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What the Climate Crisis Means for Coastal Communities

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change, recently published the Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate. The report outlines the changes that are happening in the ocean and cryosphere (the frozen components of the earth’s system) due to man-made climate change and the negative impacts and effects that people all around the world are facing now and what lies in store for the future.


How is the ocean changing?


Humankind’s dependence on the ocean is greater than ever. Aside from being one of our largest sources of food and water (directly and indirectly), it is vital for trade, transport and tourism. It is linked with health and well-being as well as its cultural significance for many communities. It is a potential source for renewable energy and we are understanding how it is crucial in the uptake and redistribution of both natural and man-made CO2 and heat. In fact, it has taken up between 20-30% of man-made CO2 since the 1980s and absorbed more than 90% of the excess heat in our climate system. It is because of this uptake that we have seen such changes.


These changes include the rising of sea levels, ocean warming and heatwaves, acidification, loss of oxygen, extreme waves and extreme sea-level rise events, and the drastic loss of marine life and ecosystems to name a few.


How this affects coastal communities


People living along coastlines and small island states are on the front lines of the consequences that are felt due to the changes in the ocean from the climate crisis. Currently, 680 million people live on low-lying coastal zones, which amounts to almost 10% of the global population. Rising sea levels will continue to see flooding as well as extreme wave and weather events which can be devastating for coastal communities. Rising ocean temperatures have lead to the acidification and continued loss of oxygen. This has contributed to the destruction of ecosystems such as coral reefs which previously would have acted as a buffer for the effects of sea-level rise, large waves and erosion. These ecosystems also serve a carbon storage function. We can also expect more algal blooms which, in turn, have adverse consequences on food, tourism and human health.


Ocean warming has created a shift in the distribution of marine life and an overall decline in their populations as many species have either relocated or perished altogether due to increasing temperatures. Needless to say, this poses great challenges for fishers, particularly those considered small scale. The IPCC report has projected a global decrease of marine animals between 20.5 - 24.1% by the end of the 21st Century. This poses another threat to the food security of coastal communities whose diets predominantly consist of seafood. Drastic and sudden changes in these diets could also have negative health implications. The warming of the ocean also increases the presence of certain organic pollutants and mercury which means that the seafood that is being consumed can become increasingly harmful for these communities.


The IPCC report correctly points out that communities with the highest exposure and vulnerability to such changes and consequent events are generally those who are the least equipped to respond and deal with them. Many coastal communities fall into this category. As we continue to feel the now unavoidable effects of climate breakdown, countries will be forced to reduce coastal urbanisation and, in some cases, begin to look into relocation. This will have social, cultural, financial, and political implications that generally come with the displacement of people. In other cases, coastal communities will need to invest in infrastructural changes such as early-warning systems, flood-proof housing, or hard protection like dikes and flood banks. Naturally, these all come at significant costs.


While we have reached the point of unavoidable consequences of the climate crisis, we still have the power and the responsibility to avoid worsening the situation. To achieve climate resilience and sustainable development, world leaders and policy-makers need to set ambitious and urgent actions for carbon emission reduction with a strong focus on social and environmental justice. The 680 million people living in low-lying coastal zones are dependent on the changes that are needed to tackle the climate crisis and the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid is where real action needs to begin.


This article was made possible thanks to SEENET -South East Europe Network for Natural Resources, Energy and Transport