Natural variability and change of the Earth’s climate have significant global societal impacts. With its large heat and carbon capacity and relatively slow dynamics, the ocean plays an integral role in climate, and provides an important source of predictability at seasonal and longer timescales. In addition, the ocean provides the slowly evolving lower boundary to the atmosphere, driving, and modifying atmospheric weather. Understanding and monitoring ocean climate variability and change, to constrain and initialize models as well as identify model biases for improved climate hindcasting and prediction, requires a scale-sensitive, and long-term observing system. A climate observing system has requirements that significantly differ from, and sometimes are orthogonal to, those of other applications. In general terms, they can be summarized by the simultaneous need for both large spatial and long temporal coverage, and by the accuracy and stability required for detecting the local climate signals. This paper reviews the requirements of a climate observing system in terms of space and time scales, and revisits the question of which parameters such a system should encompass to meet future strategic goals of the World Climate Research Program (WCRP), with emphasis on ocean and sea-ice covered areas. It considers global as well as regional aspects that should be accounted for in designing observing systems in individual basins. Furthermore, the paper discusses which data-driven products are required to meet WCRP research and modeling needs, and ways to obtain them through data synthesis and assimilation approaches. Finally, it addresses the need for scientific capacity building and international collaboration in support of the collection of high-quality measurements over the large spatial scales and long time-scales required for climate research, bridging the scientific rational to the required resources for implementation.