Oceans Take Center Stage in Recent Climate Conversations

Experts and government leaders share their concerns and hopes for ocean policy at a Society for Environmental Journalists webinar.

Source: Jim Maragos

Climate experts threw light on deep ocean issues including ocean warming and illegal fishing Wednesday afternoon during a webinar hosted by the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Guests from the Ocean Conservancy to the United Nations highlighted the urgency and gravity of climate change related to the ocean, which has experienced up to months-long periods of heat waves and loss of biodiversity.

“Oceans are finally at the heart of the climate crisis now,” said Justin Kenney, the Counselor of the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs in the U.S. Department of State.

Moderator Justin Worland, a senior correspondent at TIME, led an hour-long discussion with four experts on Zoom. The panelists also answered audience-submitted questions.

Priorities include illegal fishing, plastic pollution and the 30×30 campaign, which aims to protect 30 percent of the world’s oceans by 2030 “by creating a global network of marine protected areas,” said Kenney.

“It’s an impressive list of actions, but there’s a lot to do,” he said. “It’s time to turn that ambition into real action.”

Kenney also mentioned the United States supported the Green Shipping Challenge at the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate last week. The Green Shipping Challenge pushes governments and sea-related stakeholders to propose green solutions at the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference “that will help put the international shipping sector on a credible pathway this decade toward full decarbonization no later than 2050.”

Currently, oceans are experiencing marine heat waves lasting weeks to months, sea level rise and natural disasters, said Sarah Cooley, the Director of Climate Science at Ocean Conservancy.

“The risk of sea level rise for coastal ecosystems and people are very likely to increase tenfold well before the end of the century if we don’t have adaptation and mitigation action as agreed to by the parties to the Paris Agreement,” she said. “So really, it’s all about the choices that we make now.”

Signed by 196 countries in 2015, the Paris Agreement aims to “limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels,” according to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change website. 

The ocean plays a major role in keeping the planet healthy, producing 50% of the photosynthetic oxygen on Earth and absorbs up to 30% of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, said Cooley.

“We really need to increase our appetite and muscles for telling and hearing these complex stories about systems and how systems interact with other systems,” she said. “That’s what climate change is about, and that’s what the solutions will be about as well.”

Peter Thomson, the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean, said the ocean-climate nexus — both the negative impacts of climate change on the ocean’s health and also the ocean’s positive impact on the climate — is “absolutely vital” to life.

“You cannot have a healthy planet without a healthy ocean, and the health of the ocean is measurably in decline,” said Thomson.

Thomson said humans are not doing enough nor acting quickly enough to reverse the projected 2-3 degrees Celsius increase by the end of the century.

With scientists predicting that coral — a crucial barometer of ocean health — will not survive after this century, the world could lose 25% of the total ocean biodiversity.

“Our current track is taking us to … a world of famine and fire and plague and war,” said Thomson. “It’s just unbelievable to me that humanity can coast along the way we are at the moment like, ‘Oh, somebody will sort something out.’”

Ian Urbina, the Director of a journalism nonprofit called The Outlaw Ocean Project, said that the general public and journalists are essential in the climate change discussion as well.

“Governments are a key category [of stakeholders] but not the only,” said Urbina. “There are other very different types of players, whether they are fishing companies or buyers … who have the ability to change the name of the game on the oceans.”

While political officials like Thomson focus on policy- and treaty-making, Urbina has a different approach to the ocean crisis, believing that government regulation is mostly overlooked and insufficient.

He also emphasized the importance of storytelling and its value in a time of hard news environmental stories.

“I personally think narrative is a far more effective way … of helping people understand why they should care [about marine issues] and what they should do about it,” said Urbina.

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Melina Nguyen


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