Saturday Nov.6 at the COP 26 summit in Glasgow is devoted to nature, specifically its “importance as part of global action on climate change.” This incorporates sustainable use of both the land and the oceans that cover 71% of the planet’s surface. Ahead of the conference, TIME spoke to one of the oceans’ foremost champions, marine biologist Sylvia Earle, About her book and how it protects the deep ocean. The interview was edited to be more concise and clear.
YYou’ve written many books about the ocean. This one is my favorite. National Geographic Ocean A Global OdysseyWhy now, when?
I created this book to summarize what we know so far about the ocean, and break it down into digestible chunks. If you’ve got 10 minutes you can sit down and learn something, with beautiful images.
Why is the ocean important?
The ocean is where the action is: 97% of the earth’s water is in the ocean. It’s where 95% of the biosphere is. If I could alter the world’s nature, and I was an alien evil, then I would not only change the ocean’s temperature but also the chemistry. This is precisely what we’re doing. Excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere turns into excess carbon dioxide that forms carbonic acid. The ocean is getting more acidic. This changes everything.
The ocean is the largest carbon-capture system on Earth, according to you. What is the secret to this?
The phytoplankton are carbon dioxide consumers from the atmosphere. These phytoplankton are food for zooplankton which is food for the krill and fish, as well as the whales. A whale’s death causes it to sink to the bottom, carbon sequestering for many years. According to the International Monetary Fund, a whale has a value of approximately $1000. [33 tons of CO2]It is. This was something scientists knew of, however. Nobody had thought of making calculations.
Which is the most significant thing that we can do today for the oceans and its inhabitants?
A relatively few countries are currently taking an excessive amount of ocean resources for their industrial fishing. We’ve got to get over this idea that wildlife from the ocean is essential for our food security. Now we are starting to realize the high price of eating fish. Is it worth the cost of a pound tuna? It takes a lot of cod and halibut. The halibut is different. Smaller fish. What are they eating? Krill. Krill will eat phytoplankton or zooplankton. One pound of tuna can be made from thousands of pounds worth of phytoplankton over the years. Tuna costs a lot because of how much carbon it has captured. More fish are taken out of the sea to release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Which is the greatest threat to the ocean at the moment?
Deep-sea mining. Some are buying into the lie that we should be taking minerals that are necessary for today’s generation of [EV]Because who cares about what goes down in deep ocean, batteries like nickel, cobalt, and lithium can be taken from deep sea. The biogeochemical cycles that keep Earth stable are made up of deep-sea system are rich in life. If Earth functions like a big computer system with all these little wires and lights that we don’t understand but we know it keeps us alive, would we want to get in there and take those little lights out because we don’t understand how they work?
Continue reading: Seabed Mining Could Solve our Energy Crisis But at what cost?
The documentary’s relationship was amazing. My Octopus Teacher.Perhaps you’ve ever had something like it.
I’ve had the privilege of living underwater on 10 different occasions. I have been able to meet individual moray eels and groupers as well as individual lobsters. Each one of their faces has an attitude. Their sensory system is very similar to ours. And yet we somehow harden ourselves to think they don’t feel pain. We pride ourselves on being “humane” but it doesn’t translate to the way we treat animals in the sea.
We’ve seen our hottest decade since recording began, rising emissions and major losses of coral reefs. Is there any reason to be optimistic?
Half of the coral reefs have disappeared or fallen in sharp decline. But the good news is that there are still some coral reefs. There are still about half left. The harm that we caused can be reversed, as we now have the information. The 21st century’s superpower is knowledge. The knowledge that 10-year-olds have today was not available to me, even the most intelligent people I knew. That’s truly cause for hope.
Advocates for the ocean have established a goal of protecting 30% of the ocean by 2030. This is a significant increase from less than 3 percent today. It will take what it takes to reach that goal.
COVID-19 proved that it is possible to quickly adapt when your life is in danger. The climate is no exception. The very foundation of our existence could be at stake. The blue heart of our planet is the ocean. It’s a great start. But I would say that we should aim for half the ocean by 2030. What percentage of your heart would you like to keep safe?
How do you respond to climate anxious people?
It would be so easy to say “why bother? The problems are so big that there’s nothing I can do, I might as well enjoy myself for the time I’ve got.” But it’s only hopeless when you give up. People who work with others and inspire others are what bring about change. And soon you’ve got 10 or 100 or 1,000, and then you’ve got a movement.
Your atlases, diving gear and knowledge have changed our perception of the ocean over the course of your professional career. Is there anything you want to do next?
I’m committed to democratizing access to the sea with little submersibles that will enable teachers, kids, CEOs, presidents, librarians—anybody—to be able to experience what until now only a few of us have been able to experience. The ocean should be accessible to everyone. People say, ‘Aren’t you afraid that people [will use them to] exploit the ocean?’ And I say, ‘We’re already exploiting the ocean in ignorance. It is important for people to be able to actually see the ocean. People only see the top of the ocean. They don’t know what’s underneath. They should all be able to safely dive below the surface and return to spread the good news about the wonderful life down there.