Ocean's Role in Climate Change Still Largely Misunderstood by Officials, Public

Dec 19, 2018

Credit npr.org

The latest round of UN climate talks wrapped up last week, with delegates agreeing to parameters for the agreement hashed out in Paris in 2015, but disagreeing on how to handle new information released this year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 

One of the thousands to travel to Poland for the talks was Rich Delaney, President of the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown. He returned from those talks both hopeful and disappointed. WCAI's Kathryn Eident talked with him about why.  

Eident: Rich, you were in Poland recently at the U.N. climate talks, but you weren't attending those talks; you were at a forum focused on the ocean. Can you talk about what was going on?

Delaney: Yes. In my case, the group that I'm part of, called the Global Ocean Forum, organized two to three ocean-related events largely because, historically, these international gatherings of the U.N. and World Bank have not really acknowledged the critical role of oceans in climate discussions. So, we ocean advocates have been making sure that there are ocean days and every one of these meetings.

Eident: What are some of the messages that you've had to work on with leaders at the U.N. talks?

Delaney: Well, some of the most basic science. We want to make people aware of the fact that oceans drive the climate around the globe, and that in reverse, as carbon dioxide and global greenhouse gases increase, there warming oceans, acidifying oceans changing habitats and oceans. Some of the most severe and immediate impacts of climate change, climate warming, are being felt by the oceans with potentially catastrophic impacts not only for the ecosystem, but for humans who relate to oceans. Fortunately, because we've been doing this now for 20 years, I think we're starting to get the message across and the negotiators are recognizing the importance of oceans.

Eident: So, you've been able to evolve your message over the years?

Delaney: Actually, for the first time ever, back in Paris in 2015, the text of the—at least the preamble—of the Paris climate agreement uses the word “oceans.”

Eident: So, this year at the talks, who did you talk to, or in or interact with, and what was their response to you and your presence there?

Delaney: During the Ocean Action Day, we had 40 to 50 high level delegates. Then, we have several hundred people who represent non-government organizations, scientific groups, universities, the whole spectrum of what we call civil society. They're all part of our discussions and they carry the message back through their various avenues to decision makers.

Eident: You mentioned basic science in your original talks with U.N. delegates. Do you find that your message can travel across audiences?

Delaney: We have found the same lack of ocean literacy almost everywhere I go. With many people I speak with, people have thought for generations, maybe for centuries, that oceans are too big to fail. We can put as much pollution into them as we wanted to and there would be no impact. We can take as much fish out and there would always be more. We're now just realizing in recent years that that's not the case.

So, these are these are messages that everyday people don't always hear. And one of the jobs at the Center for Coastal Studies, and this group internationally, is to increase awareness about oceans. We call it ocean literacy, but that's not the ultimate goal. Once we understand that, then hopefully people will be motivated to take action to reduce climate warming. And unfortunately, I can report that many people are very discouraged with the discussions and the negotiations that are going on. No significant progress on a lot of fronts has been made.

But, a real big controversial point in Poland was not only to implement the commitments made by nations in Paris agreement, but to make those commitments even stronger and more--ut the word being used is "ambitious". Unfortunately, several leading countries, oil and gas producing countries, were objecting to that and distracting from it. And that kind of stalled a lot of the discussions a lot of work to be done.

Eident: Thank you so much for talking with us about this, Rich Delaney.

Delaney: You're welcome.