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Ocean Science – A Sustainable Future for the Blue Pacific
Address by Ambassador Peter Thomson, UNSG’s Special Envoy for the Ocean
Prime Minister, Director-General, Excellencies, Colleagues, all courtesies observed.
I am particularly pleased to be here in Noumea a year ahead of the next UN Ocean Conference that will be held in Lisbon, 2-6 June 2020, because it gives me the opportunity to thank representatives of the Pacific Islands for spearheading the mandating of both the 2017 and the 2020 UN Ocean Conferences.
Amongst its many Ocean action functions, the Lisbon conference will be the launching pad for the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, 2021-2030. The UN Decade is a call for action to define a new and sustainable future for the Ocean and the life it supports, and the Pacific is expected to play a central role in its success. I’m therefore very happy to see the IOC and SPC jointly organising a regional workshop here in Noumea 23-25 July to provide the Pacific’s input to the design of the Decade.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Just over fifty years ago, thanks to our intrepid astronauts, humanity looked back at Earth from the moon and saw the first colour photos of our planet from afar – a beautiful blue ball, slowly spinning in the dark void of space. With a sense of awe we saw on that spinning ball the broad extent of the Pacific Ocean, dubbed by our Leaders in 2017 the Blue Pacific. Since those stunning first photos, we have taken our discoveries well beyond the moon, to explore distant planets, to the outer reaches of our solar system and way beyond.
In so doing, in my view we have taken for granted a basic element of our existence. For too long we have neglected the blue heart of our own planet; the heart that maintains the balance of conditions for the fostering and support of the universe's rarest of commodities - Life.
Until very recently, the focus has always been on what happens on land, rather than what is most fundamentally affecting the source of life on this planet - the Ocean. This has been short-sighted of us, for science is increasingly demonstrating how the Ocean buffers us from the extremes of climate change, shapes and drives our weather, and provides sustenance, inspiration and a myriad of socio-economic benefits to keep us all alive.
Realization of the need for the marriage of policy and action to properly safeguard life on Earth is, surprisingly, only just getting underway. And it is only in the last decade that we have realized how humanity's actions are having such a profound impact on the Ocean's well-being. This ranges from how our carbon emissions are driving change in the Ocean, to hotter and more acidic conditions, through to how our everyday actions can dramatically influence and change marine life and the food chain of which we are all part.
I am of course referring to our harmful fishing activities, including subsidies, over-fishing and straight-out robbery of fish-stocks, as well as to marine pollution from raw sewage and the products we use in agriculture, industry, and cosmetics, and in particular to the unconscionable levels of plastic we dump into the Ocean.
In my lifetime, we have unleashed a plastic plague upon our planet that is poisoning us and the environment. We must stop it. Alternative products are available and individuals, young and old, as consumers and voters are demanding change. Here in the Pacific, I want to give huge praise to the small island developing States that have had the courage and shown the right way to big industrialised States by outright banning first-use plastic bags, straws and the like.
I know that I am largely preaching to the converted here today, but we are not strangers to reality and we are not among those who leave it to others to face up to the great environmental challenges of our time. So let me put this key question to you: has humanity yet realized the true scale of the impact we're having on the Ocean and what that means for our planetary life support system? I for one, think not.
Just consider the thousands of plastic microfibres making their way from our oil-based apparel into the Ocean and our food-chains, every time our family washing machine empties out, and then scale that up to daily global levels.
Think about the fact that all of us have surely been receivers of stolen goods – every year $23 billion worth of illegally caught fish around the world finds its devious way to our dinner plates.
As you well know, economic losses associated with extreme weather and natural catastrophes are at record levels, and these are expected to keep increasing with Climate and Ocean Change. Extreme weather events, natural disasters, and the failure of Climate Change mitigation and adaptation have been identified as the three greatest risks for nations in the coming decade. Make no mistake, the great enemy of a healthy Ocean is the exacerbating trend of our greenhouse gas emissions.
And what about the steadily falling levels of oxygen in the Ocean? Many moons ago, down by the seawall at the old Suva Boys Grammar, I learnt the fundamental fact that hotter liquids contain less gas. I don’t need to tell you that the Ocean and the oxygen within it are no exception to that rule. What did not dawn on us back then, but which we all now know, is that thanks to our atmosphere-heating greenhouse gas emissions, the Ocean is steadily becoming hotter, so that the quantity of life-giving oxygen within it is dropping. Along with warming and acidification, we can now see that the scale and implications of Ocean deoxygenation will dictate the future of life in the Ocean.
Nor did we realise until relatively recently that with a hotter Ocean, habitats would change, species would move, currents would alter their circulation routes; all on a scale that only good Ocean science can measure, interpret and forescast for us.
Consider for a moment the great predicament we face. This year the collective best of our scientists on the subject issued the IPCC ‘s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 Degrees Celsius. To paraphrase one of the key findings of the report, coral reefs will have basically died away once we surpass global warming of 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. For humanity as a whole, but for Pacific Islands in particular, for that to happen would be utter catastrophe. But the stark predicament we face is that thanks to humanity’s tragic addiction to fossil fuels, we are currently heading towards a 3 to 4 degree world. I ask you to ponder what that predicament means for the Ocean ecosystem, for the global ecosystem, and for us?
As a Fijian, as a grandfather, and as a citizen-in-common of the Pacific and of this Earth, I say the prospect of this planet losing its coral is absolutely unacceptable, and I accuse those who are prepared to sacrifice this vital ecosystem merely for the enjoyment of their material reward. They are selling us all for a handful of silver.
And in terms of our collective responsibility, it would bring eternal disgrace upon humanity’s supposed stewardship of our planetary ecosystems if coral is to be extinguished by our cumulative actions. Now is the time to deploy our best scientific processes, all necessary resources, and fearless political will to steer away from such tragedy.
I know that most of you present are fighting the good fight to overcome the immense challenges of Climate and Ocean Change. As individuals, or as representatives on national, regional and multinational action groups, you are part of such movements as the UN’s Communities of Ocean Action, the Commonwealth’s Blue Charter Action Groups , ICRI’s work on coral protection, GOAN’s work on Ocean acidification, the Pacific Ocean Alliance and the Ocean Pathway at the UNFCCC, and the many collegiate activities to restore mangroves, establish effective Marine Protected Areas, control marine pollution and to instil sustainability as the over-riding principle of the Blue Economy.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The next ten years will be more important for humanity than the last hundred, indeed thousands of years have been for our survival. Thus we must all pay all due attention to the findings of Ocean science and play our rightful part in the communal decision-making processes necessary for the future well-being of all life on planet Earth.
The choice is not between optimism and pessimism, it is between action and apathetic inaction. I urge you all to leave this conference as hard-nosed pragmatists with shoulders to the wheel to do what we all know is right. We have our universally agreed plan – the Paris Climate Agreement and the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda – so let us all do what we can to ensure the integrity of the plan’s implementation.
I find abundant hope in the two great strengths of our species; strengths that have been with us since our first forbears journeyed forth from Africa, throughout the development of agriculture and cities, all the way to our design and launch of spacecraft. I refer to our innate abilities of innovation and sharing.
As we approach the great existential challenges brought on by rapidly changing planetary conditions, it will be our innovative ability to discover new technologies and systems that will allow us to protect, adapt, recycle, and restore. And as we move into those changing conditions, socio-economic circumstance will require us to better organize the sharing of security, food, transportation, knowledge and habitats.
Two maxims have proved true throughout our story: firstly, that change is inevitable; and, secondly, that together we are stronger. Science has spoken on the imminent extent of the first of these truths, so we live in a time when human innovation must once more come to the fore. Yes, change is underway, but it is inconceivable to me that humans are running out of innovative ideas to deal with that change.
As the Commonwealth Secretary-General put it to me earlier this week in London, “Human genius got us into this mess, and human genius will get us out of it.”
As to the second; a sense of community and sharing is what human society is all about. And when we are functioning at our best, humanity’s hallmark in times of crisis has been common purpose and common effort for the common good. In this day and age, any definition of the common good must cover the well-being of our place within the planetary ecosystem; and if there was ever an era in which we have to be at our best, this is it.
Prime Minister, Director-General, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
To conclude, let me address some home truths relating to the Pacific’s embrace of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.
Firstly, it is very important that the Pacific Islands seize the opportunity of the Decade to partner with the best of global marine institutes, philanthropies, NGOs and governments in order to upskill our young people, strengthen our institutions and increase our scientific knowledge with a view to making better-informed conservation and development decisions in the future. The Pacific Islands sit like ready-made observing stations dotted around our great Ocean and many is the marine institute that would like to partner up and participate in Ocean science activities in our islands.
Secondly, to get the best from the Decade, it is vital that we ensure seamless cohesion between our regional organisations charged with various Ocean responsibilities. As you know, these are many, including amongst others: SPC, FFA, SPREP, USP, PIF and OPOC. As I’ve said, together we are stronger; thus an integrated regional effort is essential, both at the agency level through the Pacific Community Centre for Ocean Science, and at the CROP level through the Marine Sector Working Group and the Office of the Pacific Ocean Commissioner.
Thirdly, I support the main thrust of the SPC paper before us, “Ocean science – a sustainable future for the Blue Pacific”, for the development of a regional strategy for the collection of scientific and technical Ocean data and information that will translate the Blue Pacific narrative into regional, national and local action for sustainable management of the Pacific Ocean.
Fourthly, I also recognise the great value of SPC being the entity responsible for collecting, managing and interpreting the regional datasets that will underpin this work.
Fifthly, I bring your attention to preparations for the various conferences approaching us over the next eighteen months and urge the Pacific to maintain its presence in the van, to quicken the pace and stiffen the resolve. I refer to the Climate Action Summit in New York in September, the Blue COP in Santiago, the BBNJ Conference at the UN, the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon next June, and the CBD COP next year in Kunming. These conferences are the pathway to positive multilateral changes for the better in such vital areas as coral preservation and marine protected areas. We must be present and we must prevail.
And lastly, I want to applaud our Pacific Island political leaders for taking the struggle to its highest global levels, to the halls where the multilateral decisions are made that shape our response to the existential challenges of Climate and Ocean Change. I choose the word ‘struggle’ judiciously, for we are up against powerful and obdurate forces. Like the tobacco industry before it, the fossil fuel industry will not retreat quietly into the night of spent history.
And in the interests of our people, particularly the atoll and river delta dwellers, our leaders will also have to go to the next stage and grasp the political nettle of carbon removal and sequestration. They have the mana to be listened to on the world stage and the moral authority to shape the required action. The IPCC has told us that without carbon removal an overshoot of 2 degrees is inevitable, so this is not a bullet we can dodge. The responsible debate and research should now be around what methods and what governance should be deployed for carbon capture, and here again Ocean science and the Pacific Islands will have a central role to play.
I thank you for listening. I pledge to work with all and any of you dedicated to the realisation of SDG14, the Ocean Goal. I look forward to the region’s comprehensive preparations for the 2020 UN Ocean Conference through the meeting of the Pacific Ocean Alliance in Suva this October. I commend so many of you present at this gathering for your service as champions of Ocean action, and I call upon all to trust in and support the development of Ocean science in our region.
As we say in Fiji tabu soro, no surrender. For the sake of our grandchildren and those who come after them, we will not lose this long struggle to restore humanity’s relationship with the Ocean to one of balance and respect.