Ocean advocates find new ways to link their cause with climate change

The sea, swell, sky, and a monk seal swimming over a coral reef bottom in Hawaii. Photo by: NOAA / PIFSC / HMSRP / CC BY

SAN FRANCISCO — When Peter Thomson, United Nations special envoy for the ocean, took the stage at the Global Climate Action Summit on Friday, he called for a shift of focus — from problems to solutions — in the conversation around oceans.

“We’ve done our job on raising awareness of the problems,” he said. “What we have to move on to now is solutions to the problems we’ve identified and strategies for implementing those solutions.”

This week, a coalition of organizations including Conservation International, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the World Economic Forum launched the Ocean-Climate Action Agenda, which aims to shift the conversation from the harmful impact of climate change on the ocean to the critical role the ocean plays in the fight against climate change.

The ocean:

► Covers 71 percent of the planet

► Produces half the world’s oxygen

► Absorbs 30 percent of carbon dioxide produced by humans each year

This broad effort aims to reposition ocean conservation, “not as a victim, but as the essential solution to the climate change problem,” Julie Packard, executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and daughter of David and Lucile Packard, told Devex.

The ocean covers 71 percent of the planet, produces half the world’s oxygen, and absorbs 30 percent of carbon dioxide produced by humans each year. But because oceans are not a source of greenhouse gas emissions, the issue did not fit neatly into conversations around the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement about mitigating climate change. Now ocean advocates are working to change that. One of the battles they face is money.

“The amount of funding going to oceans is almost trivial,” said M. Sanjayan, CEO of Conservation International, onstage at the summit.

Some West Coast-based foundations such as the Packard Foundation are trying to position oceans as a funding priority. The Global Climate Action Summit saw philanthropies commit $4 billion to climate change overall, and oceans are expected to comprise part of that portfolio.

Still, the scale of the ocean and climate challenge demands more private money and government action, Sanjayan said.

“If [the ocean] survives it will save us all,” he said.

Despite how inextricably linked the ocean and the climate are, the ocean conservation community and the climate change community have typically worked in silos, rather than in collaboration, said Emily Pidgeon, senior director for the oceans and climate program at Conservation International.

“Most ocean conservationists, with very few exceptions, got into it because we grew up on the beach. We’re all ‘fish huggers’ at heart, and so we all saw the impacts of climate change on the ocean,” Pidgeon said.

“And as the climate community was thinking about this in terms of reducing CO2 in the atmosphere we were yelling at them saying: ‘It is hurting this most wondrous thing we care about,’” she said.

Conversations around blue carbon — the carbon stored and sequestered by coastal ecosystems including mangroves, tidal marshes, and seagrasses — first brought the climate and ocean communities together, according to Pidgeon. Ocean conservationists previously did not have answers to the questions policymakers were asking about the links between oceans and climate change. For example, what emissions would result if a mangrove was turned into a shrimp farm? But in recent years, ocean science researchers have spent more time investigating how oceans can sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide.

“We used to kind of thank our lucky stars that the ocean absorbed all this carbon so that we didn’t grow our concentrations of carbon in the atmosphere as quickly.”

— Michael Northrop, program director for sustainable development at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, in a press conference on the Ocean-Climate Action Agenda.

Pidgeon explained that research showing the links between healthy oceans and mitigating global climate can be pivotal in setting funding priorities. The Green Climate Fund, for example, allocates funding based on how much carbon is saved from the atmosphere and how many people are protected from climate change.

There are limits to just how much carbon dioxide the ocean can absorb. Alarming rates of ocean acidification highlight that problem, and the need for nuance when it comes to a solutions-oriented narrative.

“We used to kind of thank our lucky stars that the ocean absorbed all this carbon so that we didn’t grow our concentrations of carbon in the atmosphere as quickly,” said Michael Northrop, program director for sustainable development at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, in a press conference on the Ocean-Climate Action Agenda.

“It’s really only in the last 10 years that we’ve started to say, ‘no this is a problem.’ Having concentrations of carbon in the ocean is horrible. It’s cataclysmic. It’s going to be a complete disaster for all of us,” he said.

A number of initiatives within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change have sought to bring oceans into the climate conversation. These include The Ocean Pathway, which launched at the 23rd Conference of the Parties, or COP23, in Bonn, Germany last year. Its aim is to draw attention to oceans in the UNFCCC process and step up action at the intersection of ocean and climate. In its presidency of the COP, Fiji put the intersection between ocean and climate front and center, and its Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, urged leaders to act on a more integrated ocean and climate strategy.

Ocean advocates are learning from their peers in forest conservation, whose efforts to mainstream their priority area in climate change resulted in the growing visibility of REDD — reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. The path for REDD initiatives has not been without its challenges.

“REDD had a tumultuous evolution, and I think we’re already benefiting from learning those lessons from them,” Pidgeon said. “It is easier to go fast without everybody, but investing the time to ensure that everybody understands the importance of, for instance, blue carbon is one of the key lessons we should learn from REDD.”

Some ocean conservations want to see blue carbon projects — or what some of them have dubbed “blue REDD” — integrated into voluntary and obligatory carbon markets, just as REDD projects have been.

“Right now, sequestration from forests is just starting to be implemented with result-based payments, and the sequestration from blue carbon is not accounted for in national inventories,” Julio Cordano, head of the department of climate change in Chile’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Devex.

“If blue carbon is not accounted for, then what are the incentives for policies for sequestration in the sea? That is a big concern, which has huge impacts on the way we plan our ocean policies,” he said.

The most important lesson from REDD, he said, is how difficult this work is, particularly when it comes to the ocean, where the science is not as well-developed as the research that helped support the climate change and deforestation link.

The Ocean-Climate Agenda emphasizes the role that non-state actors such as corporates and NGOs can play in bringing technology and market-based solutions to the ocean-climate nexus.

That conversation will continue at the upcoming World Economic Forum Sustainable Development Impact Summit in New York this month, where Norway is also organizing a high-level panel on a sustainable ocean economy. The Our Ocean conference will take place in Bali in October, and a global conference on the sustainable blue economy will follow in Nairobi, Kenya in November.

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    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology and innovation in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported from all over the world, and freelanced for outlets including the Atlantic and the Washington Post. She is also the West Coast ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit that trains and connects journalists to cover responses to problems.