Climate Week: An ocean apart – major report issues stark warning on ocean climate impact

Since 1970, the oceans have absorbed more than 90 per cent of human-caused global heating but we now stand at a tipping point, with the impacts of warming oceans posing a grave threat to life on Earth, according to a new report.

While some change is inevitable, a wholesale approach to curbing the major threats to climate and oceans can reduce the severity if we act now.

A major new report today from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) describes the catastrophic impacts of the climate emergency on oceans, coasts and frozen areas.

Humpback whale mother and calf (c) Sue Flood

The findings show how oceans have been “taking the heat” for climate change and warns we are now seeing wildlife, ecosystems and human populations at the precipice of irreversible change.

The Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate was launched in Monaco, coinciding with the meeting of world leaders in New York for the UN Climate Summit and following the mass Climate Strike protests around the world last week.

At its most extreme, low-lying coastal areas currently home to about 680 million people are faced with the prospect of homes which will be uninhabitable by 2100, while even those living elsewhere will face unprecedented changes to life as they know it.

For the first time, a group of 104 scientists from 36 countries have clearly articulated the links between the climate emergency and the impacts on the world’s frozen places and oceans. The report states the need for adaptation, funding, ambitious targets and global coordination to halt the escalation of this threat.


Key findings include:

  • Severe flooding in Haiti in the wake of a hurricane (c) UN Photo/Logan Abassi

    If global temperatures rise to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, 280 million people could be displaced by rising seas

  • Sea-level rise is predicted to hit 1.1m by 2100, 10cm higher than previous estimates. The process has accelerated due to increased ice loss from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets
  • Future shifts in fish distribution and decreases in their abundance due to climate change are projected to affect income, livelihoods and the food security of marine resource-dependent communities
  • Extreme sea level events will increase in frequency, hitting many coasts annually by 2050
  • The rate of ocean warming has more than doubled since 1993
  • Marine heatwaves have very likely doubled in frequency since 1982 and are increasing in intensity. By absorbing more CO2, the ocean has undergone increasing surface acidification
  • The acidification of the oceans as a result of increased CO2 is threatening corals to such an extent that even at 1.5°C of warming, some 90 per cent will disappear

“The report provides an apocalyptic picture of the future we face by continuing a course of climate inaction,” said Senior Ocean Campaigner Christina Dixon.

Click to hear Christina's view

Christina Dixon, EIA Senior Ocean Campaigner (c) EIAimage

“Those least responsible for this crisis will be the first and most severely affected, as will the marine ecosystems on which all life on Earth depends.

“World leaders must resist the vested interests of those blocking radical action and support the fundamental economic and societal change that will be required to meet the scale of this challenge.”

As an organisation, we urge world leaders and industry to take note of the stark warnings contained within the report and call for a focus on ambitious and coordinated global action to reduce the key threats of emissions and pollution.

Oceans, like forests, are a key defence against the impact of climate change but to be effective they must be protected from over-exploitation.

Just as communities face unprecedented adaptation in the face of heating oceans and melting ice, governments and industry can no longer continue business as usual.