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The Untold Story of Climate Change: No Time to Lose for Our Oceans

The most visible impacts of climate change on the oceans -- rising sea levels and an increase in storm severity -- can be easily seen. Others are less apparent.
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There's a lot more to the climate change story than you might have heard. There is compelling evidence that our environment is suffering at the hands of global climate change, and that human production of greenhouse gases is accelerating the pace of that degradation. But that story only covers what is happening on a small portion of our planet - the terrestrial environment. Few are talking about the effects of climate change on the other 72 percent - our oceans.

There is compelling scientific evidence that climate change is dramatically affecting oceans worldwide in ways that threaten the survival of marine ecosystems and - ultimately - our human societies. But opinion polling shows that our knowledge and concern about climate change ends at the shore.

The most visible impacts of climate change on the oceans - rising sea levels and an increase in storm severity - can be easily seen. Others are less apparent. We face saltwater contamination of the water we depend on for drinking and agriculture. We risk alteration of ecosystems that underlie world fisheries, as species distributions shift with changing temperatures. And, we face dramatic increases in coastal erosion affecting man-made structures along the shore.

The most critical impact of climate change on our oceans lies beyond our view. As the oceans absorb more carbon dioxide, they grow more acidic - threatening the survival of plankton that forms the basis of the ocean food web. Disrupt this system, and we put at risk a major source of food for people worldwide, and even the oxygen we breathe. (Most of our oxygen is produced by microscopic plants in the ocean, not by forests on land.)

We need to address these threats with effective climate change policy. In the last few days, Representatives Ed Markey and Henry Waxman have recognized the key role oceans play in climate change and set ambitious goals for regulating emissions that affect our global climate. This is an important step. Now we must ensure that a portion of any funds generated by the sale of carbon credits pursuant to a cap-and-trade or tax system are dedicated to protecting, maintaining and restoring ocean and coastal ecosystems, as well as promoting greater scientific understanding of the relationship between the oceans and climate change.

Coastal counties contribute $4.5 trillion to the nation - approximately 50 percent of the nation's gross domestic product. Yet for too long, the value of our coasts and oceans has been left out of the equation. Sadly, it's been a case of "out of sight, out of mind." Our concern for the environment and the threat of climate change seems to stop at the shore, when in fact our lives and our livelihoods depend on healthy oceans.

As executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, I've seen the power of ocean animals to motivate and inspire the public. And I've seen the capacity of the public to move from caring about to caring for our oceans, as thousands of people have helped create new marine protected areas and are choosing sustainable seafood.

As fisheries collapse, freshwater ecosystems decline and ocean dead zones expand, global climate change looms as the overarching environmental challenge of this century. Those of us who recognize our connection to the ocean and to the animals that call it home have a greater responsibility than ever before to protect it. We must act, and encourage others to recognize their responsibility as stewards of the oceans.

Toward this goal, our elected leaders have a critical role to play.

Today, the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative, a bipartisan coalition committed to ocean policy reform of which I'm a member, releases an ambitious but achievable blueprint for federal ocean policy. Our platform reflects the ideas of diverse interests - from the environmental, academic, energy, and industry communities. It offers specific, practical steps for the new administration and Congress to take if we want to secure healthy oceans, improve human well-being, create national wealth, and provide responsible stewardship of our resources.

A key recommendation is that the administration and Congress must integrate ocean and coastal science into the broader national climate agenda. It recognizes that many of the limitations in climate science result from an inadequate understanding of ocean-related processes and their interactions with land and atmosphere.

Today, I will join many of my fellow commissioners in Washington, DC to deliver these recommendations to administration officials who have the power to infuse climate change policies with robust investments for our oceans.

But our efforts will not be enough until individuals like you join us in telling this untold story. In the fight to counter the affects of climate change, the oceans will be our most important battleground. We need your help to protect our oceans, and ultimately, our ocean planet.

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