Ocean, Climate, and Copenhagen

As part of a global coalition of ocean organizations, the World Ocean Observatory is preparing a new independent website on Ocean and Climate to be launched at the climate summit in Copenhagen in December. The purpose is to demonstrate the absolute connection between two dynamic natural systems with pervasive impact on almost every aspect of our lives.

The problem lies in a disconnect in our thinking. It is amazing to see how indifferent climate policy has been to ocean issues; indeed, even Al Gore in "An Inconvenient Truth" almost belittles the ocean as a secondary function of climate when in fact it is very much the other way around. The specific language being developed for Copenhagen has largely ignored the ocean, and only through the intervention by many NGO’s, in the United States and Europe, has that oversight begun to be remedied. It may still not be enough.

But of course that is the fear for the proposed new treaty in general – not enough, not soon enough, not effective enough. The situation is plagued by two political divides -- between the developed nations and between the developed nations and the rest of developing world. The first is a function of commitment and degree. In the United States, for example, many individuals and political figures are unwilling to accept the research on global warming and its predictable impacts and oppose legislative actions, treaties, and behavioral change on ideological grounds. In addition, there is a divide between the nations over the type and degree of action necessary – cap and trade versus carbon tax for example.

The second divide has the developing nations objecting to change required by conditions not of their making and insisting on enormous financial aid to subsidize the cost of imposed new strategies for adaptation and mitigation. The developed countries want to invest in very specific actions with measurable outcomes, while the developing countries want to receive unrestricted compensation.
But the dichotomy is false. In fact, the developing world has as much to lose as the developed nations, should the research models prove to be true. But there is no need to await the future when radical change in weather events is already disrupting traditional patterns of settlement, agriculture, and health. The reports of unexpected, extreme weather phenomena are pervasive – hurricanes and cyclones, droughts and wild fires, mudslides and floods, affecting thousands of people around the world. Consequent social disruption, pollution of water supplies, physical and economic collapse, and the outbreak of previously controlled diseases are just some of the outcomes already tragically prevalent in coastal and other communities around the world.

Fifteen of the world’s largest cities are located in the coastal zone, including New York, Shanghai, Mumbai, and Cairo. We know the devastation of Katrina in New Orleans, an event from which we in the US seem to have learned very little. Sea level rise and coastal surge are two of the most obvious indicators of the chain of connection between CO2 emissions, global warming, and polar and glacial melt. And yet we dither and dispute, day in day out, protecting our narrowest interest and denying both cause and effect, ignoring the research, debating the policy, and doing little in a collective global catharsis of ignorance and selfishness that will do harm to us all and to our children.