Working Towards an “Ocean COP”

Ocean health is a big deal. It provides food security and resources to sustain our economies. It regulates our weather patterns. It absorbs heat and our carbon dioxide emissions. We often forget how dependent we are on the oceans. But lucky for us, UNFCCC Parties recognize that the “well below 2˚C” goal is not achievable without the ocean.

In June 2017, Fiji and Sweden co-chaired the first UN Ocean Conference in New York City—a conference on ocean health and sustainability. Fiji used that momentum as the COP23 President to bring awareness of ocean health to climate change discussions. Partnering again with Sweden, this dynamic duo co-chaired the Ocean Pathway. In total, 10 parties and 14 Advisory groups committed to the Ocean Pathway at COP23. Participation is likely to increase at COP24 following a year of devastating weather events.

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The Ocean Pathway is a new innovation to incorporate ocean conservation into the international climate change regime. This two-track strategy will (1) “increase the role of ocean consideration in the UNFCCC process” while (2) “significantly increasing action in priority areas impacting or impacted by [the] ocean and climate change.” 

The first track aims to develop a strategy to implement the ocean into UNFCCC negotiations with the “Friends of the Ocean” process—an open forum for Parties to discuss, debate, and implement measures to combat ocean concerns for the next two COPs. The goal is to make COP25 the “Ocean COP” by developing an effective work programme and potential agenda item by 2020.

The second track will strengthen previous ocean and climate change actions by developing new partnerships and platforms to increase momentum in the ocean conservation movement. Such actions include reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, reducing fossil fuel consumption, and increasing protection of blue carbon areas. Most important to COP24, the Because of the Ocean Coalition encourages Parties’ to include ocean-related measures in their NDCs! Not only will Parties combat climate change, but they can also tackle important concerns like ocean acidification, sea level rise, and pollution. A major win in the marine conservation realm!


Science and Adaptation: Prevention is the Key

Cyclone_NargisCOP23 is significantly emphasizing the impact of extreme weather on climate change adaptation. This issue is even more prevalent with the major weather events that have occurred in the past several months: intense hurricanes in the Caribbean and the southern United States, flooding in South East Asia, and severe drought on the West Coast of the U.S. and northern China. In the opening plenary of the COP23, the Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) laid out our past and our future projections: the outlook was grim. This past year was one of three hottest years on record, with these past five years being the warmest average since the WMO began monitoring in the 1850’s. And unfortunately, these severe weather events tend to impact the most vulnerable communities in the world.

The majority of hungry people live in the most disaster-prone areas of the world, creating an ever-continuous cycle of lack of food and further destruction. But these disasters are usually predictable: we can predict floods, typhoons, and droughts. Science has created a system of which we have a better understanding of how these systems work, when they will come, the effect they will have, and potential steps we can take to avoid their impact.

global-temp-and-co2-1880-2009Article 7.7(c) of the Paris Agreement emphasizes adaptation to climate change, specifically with respect to increased technology and science to prevent the impacts of climate change. But the first step to prevention is warning. The Global Climate Observing System has determined seven global climate indicators to assist in the determination of the status of climate change. These indicators include surface temperature, ocean warming, atmospheric CO2, ocean acidification, sea level rise, glacier mass balance, Arctic and Antarctic sea ice level. These indicators give scientists better understanding and mechanisms of the impacts of climate change. Policymakers and scientists can then turn around and implement these impacts into cohesive plans to adapt to the ever-increasing harm from climate change, using these indicators to better predict where future harms will likely occur.

thailands-rice-farmersThe UN and NGO’s have recognized the importance of science and planning in the implementation of adaptation plans to create better systems for individuals that live in the most prone areas. One particular group, the World Food programme, began implementing investment opportunities in local crops, reducing the focus to small community projects. These investment plans allowed farmers more security in their crops and gave them the ability to invest in better equipment and increased opportunities for advancement of their farming practices. Overall, by ensuring the farmer’s crops, especially in areas that are of greatest concern to climate change, the economy of the entire area was boosted.

Science plays an important role in understanding climate change. But science should also play an important role in the solution. By using the science that is already in place, communities and NGOs can establish better mechanisms for adapting to climate change and the harms that inevitably come with them. Petteri Taalas, Secretary-General of the WMO, warned that these severe weather events we have been observing are only the beginning. If there is no mitigation of climate impacts then the events will only get worse. But before mitigation can make any significant impact, countries must adapt. They must adapt to the impacts of climate change and science can be there, guiding them on their way to more sustainable development and security.


Opening the scope of NDCs: “Blue Opportunities”

thMENSJTZMIn a press briefing today, Natalya Gallo and Dr. Lisa Levin from the Scripps Institutions of Oceanography, USCD, Julio Cordano on behalf of Chile and Ronald Jumeau, Seychelles Ambassador talked about the importance of including oceans and marine ecosystems in the NDCs.

Natalya Gallo stated that out of the 161 INDC communicated by June 2015, 112 contained references to oceans, 14 included costal zones while the rest did not contain any reference to oceans and marine ecosystems. The oceans were included as part of the adaptation, mitigation or as a climate change marine risk. Also, most attention is given to ocean warming while ocean oxygen loss, ocean acidification receives little to no attention. Mangroves and coral reefs were almost always included. In terms of parties, the Annex I parties did not include oceans in their INDCs while the SIDS were leading the path in this area. The factors that influenced whether oceans were included in the parties INDC varied from percentage of population living in low lying areas to large exclusive economic zones areas and development status of the respective countries.

Julio Cordano, on behalf of Chile, emphasized that although the oceans were included in the Paris Agreement there has been no implementation endeavor. Nevertheless, we must state that the oceans are indeed included only in the preamble of the Paris Agreement, which is non-biding part of the agreement. Therefore, the inclusion of the oceans is a sign of a global awareness and symbolic victory. Mr. Cordano further believes that any future work should built upon the NDCs as a building block of the Paris Agreement. However, he acknowledges that the NDCs were a compromised formulation as first proposed and there is still a delicate discussion on what to include. The inclusion of too many sectors and perspectives may wash down on the content of the NDCs and lead to ineffective mitigation action.  Also, there is the fear that opening the discussion with respect to oceans would raise the question of whether the NDCs should include other sectors such as energy. Following last year Because the Ocean Declaration, this year, Chile plans to launch a second declaration on 14th of November.

Dr. Lisa Levin talked about the ocean research needs, as countries specifically provided in their INDCs the need for additional research in the following areas: sea level rise and coastal zone monitoring; fisheries; blue carbon; climate observation system; biodiversity research; oceanography and climate; ocean training and capacity building/academic collaboration. The research needs can be addressed by looking at the research infrastructure and the available funds in place today, such as the GEF and the Ocean Sustainability Bank.

Ronald Jumeau, Seychelles Ambassador for Climate Change and SIDS Issues, recognized that it is natural for them to include oceans in their NDCs. However, they recognize that there is a lack of research, as for example they do not have an accurate and complete overview, among others, on the impacts of climate change and the marine species in need of protection. That is why, the University of Seychelles started a research institute called the Blue Economy Research Institute to advance their knowledge and have access to accurate and complete information that can help them put forward an ambitious NDC. They also decided to be an example and lead the way by starting reviewing and upscaling their NDCs so as to achieve the 1,5°C goal.

We can only hope that at future APA meetings, the Paris Agreement will act as a spokesperson for the oceans and marine ecosystems, as currently they do not have one.


Incorporating Oceans into the Paris Agreement

“We are at a tipping point,” warned Angus Friday, Grenada’s Ambassador to the United States, in today’s side event on “The Importance of Addressing Oceans and Coasts in an Ambitious Agreement at the UNFCCC COP 21.” Speakers at the event reported on mobilization efforts around ocean and climate issues taking place at COP21, with emphasis on the most vulnerable people and ecosystems.

Dr. Biliana Cicin-Sain, President of the Global Ocean Forum, said that a new article in the Paris agreement on oceans is unlikely. However, she encouraged the more likely option—accepting the suggested revision referring to oceans in the December 5th draft agreement addendum. This textual suggestion to the preamble is in bold below:

Also recognizing the importance of the conservation and enhancement, as appropriate, of sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases referred to in Article 4, paragraph 1(d), of the Convention, including biomass, forests and oceans as well as other terrestrial, coastal and marine ecosystems, including through internationally agreed approaches [such as REDD-plus and the joint mitigation and adaptation approach for the integral and sustainable management of forests], and of their non-carbon co-benefits,

Whether this reference to oceans will be accepted in the final Paris agreement remains to be determined. Dr. Carol Turley, an ocean scientist at Plymouth Marine Laboratory stressed the pressing importance of this issue: “The ocean needs a voice, and the time is now to get the ocean into the text.”


“Well, I’m not a scientist either, but . . .”

In his State of the Union address last night, President Obama picked up climate change deniers’ well-used “I’m not a scientist, but” phrase, and turned it on its head.

obama 2015 SoU“I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists; that we don’t have enough information to act. Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what — I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities. The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it.”

The President’s nod to U.S. scientific bodies like NASA and NOAA is well timed.  In addition to their recent announcements about 2014’s record setting heat, a trove of academic studies have appeared in Nature and Science in just the last two weeks.  For example:

  • This paper in Nature reconciles gaps between models and observations of ocean levels since the 1990s and concludes that sea level rise is happening even more rapidly than thought. 
  • This paper in Science chronicles how global warming, ocean acidification, aquaculture, and miningNAS “pose extreme threats to ocean life,” and proposes creating ocean reserves and managing unprotected spaces akin to land conservation.
  • This paper in Science reports that climate change and species extinctions indicate the the planet is entering a “danger zone,” with human activity degrading the environment “at a rate unseen in the past 10,000 years.”
  • This briefing in the Proceedings of the Institute for Civil Engineering (ICE) warns that the West Antarctica ice sheet collapse will cause over 11 feet of sea level rise that will disproportionately affect North America.
  • The U.S. Global Change Research Program reports in this National Climate Assessment on the direct human health impacts of climate change, including increased disease and food insecurity.

In the non-academic realm,the World Economic Forum’s 2015 edition of its Global Risks Report ranks extreme weather, water crises, natural catastrophes, the failure to adapt to climate change, biodiversity loss, and ecosystem collapse among the Top 10 risks to human security.

With this data in hand, our non-scientist-in-chief stated last night:

“That’s why, over the past six years, we’ve done more than ever before to combat climate change, from the way we produce energy, to the way we use it. That’s why we’ve set aside more public lands and us-climate-change-300x225waters than any administration in history. And that’s why I will not let this Congress endanger the health of our children by turning back the clock on our efforts. I am determined to make sure American leadership drives international action. In Beijing, we made an historic announcement — the United States will double the pace at which we cut carbon pollution, and China committed, for the first time, to limiting their emissions. And because the world’s two largest economies came together, other nations are now stepping up, and offering hope that, this year, the world will finally reach an agreement to protect the one planet we’ve got.”

UPDATE: On Wednesday, January 21, 2015, the U.S. Senate voted 98-1 on a Keystone XL bill amendment declaring that climate change is real and not a hoax.  That’s the good news on congressional understanding of the climate change science.  The bad news?  The failure of a second amendment acknowledging the human causes of it – specifically, that “climate change is real and human activity significantly contributes to climate change” – because the causation language of “significantly” troubled many Republicans.  Despite the good work of “a lot of really good scientists” at NOAA, NASA, and the inhofeIPCC (and despite the five Republicans, Lindsay Graham,Kelly Ayotte, Susan Collins, Mark Kirk, and Lamar Alexander, who voted for it).  Oh, and one more tally in the two-steps-backward column: Sen. James Inhofe signed on as a co-sponsor to that first amendment, saying for the record that “climate has always changed” and that it’s “arrogant” to think humankind can change climate. Sigh. Nonetheless Vermont’s Senator Bernie Sanders called the climate change votes “a step forward” for Republicans: “I think what is exciting is that today we saw for the first time – a number, a minority – but some Republicans going onboard and saying that climate change is real and it’s caused by human activity.” For more, read here.

 


Adding fuel to the fire

Media coverage of the international climate change negotiations is picking up speed as U.N. SG Ban Ki-moon’s September 23 Climate Summit draws near.  Today my local paper, the Valley News (warmly referred to as the Valley Snooze locally), implicitly covered the Summit in two ways.  A headline in the lower half of the front page shouts Report:  Big Surge in Carbon Gases and a letter to the editor on the Forum page is entitled Creating a Climate of Hope.

WMO logoThe front page story focuses on data from the most recent issue of the Greenhouse Gas Bulletin from the WMO (World Meteorological Organization, co-founder along with UNEP, the U.N. Environmental Programme, of the IPCC or Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).  This data comes from observations from WMO’s Global Atmosphere Watch (GAW) network of 125 monitoring stations worldwide.  Fresh off the press today, the Bulletin highlights that:

  • between 1990 and 2013, radiative forcing – the warming effect on our climate – increased 34%because of long-lived greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide.
  • concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere in 2013 was 142% of the pre-industrial era (1750), and of methane and nitrous oxide, 253% and 121% respectively.
  • CO2 levels increased more between 2012 and 2013 than during any other year since 1984. Preliminary data indicates that this was possibly related to reduced CO2 uptake by the earth’s biosphere in addition to the steadily increasing CO2 emissions. (Oceans absorb about a quarter of total emissions and another quarter is taken up by the biosphere, thereby reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.)

In other words, not only are we continuing to increase our CO2 emissions, but those already sent into the atmosphere in years passed have clogged the earth’s – meaning the ocean’s  and plants’ – capacity to store it in a way that doesn’t drive up the atmosphere’s temperature.

mussleAnd not only does it look like the ocean is maxing out its absorption capacity, but in getting to this point, the uptake process is resulting in sea level rise and ocean acidification.  The Bulletin reports that the current rate of ocean acidification appears unprecedented in the last 300 million years.  (Read this Daily Climate story on how ocean acidification affects mussels, their ecosystems, and the commerical fishing industry built around both.)

WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud states in today’s press release that “We know without any doubt that our climate is changing and our weather is becoming more extreme due to human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels.  The Greenhouse Gas Bulletin shows that, far from falling, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere actually increased last year at the fastest rate for nearly 30 years. We must reverse this trend by cutting emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases across the board.  We are running out of time.”

Mr Jarraud ends with “Past, present and future CO2 emissions will have a cumulative impact on both global warming and ocean acidification. The laws of physics are non-negotiable.”

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A negotiating “huddle” at COP19’s closing plenary.

Which leads to the Forum letter encouraging people to join the People’s Climate March scheduled to take place just before the UN Climate Summit.  While the laws of physics are not negotiable, international treaties on climate change are.

The Summit is intended to put world leaders, who will gather in New York for the annual General Assembly meeting, on the spot:  to shine a light on what countries are and are not doing under their existing obligations in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and its Kyoto Protocol, as well as in the negotiation of new ones.  (For more on the summit, read this interview with Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, who is now serving as one of Ban Ki-moon’s three special envoys on climate change [along with former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and former president of Ghana John Kufuor]).  Given the shift to bottom-up, nationally determined mitigation and adaptation commitments in the ADP negotiations, March organizers like 350.org want U.S. officials (and those of other countries) to see physically the political support for agreeing to further emissions limits.


Warsaw, Wildlife, and Greenpeace

The trip has cIMG_2014ome to an end. And what an experience it was. During the 12-14 hour days, it felt like it was going on forever, but at the end of theIMG_2023 week I was questioning where my week had gone. Some of the highlights included getting 2 feet away from Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, walking around Old Town, hearing the inspiring words of Christiana Figueres, working with my great NGO, Wildlife Conservation Society, actually seeing the international process at work, and getting to know my fellow VLS delegates better.

My biggest disappointment was the lack of discussion throughout the week on my chosen topic: wildlife, endangered species, and biodiversity. While I tried to tailor each of my posts to my topic and analyze each side event to figure out its indirect link to the conservation of species, I noticed that the topic was rarely, if ever, discussed. Biodiversity and ecosystems where mentioned broadly here and there (most notably in the ocean acidification and REDD+ side events I attended), but for the most part, I heard nothing on how climate change is adversely impacting CITES-logo-high-resolution-300x171species. I am aware that the UN has other treaties, such as the Convention on Biodiversity and CITES, but knowing what I know about how climate change is affecting species, I would have thought at least one side event would have had that focus. This became particularly more puzzling to me when I learned more than one wildlife conservation group attended the CoP. While I realize that most people place a higher value on the plights of the human race when it comes to climate change, the importance of conserving biodiversity cannot be overlooked. As the Lion King says: “we are all connected in the great circle of life.”

On my last night in Poland, Heather, Lindsay, and I had the unique experience of attending a Greenpeace party. Greenpeace gave a recap of of their 2 weeks at the CoP. They had some exciting protests against cop19_greenpeace_670pcPoland’s reliance on coal and unveiled brilliant t-shirts: a play on the Godfather – the “coalfather.” I, not for lack of want, did not get lucky enoughBZboykZCIAANefn.jpg_large to secure one. There were also several demonstrations on the Arctic 30. Greenpeace is currently on a campaign to free the arctic 30; 30 peaceful activists from around the world who boarded the Arctic Sunrise in an attempt to board a Russian oil rig in protest of reliance on fossil fuels and to try and stop the drilling. The Russian authorities took control of the Arctic Sunrise and the arctic 30, who are now detained in Russia for piracy and hooliganism. Their call: “Free the Arctic 30.”

190010eb-f999-4d88-990c-f46dd6596ee8.fileGreenpeace in Greenland

Overall, I am thankful for this cultural and learning experience.