Climate Change in Our Ocean – Part 3

In previous articles, I have discussed the impacts of climate change on marine life, and the natural responses which marine organisms have to cope with warming, acidifying, rising oceans. We’re already seeing in both tropical and temperate waters around Australia that many marine organisms simply can’t cope with the changes that are taking place.

In this article, I will look at what humans can do to tackle this evolving tragedy of our own making. At a high level, we have three strategic responses:

  • Mitigation – limit the damage by reducing greenhouse gases
  • Adaptation – lessen the impacts of climate change and
  • Monitoring – observe and learn in order to respond more effectively

Much has been written and said about mitigation – and rightly so. Ultimately, we must break our dependence on unsustainable human activities, particularly the consumption of fossil fuels, to avoid runaway global temperatures. Mitigation is, however, beyond the scope of this article – instead, I will address adaptation and monitoring.

Adaptation is about coping and resilience. We know climate change is happening – so what can we do to help our marine life survive? Without adaptation strategies, we leave our marine life to fend for itself. With adaptation, we do what we can to help marine life cope with severe climate events. We build resilience in the system, aiming to improve survival rates.

Nature has adapted to change successfully since life began. But nature is no longer able to cope with the rate of change that humans have foisted upon it – oceans are warming and acidifying at a rate far greater than today’s marine life has ever experienced. Given Australia’s high rate of endemism – the majority of species in southern Australian waters live no-where else in the world – the loss of a local species often means a loss of global biodiversity.

We already use a range of conservation tools to reduce human impacts – regulation of extractive activities such as mining and fishing, Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), and species-specific plans such as protection of nesting sites. These tools are often developed by different government departments, with varying objectives, and may eventually prove to be ineffective in adapting to climate change if they are poorly designed or coordinated.

For example, if we place MPAs in areas that minimise disruption to human and commercial activities, we may fail to build the resilience we seek. MPAs should be large and connected in order to cover the distribution of key species and encompass important locations such as spawning grounds. Some reefs may be more naturally resilient to climate impacts, providing a source of replenishment to surrounding areas after a severe event. If we’re serious about building resilience to climate change, such sites should be protected as a priority, whatever the socio-economic implications.

Science has a critical role to play here, in helping us to understand marine ecosystems in order to devise the most effective strategies. We have much to learn about the interactions between marine organisms and their environment, and so ongoing investment in monitoring, experiments and piloting solutions is essential if we are to act in time. Proactive conservation efforts, such as re-growing corals and re-planting kelp forests are in their early stages and results to date have been mixed. We need to invest in developing the knowledge and skills to adapt to climate change as quickly and effectively as possible.

Given the wide-ranging impacts of warming and acidifying oceans, we must take a broad, brave, ecosystem-scale approach. We no longer have the luxury of half measures. MPAs which are compromised by ongoing extractive activities or poor design and management are of limited value – we know that the most effective protected areas are no-take, large, well-enforced and in place for a long time. Restoring kelp or corals may prove to be fruitless if the processes which affect their survival, such as herbivory, predation and competition, are not understood or managed. Protecting nesting sites, spawning or calving areas may do little if the target animals have little to eat or are unsustainably fished in another part of their range.

We must strive to understand marine ecosystems and their interactions quickly, yet we cannot allow our lack of full knowledge to paralyse us. The principles of Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD) can help here, in particular the precautionary principle, inter-generational equity and conservation of ecological integrity. Under the precautionary principle, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as an excuse to do nothing. We should act conservatively to prevent damage to the environment, whilst continuing to build knowledge. It is incumbent on the present generation to at least maintain, and preferably enhance, the condition of the environment for future generations. The conservation of biological diversity and the integrity of ecosystems is our ultimate objective. We are, after all, talking about our home planet – and at least for the foreseeable future we have no alternative.

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This article is originally published in AMCS Turning the Tide