such as mangroves, salt marshes and seagrass, which not only sequester more CO2 than their land-based counterparts, but also act as natural breakwaters to protect coastal populations.
In a published interview In 2002, Werner Herzog, a filmmaker and fearless philosopher of humanity’s relationship to the natural world, argued that “civilization is like a thin layer of ice on a deep ocean of chaos and darkness.” At this point, with record summer heat and record sea ice lows, Herzog’s metaphor could be taken literally. After all, life as we know it only exists until the ice melts and the potential chaos of the oceans is completely unleashed.
But it’s also worth considering something Herzog said almost a decade and a half later. Speaking about his documentary Into the Inferno, he noted that we are facing climate problems that we do “not because nature is angry”, but rather because “we are stupid”. He continued, “We are not doing the right thing with our planet.” But if we did the right thing with our oceans, maybe their terrifying forces could save us.
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