By Leonardo DiCaprio
In 1997, a dramatic scene played out near Los Angeles as a newborn grey whale was discovered stranded in Marina del Rey. It had become separated from its mother during the annual migration from Alaska to Mexico. Hundreds of volunteers commandeered boats and moving vans and used makeshift stretchers to move this lone baby female whale over 100 miles to San Diego in a desperate attempt to save her life.
Named JJ by her rescuers, she arrived weak, dehydrated and disoriented-but after 18 months in care, she was restored to health and released back into the wild. While many celebrated that day, the challenges JJ overcame were nothing compared to the threats she and her entire grey whale species now face 20 years later.
THAT THREAT IS CLIMATE CHANGE.
Today, our oceans are under immense pressure as their waters absorb much of the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases pumped into the air by human activity, resulting in a 30 per cent increase in acidity. The progress of the human race, particularly since the Industrial Revolution, has resulted in devastating impacts to our entire climate, and those impacts are particularly prevalent in our oceans.
Seashells are weaker, massive ancient coral formations are bleaching and essential ecosystems are dying. The marine food chain is endangered: clams, oysters, lobsters and crabs, which are a dietary staple for large sea creatures such as seals, otters and walruses, are under the threat of extinction. Most worrisome of all, plankton, amphipods (tiny shrimp-like creatures) and other microscopic organisms that sustain mighty whales and fish of all types and sizes are becoming harder to find. This frightening trend means JJ will likely starve to death before the end of her normal lifespan, and much of the sea life that billions of humans depend on will disappear.
Unlike other threats to the ocean, such as plastic pollution and overfishing, these changes are not always easy to see, but there are obvious warnings. More than half of the world’s 17 penguin species are now endangered, largely due to climate change-related declines in their food supply. Common clams are smaller than ever-quite literally disappearing before our eyes-and humans, too, will suffer from that loss. A protein found in a common clam shell has been shown to cure cancers. Where do we turn when it’s gone?
As a result of climate change, the world’s oceans are already warming to the point where they can no longer absorb our pollution, meaning efforts to cut carbon emissions will have to go far beyond the levels laid out by the 2015 Paris Agreement if we are to avoid the most catastrophic impacts.
Sea level rise and the damage to coastal regions from more intense and long-lasting storms have already wiped out vulnerable, low-lying communities and the livelihoods of local fishers, tourism workers, farmers and so many others. Our thirst for oil has led to massive oil spills that hurt even more.
BUT THERE IS HOPE.
The Paris Agreement paved the way to a more sustainable future for the planet and especially its oceans. My foundation has supported research at The Solutions Project (http://thesolutionsproject.org) that shows the world could be powered by 100 per cent clean, renewable energy by 2050. In Viet Nam, mangroves are being restored along the coast to absorb carbon, provide nurseries for countless fish species and buffer the coast from violent storms. And in the same waters near Los Angeles where JJ was found two decades ago, volunteers are replanting vital giant kelp forests that are home to 800 species of other plants and animals, and that provide oxygen to the planet for everyone.
Will it be enough? Hundreds of volunteers came together to rescue JJ-people from all walks of life, all ages, all backgrounds. They checked their egos and agendas at the beach and dove in, quite literally, to save a creature in dire need. We can do so again for our oceans, for ourselves, and for our future. But just as we made a conscious decision to rescue JJ once upon a time, we are now making another equally profound choice of whether she lives a full, normal life, or whether further ocean degradation will starve her, prematurely, to death. If that happens, we are also condemning our children to a much bleaker quality of life than the one we take for granted today.
We know that humankind is powerful enough-and apparently foolish enough-to change the very chemistry of two thirds of the planet. The same alarm and urgency that arose to save JJ in 1997 needs to happen today as the massive threat to her and an entire class of marine biodiversity increases. United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14 asks us to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development”. Let’s remember that this goal cannot be achieved merely by limiting the number of fish we take from the sea or ending risky oil exploration in coastal waters, but also by eliminating the threats posed to our oceans from climate change and the emissions we drive here on land.
Author bio: Leonardo DiCaprio is an Academy Award-winning actor, producer and activist. He founded the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation in 1998 for biodiversity and habitat conservation, and climate change solutions. Mr. DiCaprio is a United Nations Messenger of Peace for climate change, and a recipient of the Clinton Global Citizen Award and the World Economic Forum Crystal Award. He serves on the boards of the World Wildlife Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, National Geographic’s Pristine Seas, Oceans 5, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare.