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Among its many casualties, the U.S. defection from the Paris Climate Agreement endangers the world’s oceans. This week more than 5,000 participants are gathered at United Nations headquarters in New York for the first high-level world Ocean Conference. Their mission is urgent: to arrest and reverse the damage humans are doing to the world’s oceans, endangering our own prosperity, security, and even survival in the process. President Donald J. Trump’s shortsighted repudiation of the historic accord reached in Paris in December 2015 only complicates this immense task.
As a terrestrial species, we too often ignore how tightly our fates are linked with the oceans, which cover 71 percent of Earth’s surface. They provide half of the oxygen we breathe (thanks to phytoplankton) and, since the industrial revolution, have absorbed one third of the carbon dioxide generated from human activities. They are also a massive heat sink, helping mitigate the impact of global warming. Globally, some 40 percent of humanity lives within 100 kilometers of the coast, and the UN estimates that coastal and marine resources generate $28 trillion annually in “ecosystem services” for the global economy, including fisheries, tourism, and other livelihoods.
Unfortunately, the oceans are under severe stress, endangering the services we have long taken for granted. Uncontrolled greenhouse gases, poor coastal zone management, unsustainable fishing practices, and rampant pollution are acidifying, degrading, emptying, and poisoning the seas. This week’s conference convenes UN member states, private companies, and civil society networks to see what can be done to improve matters. Their objective is to support UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14: “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development.” Of their many priorities, four stand out:
- Arrest and reverse pollution: Coastal runoff is a massive source of marine pollution and eutrophication—a phenomenon in which excess nutrients from agricultural run-off leads to explosive plant growth, choking off animal life. The UN has identified more than five hundred “dead zones” globally. The most prominent are the Bay of Bengal, the East China Sea, the North Brazil Shelf, the South China Sea, and (right off America’s coast) the Gulf of Mexico. Beyond pollution from excessive nutrients, untreated sewage and wastewater, chemical contamination, oil spills, sediments, and other discharge, a plague of plastic flotsam and jetsam covers the ocean’s surface, equivalent to five garbage bags for every foot of coastline in the world. Scientists estimate that by 2050 some 99 percent of sea birds will have ingested some plastic. Over the long term, the volume of micro-plastics may rival that of plankton, increasingly entering the food chain.
- End unsustainable fishing practices: In 1974, ninety percent of world marine fish stocks were considered sustainable. By 2013 that proportion had declined to 69 percent, thanks to rampant overfishing. The problem is exacerbated by widespread illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing practices—as well as generous subsidies that many governments provide to their nations’ fishing fleets. The “Final Act” of this week’s conference will include a rhetorical commitment by all parties to crack down on IUU fishing, as well as to phase out damaging subsidies. The good news—based on the U.S. experience with the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Management and Conservation Act (1976)—is that fisheries can bounce back, as long as governments enforce regulations and create incentives for fishing industries to end unsustainable practices.
- Preserve marine biodiversity: To maintain the health and diversity of sea life, the world must expand the number and size of marine protected areas (MPAs). In 2014, protected zones accounted for only 8.4 percent of the 200-mile exclusive economic zone that each coastal state enjoys under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The conferees in New York are looking to build on the momentum of the Obama years, when Secretary of State John Kerry’s personal dedication to the global oceans agenda helped spur an expansion of MPAs worldwide, particularly around critical biodiversity hotspots in the Pacific. The real brass ring, however, would be the successful conclusion of a UN High Seas Biodiversity Convention. Two years ago, President Obama endorsed U.S. participation in multilateral negotiations for that treaty, designed to prevent unsustainable fishing and other practices on the open ocean. A huge unknown is whether the Trump administration will promote or obstruct these talks.
- Combat ocean acidification and warming: The world’s oceans are paying a heavy price for serving as a carbon and heat sink. Rising C02 concentrations are making the seas more acidic, with potentially catastrophic consequences for biochemical processes critical for the survival of tiny ocean organisms and the survival of marine food webs and ecosystems. Ocean warming, meanwhile, is altering traditional weather patterns and displacing species (encouraging some fish stocks to migrate toward the poles, for instance). Some shallow seas, such as the Persian Gulf, could eventually become too warm to support life. Of more immediate concern, hotter tropical waters are creating massive coral bleaching events. This year, the Great Barrier Reef is experiencing its second massive coral bleaching in as many years. Without prompt action on climate change, the world world’s coral reef ecosystems could disappear within two generations.
Though the Paris Agreement included only one reference to oceans, the link between global warming and ocean health makes President Trump’s renunciation of the Paris agreement appear even more ignorant and indefensible. Consistent with the White House position, the president’s minions sought last week to remove mention of climate change or the Paris accord in the final communique that will be the outcome document for this week’s conference (titled “Our Ocean, Our Future: Call for Action”). Fortunately, the conference co-chair was having none of it: “We are not prepared to leave that [strong language] out. That’s really fundamental,” said Isabella Lovin, the deputy prime minister of Sweden. “The impacts of climate change [on the oceans] are almost immeasurable.” At the same time, Lovin added, she had been frustrated in her efforts to engage with the United States on the conference, inasmuch as the Trump administration had failed to fill senior positions at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
As 2017 proceeds, many are asking whether the Earth—and not just the United States—will survive the Trump presidency. In both cases, the biggest sea change we need must occur in Washington.