Oops! How Will a Mistake in a Major Scientific Report Affect the Future of Oceans at COP?

Earlier this week, scientists from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography corrected their most recent study regarding the ocean’s heat absorption capacity. This study, published in the journal Nature, initially reported that the oceans absorbed about 60% more heat from the atmosphere than originally determined. The scientists working on the study used a new method—collecting gases (mainly oxygen and carbon dioxide) that escaped from the ocean to calculate their amounts in the atmosphere. However, the scientists had not considered some “inadvertent errors” in these calculations, which suggested a degree of scientific uncertainty lower than what it actually was. (A more detailed explanation on the corrected errors can be found here). Though their conclusions align with other studies on marine heat absorption, this error triggered a tsunami of doubt on the reliability of the scientific evidence used to develop Climate Change policy.

The ocean just recently got the attention it rightfully deserves. As a major carbon sink, we must pay attention to ocean health if we want to achieve the UNFCCC climate change goals. The Ocean Pathway, established at COP23, was a recent success to bring more awareness to the important role the ocean plays with climate change. The momentum from this looked promising for COP24, but can we expect a change in course?

Science acknowledges that there will always be some level of uncertainty in scientific conclusions. However, developing policy demands the exact opposite—the tolerable level of uncertainty is set as low as possible. These two principles conflict when science is needed to develop environmental policies. How can we reconcile using data with uncertainty to create policy that operates without uncertainty?

This issue is not new to international climate change regime. The ocean’s introduction into climate change negotiations resembles the path agriculture took only a decade ago. Several years ago, before agriculture made it onto a COP agenda, the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC) released a contradictory report shortly after AR5. The IPCC’s AR5 reported a “risk of food insecurity linked to warming, drought, and precipitation variability, particularly for poorer populations.” The NIPCC reported the exact opposite, suggesting that global warming is actually benefitting farmers in Africa and Asia. Though the NIPCC introduced contradictory information to suggest scientific uncertainty with agriculture and climate change, the NIPCC—a nonprofit organization founded by the famous climate change skeptic Dr. Fred Singer—frequently uses their own “scientific analysis” to negate IPCC studies on global warming. This fun fact may have influenced the amount of reliance on this data in subsequent negotiations. There was also some controversy with scientific data cited in AR4. Apparently, the studies on African agriculture were “gray” literature, meaning that have not been peer-reviewed to ensure scientific reliability. Critics making this assertion claimed the same advantages of global warming for African farmers (also using “gray” literature, but that can be for another blog post). Yet, Parties were able to plant agriculture into the COP24 agenda despite the doubt skeptics tried to cast.

The corrected Nature article on ocean heat absorption may have casted doubt on the importance of the ocean in the international climate change regime. But, if agriculture could survive the skeptics, the ocean can survive a miscalculation.

COP23 Moves the Oceans from the Blue Zone to the Green Zone

Oceans Action Day. The one day in a climate change conference where the oceans become the center of discussion. Considering that 75% of the Earth’s surface is composed of oceans and that oceans absorb 25% of carbon dioxide emissions and 90% of heat associated with climate change, it was a wonder that the UNFCCC’s Conference of the Parties did not put much emphasis on oceans until present. But, now it has and it ended with a bang.

The Original Signatories: Aruba, Australia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Fiji, France, Guinea, Bissau, Kiribati, Madagascar, Mexico, Monaco, Morocco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Palau, Peru, Senegal, Seychelles, Spain, Sweden.

The Original Signatories: Aruba, Australia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Fiji, France, Guinea, Bissau, Kiribati, Madagascar, Mexico, Monaco, Morocco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Palau, Peru, Senegal, Seychelles, Spain, Sweden.

After a full day of side events on Resilience of Fisheries and Aquaculture, Blue Carbon, and Ecosystem-based Adaptation in Ocean and Coastal Zones, among other things, the Oceans Action Day at COP23 concluded with four more countries signing the Because The Ocean” Declaration. Today, the UK, Finland, Honduras, and Romania signed the declaration, committing themselves to work on three common objectives: A Special Report on the Ocean by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change, the U.N.Sustainable Development Goals Conference in Fiji in June 2017, and the elaboration of an ocean action plan under the UNFCCC. These countries, along with 22 others, also commit themselves to achieving Sustainable Development Goal 14: Conserve and Sustainably Use the Oceans, Seas and Marine Resources for Sustainable Development. This Declaration stems from all Parties’ obligation under the UNFCCC to “promote sustainable management, and promote and cooperate in the conservation and enhancement, as appropriate.”

Five countries, in the face of increasingly devastating hurricanes, do not seem much in terms of number. However, they demonstrate that Parties under the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement are aware that oceans are an integral part of addressing the effects of global climate change. It would seem that Fiji has delivered, at least through COP 23, on its promise to emphasize the importance of oceans. Hopefully, this new energy will translate into nations moving “further, faster together.”


Fishing on Savage Seas

The next big war will not be over highfalutin ideologies. Depleted natural resources will force vulnerable countries to fight for basic goals: food and economic security. The struggle will intensify as climate change affects natural resource distribution. Changes in distribution are dangerous, especially for countries whose economies are dependent on unpredictable resources like fish.

National vulnerability to the impacts of climate change on marine fisheries.

National vulnerability to the impacts of climate change on marine fisheries.

A recent study revealed that Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are the countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change on fisheries. Analyzing 147 states and their respective EEZs, the study found that SIDS held seven of the top ten positions in the study’s vulnerability index. Moreover, the index includes all 31 of the LDCs with coastlines, with 87% of those LDCs belonging to the top half.

A separate study found that disparities in vulnerability levels, when paired with poor governance, tend to result in unrest and violent conflict. Poor governance results in poor resource management. Poor resource management leads to overfishing. Overfishing results in scarcity, which drives more people to the coasts and out into contentious waters. The fact that territorial boundaries do not consider traditional fishing routes only exacerbates the problem.

Vietnamese fishing boats caught illegally fishing of Palau's coasts. (Photo by Jeff Banube, The Pew Charitable Trusts)

Vietnamese fishing boats caught illegally fishing of Palau’s coasts. (Photo by Jeff Banube, The Pew Charitable Trusts)

These results are more than mere variables scientists feed into a formula. On the oceans, the battle over marine resources has already begun. Empty fisheries along coastlines have pushed fishermen further out to sea – sometimes into dangerous waters owned and closely guarded by other states. Just this April, Indonesia blew up 81 fishing vessels operated by Vietnamese, Filipino, and Malaysian fishermen. Last year, Argentina sank a Chinese fishing vessel caught illegally fishing in restricted South American waters. In 2015, Palau burned Vietnamese fishing vessels poaching off Palau’s coasts. The frequency of these incidents hints at a bigger, more serious problem that the international community has only begun to address.

Mitigating climate change is an obvious solution to this problem. However, achieving the two-degree-celsius goal of the Paris Agreement is only part of the answer. The other part consists of finding a way to manage marine resources equitably and sustainably. And, several states have begun doing just that.

From June 5-7, 2017, Fiji and Sweden co-hosted the first Oceans Conference at the U.N. Headquarters in New York. It was convened pursuant to UN Resolution 70/1 of September 25, 2015, adopting Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. One of the goals is to  “[c]onserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.”  This goal, termed Goal 14, ambitiously sets out to effectively end overfishing and illegal fishing practices, and implement the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. The Oceans Conference encourages stakeholders – consisting of the UN System, state actors, and non-state actors – to register voluntary commitments to achieve Goal 14. There are currently over 1000 voluntary commitments registered in the Conference’s online platform, forty-four percent of which came from governments, including India and China.

This momentum will likely carry over to Fiji’s agenda in COP23. Speaking to Pacific Island leaders and diplomats in Suva, Fiji on March 2017, Fijian Prime Minister and COP23 President Voreqe Bainimarama said:

Prime Minister Bainimarama at the Climate Action Pacific Partnership (CAPP) event held in Suva, Fiji on March 2017. The event was organized to support and strengthen the participation of small island developing states in the Pacific in the global climate action agenda.

Prime Minister Bainimarama at the Climate Action Pacific Partnership (CAPP) event held in Suva, Fiji on March 2017.

“In a very real sense, we are fighting a two-front war. One front is the fight to keep the oceans clean and to sustain the marine plant and animal life on which we depend for our livelihoods and that keep the earth in proper balance . . . The other front is the fight to slow the growth of global warming and, unfortunately, also to adapt to the changes we know are coming – to rising seas, encroaching sea water, violent storms and periods of drought.”

The world’s oceans is a highly contentious area “governed” by a different set of international treaties. It is unlikely that the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement can address the problem on their own. However, the frequency of violent incidents at sea and the urgency of addressing this volatile situation calls for a unified and streamlined solution that cuts across multiple international agreements. The hope is that with Fiji – a small island developing state – at the helm of COP23, the oceans will finally receive the attention they deserve.

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.”