The Latest IPCC Report: A Global Warning On Ice And Oceans

17:24 minutes

a sparse collection of icebergs underneath an orange sky
Icebergs in the Arctic Ocean, near Greenland. Credit: murattellioglu, via Shutterstock.

A new report issued this week by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change paints a troubling picture of the world’s ice and oceans. The ocean effects of climate change, from warming waters to ocean acidification to sea level rise, are already altering the weather, fisheries, and coastal communities.  

“Over the 21st century, the ocean is projected to transition to unprecedented conditions,” the IPCC report says, with the exact degree of change controlled by the levels of greenhouse gas emissions. The authors of the report state that the ocean has already taken up more than 90% of the excess heat in the climate system since 1970, the surface is becoming more acidic, and oxygen is being depleted in the top thousand meters of the water column. All those conditions are projected to get worse in the years ahead.  

Ocean scientist and former NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco joins Ira to talk about the risks to the ocean, its effects on the global ecosystem, and how the ocean can also help to blunt some of the worst climate outcomes—if action is taken now. 

Further Reading

Segment Guests

Jane Lubchenco

Jane Lubchenco is university distinguished professor at Oregon State University and the former administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (2009-2013). She is based in Corvallis, Oregon.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A new report issued this week by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, you know that is the IPCC. Well, that report paints a troubling picture of the world’s ice and oceans, and says that immediate action is needed to prevent more drastic changes.

The ocean effects of climate change from warming waters to ocean acidification to sea level rise are already altering the weather fisheries in coastal communities. Over the 21st century, the ocean is projected to transition to unprecedented conditions, the IPCC report says, with the exact degree of change, well, it’s going to be controlled by our levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

But at the same time the ocean is in peril, can also help us to lessen some of the effects of climate change? What is the oceans doing for us to sort of limit the immediate effects? And our question for you, for you out there listeners, what concerns you most about the health of our oceans in the wake of the UN report?

Let me repeat that again. What concerns you most about the health of our oceans in the wake of the UN report? Our number is 844-724-8255. You can also tweet us at Scifri, 844-724-8255. Joining me now is Dr. Jane Lubchenco. She’s a marine scientist, former administrator of NOAA, and now a University Distinguished Professor at Oregon State University in Corvallis. She’s here with us in New York. Always good to see you, Jane.

JANE LUBCHENCO: Thanks, Ira. Great to be back.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about the new IPCC report on the oceans. It’s an immense report. Give me some highlights, some bullets from that report.

JANE LUBCHENCO: So like all IPCC reports, this one synthesizes the state of science, and it has great gravitas, because the authors are global experts, and they have combed through all the peer reviewed scientific literature. And so what they say is really what we know.

What we know about the ocean, according to this new report, is that it has already changed in very dramatic ways as a direct result of the greenhouse gas emissions that human activities have put into the atmosphere. We know that today, the ocean is higher. We know that it’s much warmer.

We know that it is more acidic, and less productive. And it holds less oxygen than it has in the past.

IRA FLATOW: All bad things.

JANE LUBCHENCO: All bad things, and those bad things have very important consequences to people and the things that we want from the ocean. So it’s a very dire, very gloomy report. And as you noted a minute ago, the report goes on to say it’s bad now. It’s really bad now, but it’s going to get a lot worse, unless we take very strong and strategic bold action to change the course, and lessen the impacts.

IRA FLATOW: Well, one part of the report that struck me was the idea that the oceans have already so soaked up 90% of the extra heat. You know, we keep hearing people say, well, where did the heat go? We now know where it went, right? It went into the oceans.

JANE LUBCHENCO: That’s right. So it’s actually more than 90%, and that’s a lot. And we used to think that the ocean was so huge that we could really have very little impact on it. But the fact that it has been absorbing this heat has been very beneficial to us. If it hadn’t been doing that, we would be seeing a lot more warming.

But the reality is the rate at which the ocean is warming has now doubled since the early 90s. And so, so it is not only absorbing heat, but it’s absorbing heat faster because we keep pumping more and more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

IRA FLATOW: And you mentioned the acidification, which is also a major problem, Right

JANE LUBCHENCO: It is. The ocean is also absorbing carbon dioxide. It’s absorbed nearly one third of the carbon dioxide that we have put in the atmosphere, and what happens when it absorbs that carbon dioxide is that it changes the fundamental chemistry of the ocean. The ocean is becoming more acidic, some people refer to that as osteoporosis of the sea.

Things that make a shell or a skeleton of calcium carbonate, think clams, oysters, corals, mussels, the lobsters, crabs, all of those things, have a much harder time making their shells or skeletons and they dissolve faster. So we are already seeing the consequences of ocean acidification, and it’s going to get much worse. So it’s imperative that we get on with solutions and with reducing carbon emissions.

IRA FLATOW: Did the IPCC have solutions, make suggestions, for what to do in the short long term?

JANE LUBCHENCO: The IPCC focuses on what do we know about what’s happening, and it is a wake up call. I would say, salty and wet wake up call that’s adding to all the voices that are saying we need to be creating solutions. You

IRA FLATOW: You co-authored a policy paper this week in the journal Science titled The Ocean is Key to Achieving Climate, and Societal Goals. Tell us, what do you mean by that?

JANE LUBCHENCO: So much of what’s in the IPCC portrays the ocean and people as a victim of climate change. The ocean has been changing in the ways we’ve just been describing. A new report from a high level panel for a sustainable ocean economy that was an independent scientific report from 19 experts around the world was released this week, and concluded that in fact the ocean can also be a powerful source of solutions to climate change. For

The first time ever, the authors of this report quantified the actual reduction in carbon emissions or sequestration or storage of carbon that could be achieved through five different ocean based activities. Those five include ocean renewable energy, number one. Number two, ocean based shipping, transportation.

Number three, protection and restoration of coastal and marine ecosystems, blue carbon ecosystems, like mangroves, salt marshes, and sea grasses. Number four, changing diets to include more seafood. And fifth, storage of carbon in the deep sea. And if you add all five of those together, the maximum potential we could get from those, it is an astounding 21% of the emission reductions that we need to get us to 1.5 degrees target by 2050.

So there’s a lot more potential in the ocean to help mitigate climate change. Most people, when they think about mitigation, we think about renewable energy on land. We think about making transportation more efficient on land, buildings more efficient. So we think about land based activities.

And this report is saying, hey, there’s another source of solutions that we haven’t even thought about. And they actually could be very, very powerful.

IRA FLATOW: But at the same time, that would mean everybody needs to work together on this.

JANE LUBCHENCO: Absolutely. Yes, absolutely.

IRA FLATOW: And that must be a stumbling block to getting a consensus on how to do this.

JANE LUBCHENCO: That is one of the reasons that, in fact, we haven’t made as much progress that we need to. It does take collective action. Countries of the world came together and agreed upon the Paris Agreement, so that’s a good start. We can build on that. It’s non-binding. Countries are making nationally determined contributions, so-called indices.

Those are not as bold and as aspirational as they need to be. All of the marches that we are seeing today around the world, last Friday around the world, are really saying enough of this, you adults. Let’s fix this problem. And so we’re seeing, I think, increased appetite for fixing the problem, not just talking about it.

And one of the things that gives me hope is not only the young people demanding action, but the increased interest by the private sector in helping to be part of the solution, not just part of the problem. They’re seeing business opportunities in these solutions spaces for both mitigation and adaptation, and that can be very powerful.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones. 844-724-8255. Adam, or is it Adrian in Cleveland? Hi. Welcome to Science Friday. Let’s go to Richard in Fort Myers. Hi, Richard.

RICHARD: Hi, there. Yes, I was calling about the oceans. I mean, I’m 73, and when I was probably about 20, I saw a movie called Soylent Green, in that they portrayed the oceans as dying as the reason for the problems with humanity. They described a rich living wherever they wanted to, and everybody else. There was overpopulation, et cetera. And we all seem to be heading down that road. And the absurdity of it all is– Pardon?

IRA FLATOW: I’m just wondering, so, you’re worried that the oceans may be dying like it did in the movie now?

RICHARD: I think the trend is indicating that’s happening.

IRA FLATOW: Let me ask Jane. Are the oceans dead or dying?

JANE LUBCHENCO: Richard, you’re right. The oceans are in trouble, and they are in trouble because of a broad suite of activities, including but not limited to climate change. However, we also know that the ocean can be very resilient if we give it a chance, and that underscores the importance of reducing carbon emissions, using some of these ocean based solutions to mitigate climate change.

But also, creating marine protected areas that can help mitigate, as well as adapt to climate change. There are a suite of things that we can do, also including reforming fisheries to make them be healthier and better able to withstand the impacts of climate change. So yes, there are problems. But we also have solutions.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Adrian in Cleveland. I think I have that right now. Adrian, are you there?

ADRIAN: Hi. How are you?

IRA FLATOW: Hi, there. Go ahead.

ADRIAN: Thanks for having me.


ADRIAN: My concern is biodiversity and ocean similar to the last comment. And what steps can we take to support that, and maybe the conversation about habitat, is that something that we could focus on?


JANE LUBCHENCO: Adrian, great question.

IRA FLATOW: Biodiversity.

JANE LUBCHENCO: Biodiversity. Absolutely.

IRA FLATOW: Can we lose it because of climate change?

JANE LUBCHENCO: Biodiversity is in serious trouble. We had another international scientific assessment earlier this year that focused on biodiversity, and it said that the biggest driver of loss of biodiversity in the ocean is in fact over exploitation, is overfishing. And so, that points to the importance of three solutions actually. One is fixing overfishing so that we can restore our fisheries.

Two, though, is creating protected, fully protected, areas in the ocean that can protect habitats and protect biodiversity. And by the way, store carbon and help replenish fisheries. So we’ve got a triple bottom line from marine protected areas, which today, represent less than 2% of the ocean in fully protected marine protected areas.

Many people are saying we need probably on the order of 30%. That’s not impossible, but it’s a tall order. So multiple solutions to many of these challenges.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, talking with Dr. Jane Lubchenco, former administrator of NOAA. Were there any mentions about weather or climate changes from the changing nature of ocean currents? And we talk about wealthy, all this cold water, cold freshwater keeps coming off of Greenland. It’s going to change the ocean currents that keep Great Britain warm.


IRA FLATOW: You’re talking about that at all?

JANE LUBCHENCO: Yep. There are two things that are related to that. One is the ocean circulation itself, the, what’s called, the Ocean conveyor belt. And there is evidence that it is beginning to slow down. There is concern about that. And it is driven by the cold freshwater that’s coming from Greenland in the Arctic.

But that Freshwater is also causing increased layering, what we call stratification in the ocean. And that inhibits the mixing of ocean waters, and we’re getting, one of the things that’s described about impacts of the ocean the changes that are underway is that it’s losing oxygen. And it’s because it’s warmer, but it’s also because the ocean is more stratified.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. A lot of people have been asking about changing our diet, about what kind of seafood to eat. What should they be eating?

JANE LUBCHENCO: So the new calculations that for the first time ever have looked at what are the carbon consequences of our diet. Not just the human health consequences, but the carbon consequences suggests that if we eat more protein from the sea instead of land based animal protein, it’s not only better for our health, but it is much better for the climate system.

We can reduce carbon emissions by eating more seafood. Obviously, we have to be eating seafood that is sustainably caught or farmed from aquaculture, and I go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch app to see what kind of seafood I can eat with relish and abandon, because it had been sustainably caught or farmed.

IRA FLATOW: One last question in the last couple of minutes we have is a tweet. Crystal asks via Twitter. What is this story from my son’s generation? He’s five. How can we as parents, teachers, consumers, prep ourselves for the future climate effects we will face?

JANE LUBCHENCO: What we do now is going to have huge consequences for our kids and grandkids children. My grandkids are 6 and 8, and I care very deeply about the world that they inhabit. What I try to do with them is to have them love people and love the natural world, have them love the ocean, and be exposed to critters in the ocean as well as on land.

So that connection to nature is a very real part of who they are. But it also means that we need to give them hope by being as responsible as we can in how we vote, in how we act in our daily lives, in what we spend our time and energy doing. And for me, that means trying to help share scientific information, but also be as responsible as we can be to minimize climate change and the other adverse impacts.

I think it’s really important for people to have hope. This is not hopeless. It is dire. The ocean situation that the IPCC report portrays is a dire situation, but not hopeless.

IRA FLATOW: That’s a good way to end it, Dr. Lubchenco. Jane Lubchenco, former administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, now a University Distinguished professor at Oregon State University in Corvallis. Thank you for being with us today.

JANE LUBCHENCO: My pleasure, Ira. Thank you.

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