The ocean is the lifeblood of our planet. It covers three quarters of the globe, produces more than half our oxygen, supports a wide range of marine fisheries that feed the planet, and absorbs 30 percent of the carbon dioxide we emit and 90 percent of the heat caused by those emissions.
In short, the ocean plays a critical role in our lives and livelihoods. And it's just as critical that we do everything we can to protect it.
By 2050, the global population is expected to reach 9.7 billion people. While the projections regarding the impact that this population and their actions and emissions will have on the ocean may vary, none of them are good. Without definitive action now, scientists predict that by 2050:
• World fish stocks will be driven to collapse;
• Average sea levels will rise by 30-34 centimeters, increasing coastal erosion and exacerbating storms, flooding cities and coastal communities like Charleston;
• The ocean is expected to contain more plastics than fish (by weight); and
• The world's coral reefs will be wiped out, increasing threats to coastal communities from storm surges and a loss of fish stocks that rely on corals for survival.
This will impact coastal communities the world over, not just in the Lowcountry. But the United States needs to be a leader in the effort to address those impacts. One of the reasons I came to Congress was to be a leader in the fight to protect, restore and sustain our ocean now, for our communities, our children, and for their children.
A recent United Nations report made clear that if we truly care about the ocean and the planet, we must reduce carbon emissions. We also need to preclude new emissions by blocking the expansion of offshore drilling. A new analysis shows that increased drilling will contribute to climate change and threaten ocean and coastal habitats that are important to the coastal economies in South Carolina. That is why I have led the effort to block new drilling off our coast and around the country.
We need to ensure sustainable management of our wild-caught fisheries. Because overfishing can exacerbate the impacts of climate change while healthy fisheries are more able to adapt, I recently introduced legislation that would give managers the tools they need to ensure our fisheries are climate ready.
We need to provide more funding for coastal and marine habitat restoration programs that conserve and restore wetlands. Coastal wetlands are an important tool in the fight against climate change, serving as a carbon sink and protecting coastal communities during severe weather events. We also need to protect important marine habitats like the coral reefs found off the South Carolina coast last summer. Protecting and restoring coral reefs can improve the ability of fisheries and other marine species to adapt to climate change.
And, we need to tackle the huge challenge of plastics that are polluting our ocean and our beaches. The long-term impacts that plastic pollution will have on our ocean, our fisheries and ourselves are undeniable, and a new playbook for addressing those impacts makes clear that governments must play an important role. In the months ahead, I plan to work closely with my colleagues in ensuring that the US does its part to address the scourge of plastic pollution.
While 2050 may seem like a long way off — it is not. If we want to address the threats to the ocean, protect the planet's lifeblood, and ensure a sustainable ocean future, we need to act now. The choices we make today will decide the fate of the ocean and all that depend on it, and I pledge to continue my efforts to ensure the choices we make are the right ones.
U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, an ocean engineer by training and an attorney by trade, represents South Carolina's 1st Congressional District.