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This week the Chinese and Russian navies launched eight days of war games in the South China Sea. For Beijing, it’s a chance to brush off the July ruling by an international tribunal dismissing the merit of its claim to jurisdiction over those waters. For Moscow, it’s an opportunity to flex Russia’s global muscles and tweak U.S. pretensions to be the arbiter of Asia-Pacific security. Meanwhile, the Obama administration is hosting a very different ocean reunion in Washington. On September 15-16, Secretary of State John Kerry will welcome representatives from some sixty countries, as well as hundreds more from business, science, and civil society to the third Our Ocean conference. According to the agenda, the conferees will focus on how to: protect oceans from global warming, expand marine protected areas, support sustainable fisheries, and stem oceanic pollution.
Just what are we to make of this odd juxtaposition?
Realists might well conclude that the Obama administration had lost its mind, by allowing its chief diplomat to focus on a boutique environmental issue. Such an “old school” assessment is misguided, because defending U.S. national security is about much more than geopolitics. Yes, the risks of great power war, nuclear proliferation, and terrorism will remain with us for decades. But Americans also confront new perils, including “threats without a threatener” like climate change and pandemic disease. The dramatic deterioration of the world’s oceans—a catastrophe exacerbated by global warming—falls squarely into this basket. And it is no distant threat, but a clear and present danger. John Kerry thus deserves praise for elevating its prominence in U.S. foreign policy.
The oceans, which cover 71 percent of our planet, are not just a nice place to windsurf. They help regulate the Earth’s climate, feed humanity, and sustain economic growth. Unfortunately, they are in deep crisis, thanks to global warming, unsustainable exploitation, and rampant pollution. Without a dramatic course correction, we stand to lose not only resources of immense value but also our main source of breathable air. This week’s conference seeks to turn the tide by adopting innovative, collaborative approaches to rescuing the marine environment. Four priorities stand out:
- Prevent climate change from killing the oceans: Humanity is just waking up to the sea’s indispensable role in buffering the planet from climate change. The oceans are an enormous carbon sink, absorbing a quarter of the world’s CO2 They also function as the planet’s lungs, producing half of all atmospheric oxygen—more than all rain forests combined. And they are a powerful heat sink, absorbing a thousand times more heat than the atmosphere.
Unfortunately, providing these “ecosystem services” has come at a catastrophic cost. Rising carbon loads make seawater more acidic, threatening zooplankton and other microorganisms and undermining the marine food chain upon which a billion people depend for their primary source of protein. Warmer oceans, meanwhile, are killing off phytoplankton, bleaching coral reefs, and melting icecaps. Sea levels are rising faster than predicted, promising to inundate U.S. coastal communities. Many cities will need to be abandoned, among them Norfolk, VA, home to the world’s largest naval base. Finally, warmer waters are producing hurricanes and storms of unprecedented violence, posing greater threats not only to coastal residents but commercial shipping upon which 90 percent of global trade relies.
Despite their acute vulnerability to global warming—and their historic role in mitigating it—the oceans remain a fringe issue in global climate discussions. (Indeed, the oceans got barely a mention in the historic Paris Agreement). Expect the conferees in Washington to sound the tocsin about our dying oceans—and the need to restore their health to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals endorsed at last year’s UN General Assembly.
- Expand marine protected areas: Kerry’s second priority is to persuade other countries to establish and extend marine protected areas (MPAs), or managed zones designed to protect marine ecosystems and maintain biodiversity by regulating fishing and other forms of exploitation. In 2010, parties to the Biodiversity Convention endorsed conserving 10 percent of their exclusive economic zones as MPAs. The United States has more than risen to this challenge, having preserved more than 30 percent of U.S. waters. Just last week, President Obama quadrupled the size of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, established by George W. Bush, creating the world’s largest MPA, at more than two times the size of Texas.
The good news is that protection works—and can even reverse past damage caused by humans. The bad news is that globally, only 3-4 percent of world’s oceans currently fall within MPAs. Enforcement is also a challenge: Too many small or poor countries lack the capacity, and sometimes the will, to ensure that citizens and foreign fishing fleets respect their regulations. This week’s Our Ocean conference should focus on how to improve maritime domain awareness among small island nations like Palau, which have declared massive MPAs.
To complement these sovereign MPAs, the United States must keep pushing for prompt completion of a UN high seas biodiversity agreement. Despite initial reservations that such talks could go off track, the White House ultimately chose to engage other countries rather than marginalize itself. Negotiations began promisingly in March, and the second round concluded last week. The final two negotiating sessions will occur in 2017, whereupon a draft treaty will be presented to UN member states.
- End illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. Globally, some 60 percent of global fish stocks are depleted or over-exploited, thanks to unsustainable practices. One of the biggest culprits is illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. As the name implies, this encompasses three separate offenses: (a) harvesting fish within another nation’s fishery (or one controlled by a regional fisheries management organization); (b) failing to report the catch to the relevant fisheries authority, or (c) fishing by improperly authorized vessels, often operating under “flags of non-compliance.” Beyond its ecological and economic costs, IUU fishing exacerbates maritime insecurity, since it is frequently linked to transnational organized crime.
Fortunately, both international law and high technology provide tools to combat this scourge. A recent legal breakthrough was the entry into force in June 2016 of the Port State Measures Agreement, a treaty that prohibits illegal fish hauls from being unloaded in the ports of participating states. This week Secretary Kerry will press additional countries to ratify the convention. Building on the “Sea Scout” initiative Kerry unveiled at last year’s conference, which aims to identify IUU “hot spots,” the State Department has also invited technology firms to Washington to showcase new approaches to monitoring and combating illegal fishing worldwide. (A potential model for such efforts is Secure Our Oceans, a joint project by the Henry L. Stimson Center and the Pristine Seas program of the National Geographic Society).
- Stop rampant marine pollution. The scale at which humans are despoiling the oceans is mind-boggling. Each year, we dump more than eight million tons of plastic into the sea. Much of this flotsam is ground down into fine particles that find their way into the diets and flesh of living organisms. A huge percentage of this waste originates in emerging and developing countries, particularly in littoral Asia, that lack adequate systems for waste management in coastal zones, particularly at the municipal level.
And then there is the effluent of the affluent. Thanks to lax regulations, too many rivers in the United States and other advanced market nations deliver a massive runoff of fertilizers and chemicals into the sea. Nutrient pollution from the Mississippi river, for example, has elevated nitrogen and phosphorous levels into the Gulf of Mexico, creating enormous dead zones. In 2015, the Group of Seven (G7) adopted an action plan committing its members to combat both land- and water-based sources of marine pollution. The Our Ocean summit offers an opportunity to expand this effort to big emerging economies like Brazil, China, India, and Indonesia.
As always, the proof of good intentions will be in the implementation. Wisely, the State Department has included multiple participants from the private sector—including the fishing industry, plastics manufacturers, and retail companies—as well as scientists and nongovernmental advocacy groups.
Since the days of Teddy Roosevelt, U.S. presidents have created national monuments late in their terms to burnish their legacies. Barack Obama—like George W. Bush before him—has taken this conservation commitment beyond the water’s edge. At this week’s Our Ocean conference, the United States can take things even further, by safeguarding high seas biodiversity and helping other nations become responsible stewards of their marine environment.
The European Union has promised to host the next Our Ocean conference in 2017, with Indonesia on tap for 2018. But sustaining momentum on ocean issues will require firm leadership from the next U.S. president, who should know the stakes involved. Hillary Clinton, in response to a request from ocean advocates, recently released a letter outlining her ocean priorities, pledging to boost the “blue economy” while protecting the health of the marine environment. Donald Trump has yet to do the same.