The ocean report you didn't see

The IPCC's ocean report was terrifying. But a less-noticed ocean report provides hope and opportunity.

Welcome to HEATED, a daily newsletter devoted to original reporting and analysis on the climate crisis.

Yesterday, we revealed some of the major companies funding Michael Knowles—the conservative troll who called Greta Thunberg a “mentally ill Swedish child” in an attempt to discredit the urgency of climate change—through advertising dollars for his podcast, The Michael Knowles Show. Those companies included Ring (owned by Amazon), VistaPrint, ZipRecruiter, and QuickenLoans, among others.

A few hours after publication, VistaPrint told HEATED it would not be advertising “on any upcoming episodes of the Michael Knowles podcast, now or in the future.” And luxury bedding company Boll & Branch said that Knowles’ “hurtful comments do not align with our company values and we are taking the matter very seriously.” However, they added, “We do not comment publicly on our advertising placements.”

We have yet to hear from other advertisers on the list, but this is the power of independent accountability journalism. It wouldn’t be possible without your attention and support.

Thank you for being a reader—and if you’re not signed up for daily e-mails, you can sign up below.

Now onto the news.

‘Sweeping and severe’

On Wednesday, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a special report on the state of the world’s oceans. It says the oceans are doing bad.

I mean really bad.

For decades, the ocean has been protecting us from ourselves. It’s been absorbing the vast majority of the heat we’ve added to the atmosphere through greenhouse gas emissions, essentially preventing the air from getting super hot. (We’ve known that for awhile, as this 2015 chart from Climate Central shows).

But now, the new IPCC report says, the ocean’s health is utterly collapsing as a result of all the heat absorption. Worse, its capability for absorbing all that heat—and thus protecting us from living in an atmophsheric hellscape—is running out.

“The ocean has been acting like a sponge, absorbing heat and carbon dioxide to regulate global temperatures, but it can’t keep up,” IPCC vice chair Ko Barrett said on Wednesday. "The consequences for nature and humanity are sweeping and severe.”

I’ll leave it to other outlets to get deeper into the gloomy specifics of the IPCC report. Vox’s Brian Resnick has a thorough and easily digestible explainer, as does Brian Kahn over at Earther. (Two Brians! The Brians of Science!)

What I want to talk about is a different scientific report about the ocean. Also released Wednesday, it’s gotten far less attention than the IPCC report—but it shows a tremendous, previously unreported amount of opportunity in the world’s oceans to slow the climate crisis.

It doesn’t make the IPCC’s report any less terrifying. It just provides weapons we can use to fight the beast.

‘Renewed options … and renewed hope’

“We have traditionally thought about climate change and the ocean’s heath as two separate problems,” said Jane Lubchenco, co-author of the ocean solutions report, on an embargoed press call with reporters last week. “But if what of these two seemingly insolvable problem were linked, and there were great opportunities in tackling them together?

“What if the ocean was seen as a solution, not just a victim?”

That’s the basic intention of the ocean solutions report, published Wednesday in the journal Science and produced by the international High-level Panel on Building a Sustainable Ocean Economy. The panel is a group of 14 heads of state and governments—including Norway, Canada, Japan, and Australia—committed to sustainable ocean management. (The United States is not part of it, because of course we’re not.)

It’s well-known that the world needs to take action on climate change in order to save the ocean, the report’s authors argue. But it’s not as well-known that, by improving the health of the ocean, we’re also helping to fight climate change. That’s why the ocean solutions report was created: to inform the public about policy options for improving ocean health, and to quantify how implementing those solutions would help slow climate change.

It turns out the results are staggering. By taking just five actions to improve the health of the oceans, the report’s authors say, we could achieve up to 21 percent of the emissions reductions required to meet the 1.5 degrees Celsius target. Put in context, that’s “like cutting out all the emissions of China, or removing all coal-fired power plants from operation globally,” co-author Ove Hoegh-Guldberg said.

So what are these five actions? Well, they’re really not “just” anything—they’re very hard things to achieve. But solving climate change is hard, so that’s to be expected. Anyway, they are:

  1. Decarbonizing the marine shipping and transport sector. This would greatly improve ocean health by reducing physical pollution, while improving climate change.

  2. Restoring “blue carbon” ecosystems—things like mangroves, seagrasses, seaweed and salt marshes. This would increase carbon absorption capacities while improving ocean health.

  3. Eating more seafood instead of meat. “Protein from the ocean has a much smaller footprint than protein from the land,” Hoegh-Guldberg said. Also, reforming fisheries practices to reduce carbon emissions while incentivizing sustainable fisheries would create a healthier ocean.

  4. Harnessing the power of the ocean for renewable energy. Wave, tidal, and offshore wind power have obvious climate benefits, and those must be increased, the authors say. To improve ocean health, though, this increase must be “coupled with inclusive ecosystem-based marine spatial planning to deconflict uses of the ocean, achieve co-benefits, and ensure long-term resilience of marine ecosystems.”

  5. Capturing carbon emissions and storing them in deep-sea seabeds. The authors caution that this is still a new technology and shouldn’t be widely embraced until researchers figure out how this case have minimal negative impact on deep-sea ecosystems. But the “theoretical potential is very high,” the study says.

Ove Hoegh-Guldberg warned that these actions won’t solve the climate crisis, and thus the ocean crisis, completely—nor do they give reason to ignore other solutions.

“But here we have an unappreciated part of the problem that looks like it will help us achieve this important goal of 1.5 Degrees Celsius,” he said. “With climate change looking like it’s becoming pretty much unmanageable, it’s an urgent requirement that we do this quickly.”

Lubchenco agreed. “The situation is quite dire and quite gloomy, but it is not hopeless,” she said. “This new report gives us renewed options for action, and renewed hope.”

An epilogue on grief and anger

I was going to do today’s newsletter on something different: my reporting in NYC during climate week. But I kept getting emails from readers and seeing tweets from friends and colleagues about the IPCC report and how deeply it was affecting them.

Like this one:

And this one:

So I felt like I had to change course.

I chose to write about the ocean solutions report because it was written with the explicit purpose of combating this type of despair. Its authors knew the IPCC’s oceans report was coming, and anticipated it would be dire. That’s why they scheduled publication on the same day—to let people know not only that there are options still on the table, but that these options could be far more effective than previously believed.

So I thought that it might help. But I also understand that simply seeing those options for effective climate and ocean policy might not be enough—especially when we live in a country whose president won’t even join a fucking panel to support a healthy fucking ocean.

All I can say is that, when I understand all these things, I do not primarily feel despair. I feel anger. Because we have the science. We have the solutions. It’s all here, right in front of us, wrapped up in a red satin bow. It’s all been sitting here for literally decades. And no one in power is doing anything about it.

I strongly believe that anger—at least when it’s directed on behalf of others, particularly those less powerful than you—is essential to effective journalism and effective action. Unlike despair, which is paralyzing, I find it to be a catalyzing emotion.

When I am angry, I am driven to act. When I act, I feel better.

So if you think getting angry might make you feel better, I encourage you to channel your grief in that direction. And if that’s not for you, that’s totally cool. But if you take one thing from today’s issue, I hope it’s that there are lots of unappreciated solutions out there. It’s just a matter of which one is right for you.

And if you have ideas for actions people might want to take in the wake of this IPCC report, email them to me:


Here’s a video of climate activists being asked if they’d rather have solar panels for fingers or wind turbines for teeth, courtesy of my favorite climate meme Instagram account, @climemechange.

🚨 BREAKING 🚨 Thanks to this investigative work in collaboration with @jmpyper, some of the top climate activists in the world are now on the record answering one of the biggest questions we're facing today... WOULD YOU RATHER HAVE SOLAR PANELS FOR TEETH OR WIND TURBINES FOR FINGERS?

@xiyebeara @varshiniprakash @sunrisemvmt @alexandriav2005 @katie.eder @vicbarrett_ @350org thank you 🙏

Btw just playing there at the end Bill 😉
September 23, 2019

Also, feel free to follow my second-favorite climate meme Instagram account:

That’s all for today—thanks so much for reading HEATED.

If you liked it, forward it to a friend or three. If you’ve been forwarded this, you can sign up to receive daily Monday-Thursday emails below.

As always, if you have questions or comments on anything you read in this issue, or want to pitch me a story idea, my inbox is open:

See you next week.