07.06.2023 Environment

For a healthier ocean

Alexander Turra: The impacts of climate change on the ocean endanger the wellbeing of humanity

A large fraction of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, through fossil fuel usage, ranching, and burning, is dissolved in the ocean | Picture: Radomianin/WikiCommons

Could it be said that the planet is a living being? Although this notion may be questionable, it is supported by the Gaia Hypothesis, proposed by British scientist James Lovelock, who drew parallels between the planet’s inner workings and those of a living being. Before his death in 2022 at the age of 103, Professor Lovelock contributed to developing a more systemic understanding of the environment, which would lay the groundwork for understanding climate change, its origins, and its effects.

According to the Gaia Hypothesis, the natural processes that regulate how the planet operates are equivalent to the physiological processes that regulate how our bodies operate. A complex set of biochemical processes, the metabolism—driven by the various organelles, cells, tissues, organs, and systems that make up the human body—allows us to perform the functions necessary for life, such as obtaining nourishment and exchanging gases.

But, most of all, the metabolism also provides the conditions necessary to enable the organism to function properly, that is, it generates a certain physiological balance that we call “homeostasis.” An example of this is maintaining body temperature at suitable levels for metabolism to occur.

The same logic applies to the planet. It is a conglomeration of biomes and ecosystems, all of which interact with each other. Physical factors, such as atmospheric temperature and marine water quality, affect biodiversity, but also human activities, such as agriculture or tourism, which, in turn, also affect the environment. Given these important connections between nature and society, the term socioecological system was coined to describe this complex array of relationships that ultimately regulate the conditions of life on this planet, that is, by facilitating planetary homeostasis.

The more preserved nature and its ecological components and processes are, in other words, the healthier the planet, the greater its capacity will be to regulate the conditions of life on this planet. As a result, it will be better able to handle possible disturbances, such as those caused by climate change.

Once again, the same logic applies to the human body. The less stress put on our body, the better it functions and the better it can respond to disease. This was evident during the Covid-19 pandemic when the concept of comorbidity was widely discussed.

Preexisting diseases, such as diabetes and hypertension, impaired many patients’ ability to cope with the physiological effects caused by the coronavirus, increasing the risk of death.

The ocean and the febrile planet

Environmental comorbidities, the stress we put on nature, also compromise the planet’s ability to function and benefit humanity, by providing food and producing surplus oxygen that we use in cellular respiration. One of these benefits is climate regulation, and like the others mentioned above, this benefit depends heavily on the ocean.

Yes, the ocean is crucial to life on this planet. Not only because life sprang from it, but because it hosts the greatest variety of living organisms compared to terrestrial environments. The ocean is also a key element of planetary homeostasis. And the component behind this regulatory ability is water. Water covers nearly 70% of the earth’s surface, and the human body is composed of nearly 70% water.

One of the marine environment’s roles is regulating the greenhouse effect, which could be likened to a fever if the planet were compared to a living being. A large fraction of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, through fossil fuel usage, ranching, and burning, is dissolved in the ocean. As a result, the greenhouse effect is mitigated, and the planet’s temperature is lower than it would be if the ocean did not perform this function.

Much like when a patient has a fever, when the planet has a fever, which we call global warming, it is a red flag that calls for several types of actions. Urgent actions are needed to mitigate the effects of rising temperatures, which we call adaptation measures, such as trying to contain the effect of rising sea levels with flood barriers or combating heat waves with new building techniques.

This would be equivalent to hospitalizing a patient or urgently treating symptoms of the disease with specific medications. But we should also employ structural actions to combat the sources of global warming, which are mitigation measures exemplified by the need to reduce carbon emissions. This would correspond to a patient making significant lifestyle changes, leading to systemic improvement in the patient.

The Ocean Decade

Just as we should, ideally, seek to treat a patient holistically and prevent the onset of comorbidities, we need to adopt the same attitude with the ocean and the planet. The fact is that the ocean and its health are suffering.

Stress that we have put on the marine environment has caused degradation and comorbidities that are impairing its ability to function. We are talking about sewage and garbage, but also overfishing and the destruction of habitats, such as beaches, mangroves, and coral reefs. This reveals that the ocean needs treatment, urgently.

This is what the United Nations is seeking by proposing the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, to be developed and implemented between 2021 and 2030. It is a call for society to understand and value the ocean and to mobilize to ensure its vitality. This is because, as the UN echoes, we have one planet, one ocean, and we need to nurture the “ocean we need, for the future we want.” In the Herculean task of caring for this planetary being, we play the role of doctors, but also patients who may wither away, along with the planet, in response to our apparent inaction.

*Alexander Turra is a biologist, a professor at the Oceanographic Institute of the University of São Paulo (IO-USP), and a researcher at the Institute of Advanced Studies (IEA-USP). He is a member of the UNESCO Chair in Ocean Sustainability.


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