Famed marine biologist Sylvia Earle issued an urgent call for humans to protect the world’s oceans and the planet more broadly in the face of climate change at the launch of Oceans Week.
“We must take care of the ocean. We must take care of the natural world from the skies above to the depths below,” Earle tells TIME following a panel at the Explorers Club in New York City. “We must take care of the living earth as if our lives depend on it. Because they do.”
Oceans play a key role dictating the planet’s climate and also act as an indicator of global warming. Ocean water continues to absorb heat, and has reached new temperatures heights in the last half century. Sea levels have also risen in the same time period and are expected to spike dramatically, threatening coastal cities in the coming decades without action to slow them. And finally, climate change has shifted ocean acidity levels affecting marine species.
For all these reasons, Earle says the oceans deserve more attention from policymakers dealing with climate change. “It is puzzling and mystifying to some of us that the ocean has not been at least equally on the ballot sheet with the atmosphere above,” she says. “But now I think we are getting there.”
This year’s Ocean Conference, a gathering in New York City sponsored by the United Nations, has drawn scientists, government officials and business leaders from across the globe to focus on the importance of protecting oceans. That’s a step in the right direction, says Earle.
“We have learned so much in the last half century,” she says. “Armed with knowledge we have power. That is the best cause for hope.”
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