Oceans and the UN talks: are we in danger of missing the “blue lung” of the planet?

We need to talk about the oceans. At least this is the plea of scientists from the French research vessel Tara. They’re on a mission to collect 100,000 signatures calling on countries participating in the UN climate talks in December to make concrete commitment to protects the ocean. Until now, they say, the ocean has been absent from such discussions.

As Dan Laffoley, Principle Advisor on Marine Science and Conservation on the IUCN Global Marine and Polar Programme told me: “It wasn’t until last year – 2014 – that the IPCC even had a chapter on the ocean, before then it was just a mention.”

There are lots of reasons the oceans get missed, from the UN talks and other climate debates. It’s complex. There is still so much we don’t know about it. Most of it isn’t owned by one political body or another. And it’s remote from most people’s lives.

“We’re land dwellers,” marine conservation campaigner Elisabeth Whitebread says. “And we’re schooled that oxygen comes from trees. No one points out that a lot of these plants are in the oceans.”

The concept of “blue carbon” – carbon captured by oceans and coastal ecosystems – is catching on, but there still seems to be a way to go.

When it comes to UN mechanisms, trees have Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation. Where’s the REDD for waters? (a blue REDD, perhaps).

Dorothee Herr, Manager, Oceans and Climate Change at the IUCN’s Global Marine & Polar Programme, argues: “As complex as the REDD debate is, the ocean carbon topic is far more complex – for example, 70% of the ocean doesn’t belong to any one state, but to all. Slowly we’re seeing the science becoming stronger – natural and social – but we need to engage more broadly to develop policy and incentives systems like REDD which could encourage parties to do something.”

Still, it’s perhaps a bit hyperbolic to say the oceans are missing from all UN discussions. We should be wary of writing the UNFCCC off and thus missing the opportunity to build on what is there.

As Herr points out, if we narrow our focus to the coastal zone, we can see we have achieved a lot on mitigation, and that there is a lot of scope for adaptation work too. It’s crucial we ensure that financial mechanisms like the Green Climate Fund or other types of funding means are being used for marine and coastal zones (or adaptation and mitigation activities), she adds.

Still, marking some caution, she adds: “With ocean acidification, we do desperately need to put oceans on the agenda to cut emissions. In a way, we don’t need another reason to act, but the oceans offer one. This is an area where oceans challenged us to be more nuanced. Is a temperature indicator and global target enough, or do we need additional indicators which reflect the ocean issues more comprehensively?”

As Dan Laffoley puts it, we need to ensure the ‘character’ of the ocean is visible in Paris. If nothing else, it’s about ensuring we have a full view.

“Unless we factor the oceans into emissions reductions targets – we might have a target which is OK for circumstances on land but not for sustaining the oceans. Such a polarized view would come back and bite us, because we depend on the ocean in so many ways that is in all our interests to make sure it remains healthy.”

“If we set temperature thresholds that don’t take into account warming of the ocean – and set emission targets which don’t recognize ocean acidification – there is a real risk that we win the battle but ultimately lose the war.”

He worries that we’ll look back on this period in history as a missed opportunity.

“We’re making more progress, and being more joined up in our thinking. We have the know-how. It’s just whether we choose to act. Now is the moment.”

Perhaps part of the reason we’re stalling is that, when we do talk about the ocean, it’s often bad news. Glance at recent news on the topic, and it’s all warnings of collapse – fish numbers cut in half and pictures of bleached coral.

“All environmental communications have tendency to gloom and catastrophe,” Whitebread suggests, “but oceans perhaps more so.”

She argues there are good news stories to tell on the ocean. Moreover, this could be key to unlocking the action we need. Warning after warning might seem like a good way to prompt people to act, but can make them give up too.

“We’re not good at teaching solutions and what successes have been,” Whitebread says. “We can say ‘things are working, and you can make a difference – if you’re a billionaire or not, a scientist or not, everyone – we can change things’ and that can be a spur to action.”

“[Leading coral reef biologist] Nancy Knowlton ran a fringe at a marine conference called beyond the obituaries,” Whitbread tells me, “and people said no one will come, but it was oversubscribed and people left really inspired.”

Whitebread points to success stories – especially around marine protection zones – and how many of these positive stories are down to people affected by environmental problems taking matters into their own hands.

“Do we want to encourage people to give up, or encourage them to feel they can involved?” she concludes. Maybe talking more about hope and the oceans, not just signing outraged petitions, will be the way to unlock greater awareness and action on this issue.

Written by . Published on October 12, 2015. Last edited on April 19, 2016.

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