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Climate, Oceans, the United Nations, and What’s Next

For many of us jaded New Yorkers, the United Nations is merely a reason that traffic is periodically terrible on the Upper East Side, when world leaders gather. Perhaps now, after the US Administration has announced it will take steps to pull the United States out of the UN’s Paris Agreement on climate change, we...

For many of us jaded New Yorkers, the United Nations is merely a reason that traffic is periodically terrible on the Upper East Side, when world leaders gather. Perhaps now, after the US Administration has announced it will take steps to pull the United States out of the UN’s Paris Agreement on climate change, we can appreciate that the snarled traffic symbolizes something incredible – hundreds of countries coming together to grapple with humanity’s greatest challenges, from war, to climate change, and now to ocean conservation.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals focus global humanitarian efforts through 2030. Among the seventeen goals are ending hunger and poverty, ensuring healthy lives, promoting just and peaceful societies, addressing climate change, and conserving the ocean.

Perhaps Goal 14, “the ocean goal,” seems out of place among the others. However, the health of the oceans is just as fundamental for humankind. In fact, if we do not “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources,” we cannot end poverty or hunger, ensure health, have peace and justice, or maintain a stable climate.

More than three billion people depend on the ocean for nutrition, as their primary source of protein. Billions of people depend on marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihoods, in a “blue economy” valued at $3 trillion annually. Chemical compounds from algae and sponges are helping to treat cancer and Alzheimer’s, and our emotional connection to the sea supports mental health. Not to mention the ocean has absorbed about 90% of the excess heat trapped by greenhouse gases – otherwise the impacts we’re feeling from climate change would already be way worse. Thank you, ocean!

On the flip side, a degraded ocean can be disastrous. Around half the oxygen we breath is produced by phytoplankton, tiny plants in the ocean that absorb tons of CO2, but climate change has led to a 40% decline in phytoplankton since 1950. Overfishing threatens livelihoods and food security, and can cause former fishers to turn to piracy. Slavery, and trafficking of people, weapons, and drugs are shockingly common within the fishing industry. Meanwhile climate change is warming and acidifying the oceans, threatening the very existence of coral reefs, and causing sea level rise that threatens coastal communities from New York City to the Maldives.

These impacts of plummeting ocean health and skyrocketing global temperatures affect poor people and people of color most severely. They have the fewest options for other sources of food, employment, or places to live. Ocean conservation and climate change are human-rights, social-justice, and national-security issues. It’s all connected.

Thankfully, in addition to climate work, the UN has been taking steps toward achieving the ocean goal. Their new Ocean Action Hub crowdsources solutions and collects commitments to address ocean conservation challenges. June 5 through 9 2017 is The Ocean Conference – a full week event at the UN with diplomats, NGO leaders, scientists, and artists converging to learn, strategize, and commit to doing better. If it causes a traffic jam, I won’t mind!

Though much of that conference will happen behind closed doors, on June 4 there will be a public World Ocean Festival on Governors Island, and an Ocean March of boats around lower Manhattan. With world leaders gathering, it’s important to show and further build public support for ocean conservation. Political will follows public support.

Even though the US Administration is not only taking steps to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, but also trying to block the reference to climate change as a major threat to marine life in the Ocean Conference’s Call to Action, the rest of the world is charging ahead. Cities, states, and corporations in the US and around the world are stepping up and committing to local action on both climate change and ocean conservation.

The UN is doing important work, building global consensus through a slow and deliberate process. That’s important, but it’s not nearly enough. To escape this existential crisis of the health of our global environment, we need strong and inspired leadership at all levels – from mayors, to governors, to CEOs, to scientists, to artists, to presidents, to all we can each do as individuals to lessen our impacts on the planet. Our health, security, and economies, and the air we breathe depend on it. We must each lead.


Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, Ph.D., is a marine biologist, policy expert, and founder of Ocean Collectiv, a consulting group for ocean conservation solutions aligned with social justice. She is also a Brooklyn native, co-director of partnerships for the March for Science, and science advisor of the World Ocean Festival.


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Meet the Author

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson
Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist, policy expert, conservation strategist, and Brooklyn native. She is founder and president of Ocean Collectiv, a consulting firm for ocean conservation strategies grounded in social justice. She teaches at New York University as an adjunct professor, and was co-director of partnerships for the March for Science. As executive director of the Waitt Institute, Ayana co-founded the Blue Halo Initiative and led the Caribbean’s first successful island-wide ocean zoning effort. Previously, she worked on ocean policy at the EPA and NOAA, and was recently a TED resident and Aspen Institute fellow. She envisions and works toward a healthy ocean that supports food security, economies, and cultures. Find her @ayanaeliza.