Ocean action: a different kind of tipping point

Recently you may have noticed the ever-increasing number of international conferences, talks, meetings and reports on the ocean and its declining health.

Just in the last two years, we have had two excellent World Ocean Summits hosted by The Economist, which brought together a rich audience of politicians, business leaders, NGOs and experts to focus on the evidence, challenges and solutions to the changes being observed in our oceans.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has also just released its fifth assessment report, which, for the first time, includes several chapters focusing on the ocean as a key region. The IPCC and other global groups have hosted meetings on everything from ocean acidification and weather patterns to fisheries and biodiversity.

A lot of meeting, travel and talk.

One cynical perspective might be that all this talk and travel is generating carbon dioxide rather than driving tangible progress. Nothing is changing, and the ocean is still degrading before our eyes.

Standing back, however, you can see this activity as a response to a series of looming biophysical tipping points that could lead to changes we will have to live with for tens of thousands of years. You only have to look at the issue of ocean warming and acidification to see what is at stake.

These biophysical tipping points could be disastrous, but I am optimistic that we are at the verge of another tipping point, one where the global community commits to take action now.

Tip one way and we face irreversible change in the ocean’s ability to produce food and jobs and protect our planet. That message is writ large across our blue planet, in “ink” that could be permanent for natural and human systems.

Tip the other way, however, and the situation could be very different.

Instead of declining, we could see the emergence of “healing” oceans that produce more, not less, sustainable food for Earth’s growing population.

The recent IPCC Working Group III Report, with findings on climate change’s impact on crop productivity, adds a huge amount of urgency to act now and restore ocean health.

So why all the meetings? In addition to “lining up the ducks” for a global response, many of these meetings have been born with the realization that all parties need to be around the table. Solutions must involve communities, governments, and industries, and the only way to go to scale is by harnessing the mechanisms available and driving toward equitable benefits.

Naturally, putting everyone around the table has its own dynamics.

You might think, for example, that conservationists, local communities and the seafood industry might find it hard to find common ground. However, the world is changing. From my personal experience as the chair of the Blue Ribbon Panel, I found that everyone wants and values a sustainable ocean.

This is perhaps the ultimate “no-brainer.” After all, no marine ecosystem means no seafood. No seafood means no industry. No industry means no benefits for communities. And so on.

With everyone gathering around the table, it’s quite clear now that we need to act meaningfully. As the latest IPCC assessment report argues, we are at a decision point where what we decide will be with us for thousands of years. Actions over the next few years will determine whether we tip one way or the other.

The next set of meetings must respond to the imperatives ahead through real action on the very real problems that our planet and ocean face.

This week the government of the Netherlands plays host to the Global Ocean Action Summit for Food Security and Blue Growth. Hundreds of attendees have been firmly tasked with developing an agenda for action that takes into consideration the tangled web of challenges.

Discussions will not be on if we need action but on how we take that action so that it is lasting, inclusive and impactful. With focus on investment, governance and partnership, we come close to creating a web of solutions that responds to the web of challenges on the large scale.

On June 16 and 17, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will host an international conference, Our Ocean, at the U.S. Department of State. It is clear that Secretary Kerry is firmly focused on defining a global agenda of action on the key issues that the ocean faces.

Never a moment too soon. I believe we are approaching that critical tipping point, and we are ready to transform our approach to ocean health and its services to humanity.

We must not delude ourselves; major actions need to be taken today if we are to turn the tide.

But we are at the tipping point where we are ready to take that action, and we know how to do it right.

Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Huffington Post (blog), 24 April 2014. Article.

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