The Ocean Takes Center Stage at the World’s Largest Climate Summit

Inside the effort to save our large salty friend

By Robin Happel

Copy Editor and Oxygen Enthusiast (50% of the air we breathe is from plankton y’all)

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently called climate change the defining issue of our time. Former Secretary of State John Kerry went perhaps even a step further this past Friday, stating that “I don’t want to be the skunk at a garden party… but I am going to tell the truth. And the truth is we are not anywhere near where we need to be.” (For those of you who have never been blessed to hear John “America’s Fun Uncle” Kerry speak in person, please consider watching his full speech here.) Also featured is an address by Lehua Kamalu, a “real life Moana” who sailed almost three thousand miles in a traditional voyaging canoe to demonstrate her commitment to healthy oceans, as well as to show that really none of us have any excuse to ever be late to class again.

Lehua Kamalu addresses the delegates after spending over twenty days at sea.

Speaking on the second day of the Global Climate Action Summit, Kerry reflected on his past diplomatic work organizing the “Our Ocean” summit series, a groundbreaking effort that he fears is still too little, too late. For centuries, the ocean has served as a carbon sink, soaking up CO2 emissions and up to 90% of the Earth’s excess heat. No one actually knows exactly how much carbon is stored in the ocean, but recently the seas around Antarctica have begun coughing up this CO2 back into the atmosphere, a process that scientists call “pretty bad.” As the ocean warms, tropical storms also become stronger, corals bleach, sea levels rise, Cthulhu stirs in his sleep, etc. and together these threats pose a huge challenge to coastal communities from Haiti to Honolulu. Hawaii, notably, has suffered two hurricanes in the past two weeks, one of which was fortunately deflected by Secretary Kerry with an energy beam from the South Pole, although he disputes this. “How screwed up can you be?” he exclaimed, exasperated at the lack of responsible reporting on such a serious issue. “It was the North Pole!”

Regardless of the magical powers John Kerry may or may not possess, the threats the ocean faces are very real. As such a global issue, the United Nations plays a critical role in forging solutions, both in the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco and in ongoing negotiations in New York concerning the fate of the high seas. Also, this article so far has been a bit grim, so please enjoy this knitted dumbo squid that U.N. diplomats were fawning over during treaty negotiations:

Perhaps the largest climate summit to date, the Global Climate Action Summit brought together activists, inventors, diplomats, and business leaders from the Arctic to the Amazon. Several delegates spoke poignantly about their fears in the path of Hurricane Florence, as well as the fate of Fiji and other island nations that may soon be underwater. “When the ocean is rising, you can’t just call AAA,” quipped Queen Quet Marquetta L. Goodwine, chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee, and one of Fordham’s few alumni who can properly be addressed as “queen.” As residents of barrier islands across the American South, the Gullah/Geechee are uniquely vulnerable to hurricanes like Florence, yet the optimism of Queen Quet and her fellow diplomats remains undaunted. “We are optimistic – we have to be optimistic,” said Inia Seruiratu of Fiji. “According to our Prime Minister, we are all in the same canoe.”

A morning address by the Prime Minister of Fiji, who asserted that “we are determined not just to survive, but to fight, and to conquer.”

This sense of unity is perhaps one of the most profound outcomes of the UN’s diplomatic efforts, from COP23 to the U.N. Ocean Conference and finally the Global Climate Action Summit this past week. By putting leaders from Sweden to South America on the same stage, the United Nations shows us that the fate of the ocean truly depends on everyone, and we all depend on it. While there is still much left to be done, from adequately funding the Green Climate Fund to addressing the disproportionate burdens placed upon Inuit and other indigenous communities, this summit marks something of a sea change, and a movement to at last place ocean conservation front and center.

One of the most inspiring things to me was the leading role our generation is playing in fighting for the ocean. From the recent launch of Boyan Slat’s Ocean Cleanup Project to a powerful speech given by Sustainable Ocean Alliance President Daniela Fernandez near the summit’s close, the past week alone has seen countless young people step up and take charge. To borrow a phrase from the March for the Ocean that Ms. Fernandez helped organize last summer, the ocean is rising, but so are we. It will be up to our generation to ensure a fair future for everyone, from island nations in the Caribbean to coastal communities in the Arctic to wherever the dumbo squid is still flapping around. (Seriously so cute, y’all!)

A better version of this article was also produced for the U.N. Association of the United States, UNA-USA, a fantastic organization that works on building alliances between U.S. citizens and U.N. initiatives, and which you can learn more about here. Speaking as a Southerner with family and friends in the path of Florence, please also support Build Maroonage, this North Carolina fund, or other hurricane relief efforts if you can.

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