COP21 Conference in Paris: Changing course on climate change

We can each do our part to slow the pace of climate change. We can bike or carpool instead of driving alone; replace incandescent light bulbs with LEDs; pull on a sweater instead of cranking up the heat.

Those efforts add up. But humanity needs more than individual actions to tackle global climate change – the greatest environmental challenge of our lifetimes. The international community must take bold and immediate action to change course.

That opportunity comes in just three weeks, when leaders from more than 190 nations will gather in Paris for the 2015 United Nations Conference on Climate Change, or COP21.

A time for decisive action

The meetings, from November 30 to December 11, will mark the 21st climate change session since the U.N. launched the effort in 1992. The sessions follow the same framework that led to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, a treaty in which 192 nations committed to reduce fossil fuel emissions to prevent dangerous, human-caused disruptions to our planet’s climate systems.

Rising sea levels threaten island and coastal communities, from the Maldives (above) to Monterey Bay. Photo courtesy Géo.

Eighteen years later, climate change is getting worse. Greenhouse gas levels and average global temperatures continue to rise. The chemistry of the ocean is changing.The planet is under stress. The challenge in Paris is to achieve a legally binding, international agreement to change course – to act decisively as a global community.

Here at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, we work for the conservation of the ocean. And climate change has everything to do with the ocean.

Ocean acidification affects shell development of plankton that are vital strands in the ocean food web.

The global ocean is a carbon sink, absorbing about one-third of the carbon dioxide we pump into the atmosphere. That means it saves us from the full impacts of our fossil fuel emissions – but it does so at a cost to ocean health. Climate change causes ocean acidification, which threatens the ocean’s hard-shelled creatures, from shellfish to corals to plankton – critical strands in the ocean food web.

Profound effects on ocean health

Climate change is affecting the ocean in other profound ways, too. Glaciers and polar ice caps are melting; sea level is rising. Low-oxygen “dead zones” are spreading, and we’re experiencing more extreme weather events like droughts and hurricanes. Warming seawater temperatures are impacting some of Earth’s most important commercial fish stocks. The list goes on.

There’s good news, too: The ocean is resilient and can recover over time – if we take immediate and coordinated action.

The global community has made significant progress on the road to Paris. In September, for the first time ever, the U.N.’s 193 member states adopted a Sustainable Development Goal focused on ocean conservation. Just a few weeks later, at the international Our Ocean conference in Chile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry underscored the serious ocean impacts of climate change and urged the global community to reach an agreement in Paris.

The 2015 U.N. Conference on Climate Change may be the last big chance for humanity to save itself from the profound impacts of climate change. COP21 is not about rules and limits; it’s about acting together as a global community to create a better world.

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