Q&A: Future rests on addressing climate and ocean health

Peter Thomson
Peter Thomson, the UN Secretary General’s new Special Envoy for the Ocean. Copyright: Lyndal Rowlands/SciDev.Net

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  • Tropical fish and micro-fauna are now moving to cooler ocean zones
  • There could be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050
  • But global climate action advanced even after US quit Paris Agreement

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[NEW YORK] Climate change is compounding other man-made problems that are already affecting the health of the oceans and global fish stocks, says Peter Thomson, the UN Secretary General’s new Special Envoy for the Ocean. As an example, Thomson says that warming of Earth’s waters means that not only tropical fish, but also micro-fauna, are moving to temperate zones, affecting people in tropical countries who rely on fish for nutrition and protein. In this interview with SciDev.Net, he states that while some man-made problems, such as plastics in the oceans, can be addressed separately, limiting climate change is the only way to address global problems such as warming waters and ocean acidification.

What made you take on the role of UN Special Envoy for the Ocean and what does it entail?

I was appointed to the position by UN Secretary-General António Guterres following strong calls from UN member states for such action. Ocean action has been central to my work at the UN over the last eight years. 

In terms of personal motivation, I'm deeply committed to restoring a healthy ocean. My first ancestor in Fiji, five generations back, was a master mariner who arrived in a sailing ship. If you’re brought up in the islands, the ocean is in your blood.

During the 71st session of the UN General Assembly, we managed to raise global awareness of the ocean's problems through the ocean conference held at the UN in June 2017.  From the conference, we've evolved a comprehensive strategy and work plan to take us through to 2020.

How are human activities affecting the health of the ocean?

We must find the necessary solutions to deal with the many problems that accumulated human activity has bought upon the ocean. Just look at marine pollution — the fact that there’s going to be more plastic in the ocean than fish by the year 2050. Think of the fact that much of the ocean's fish stocks have been pushed to tipping points of non-sustainability. That’s not being done by the seals, or the sea birds; it’s being done by us and our fishing fleet. If you think of the degradation of coastal ecosystems — again due to human activity.

And when you get to the even more complicated issues of the ocean; problems such as ocean acidification or ocean warming, again it is accumulated human activity that's causing these changes, directly linked as they are to climate change. A warming planetary atmosphere means the ocean is warming as well, and the more CO2 we emit into the atmosphere the more acidic the ocean becomes. 

So, all these human activities have massive implications on the health of the ocean, and since it is humanity that has caused the problems, we have to find the solutions. 

On ocean acidification and warming, we must link directly with the climate action emanating from the Paris Climate Agreement. If we are to find solutions to ocean acidification and warming, we’ve got to be faithful to our implementation of the Paris Agreement.

“We must find the necessary solutions to deal with the many problems that accumulated human activity has bought upon the ocean.”

Peter Thomson

What are some of the other consequences of warming oceans?

Coral bleaching is mainly due to ocean warming, but as you know, it’s more than that. Coastal ecosystem management is also fundamental. We must better manage what’s going through our rivers out towards the coral. We’ve got to manage what’s being done to mangroves and we’ve got to manage the damage that’s being done by emissions and outflows from agriculture and industry. But as I've said, when it comes to ocean warming, we must link our work to climate action.

Another problem arising from ocean warming is that many life forms are predicted to move away from tropical waters. It's already being observed that fish that weren’t normally seen in temperate zones are moving in from warmer waters. It seems they are not moving just because of their own temperature tolerance but because their micro-fauna food sources are moving away as well.

Fiji is presiding over the COP23. How critical are issues like climate change and the ocean to island states like Fiji?

I think for a Pacific island country, there is nothing more fundamental at this time than dealing with the coming challenges of climate change and the ocean's health. These two elements are the fundament within which everything else on this planet operates. When you are talking about trying to lift health standards, when you are talking about agriculture production, uplifting education, or achieving gender parity, whatever you are trying to do, nothing will succeed unless we fix our fundamental relationship with climate and the ocean. The relationship has to be restored to one of respect and balance. This applies not just to a Pacific island country like Fiji, but to humanity everywhere.

One of the biggest things that has happened is the US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change Agreement. Are you still optimistic that the agreement will be implemented in time?

I think the effect I have seen in the world in response to that statement of withdrawal has been a doubling down in global commitment to advance climate action and the Paris Agreement — a lifting of ambition. I've also witnessed that from within the US, big cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, and states like California, are stepping up their climate action. Climate action is critical for all of us — existential for our children, for our grandchildren; and so, yes, I’ve been observing a doubling down of understanding, of commitment and of will to work positively for the implementation of the Paris Agreement. So much more has to be done, but we have a pathway of hope to follow.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.