Our Ocean, an annual conference initiated by former US Secretary of State John Kerry, was held in Oslo earlier this month. It was the sixth Our Ocean conference and it couldn’t have come at a more important time for the ocean.
With a backdrop of increasing ocean threats, growing public consciousness of the scale of climate and ocean conservation issues, and 2020 just around the corner – this year has been deemed something of an ocean ‘super year’, when many international policy targets mature.
In addition, the IPCC’s Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere which launched a month earlier, painted a stark picture of ocean decline. There was a palpable air of urgency surrounding the conference.
As a newcomer to Our Ocean, I didn’t know what to expect from a pledging and commitments style of conference. What I found was a diverse set-up allowing for a series of focused plenary-style discussions bringing together 500 leaders from governments, businesses, civil society, and research institutions from 100 countries to share experiences, identify solutions, and learn.
This year’s Our Ocean saw 370 commitments made at a total value of US $63 billion. The volume and diversity of speakers pledging commitments to the ocean allowed me to reflect on six common themes:
1. Ocean protection is not the pet project of any one organisation or one country
While Norway was the host of this year’s conference, it was clear there were many countries, businesses and organisations championing for a healthier ocean. The numerous Our Ocean commitments centred on partnerships and collaboration between diverse stakeholders, including Bloomberg partnering with Global Fishing Watch to improve the transparency of fisheries, and EAT announcing a blue food coalition of policy, business and civil society actors to drive change across the aquatic food system.
2. Ocean action is climate action and climate action is ocean action
The ocean’s vital role in the global climate cycle was imbued in speeches and commitments across the conference, including the need to develop solutions at the ocean climate nexus. On the second day, John Kerry gave an inspirational address outlining that “we need to recognise that you can’t protect the ocean without dealing with climate change, and you can’t deal with climate change without protecting the ocean. They are linked. Joined at the hip.”
3. We need to listen to young people and involve them in nature-based solutions
On the first day, the conference’s youngest speaker Penelope Lea gave a call to action, setting the scene for the conference and the Ocean Youth Leadership Summit. Conversations were never far from the urgency called for by the next generation, and in another powerful and personal address, Alexandra Cousteau called on the audience to “think about your children with the decisions you make”.
4. We depend on the ocean for much of what sustains us as human beings
A keynote speech from Macky Sall, the President of Senegal, reminded participants of the life-giving value of the ocean, as well as our emotional connection to it, asserting that “the big blue has always nurtured dreams and fuelled peoples' imagination across the world”.
5. We need to communicate why our ocean matters in a way that allows people to grasp what is at stake
Metaphors and a shifting ocean narrative are helping to bridge gaps in public understanding of why marine conservation issues matters. On the ‘building a sustainable ocean economy’ panel, Jane Lubchenco described Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) as buying insurance for the ocean. Lubchenco also revealed just how central the ocean is to our health and our future: “The ocean is not too big to fail, not too big to fix, but too big to ignore.”
6. We know what we need to do. Let's get out there and do it
John Kerry described the conferences as ‘do-ers’ – indeed, the Our Ocean 2019 commitment tracker was launched, and Kerry highlighted the 1,000+ conservation promises which have been acted on and the $17 billion raised for ocean protection. Despite these successes, Kerry stressed that so far, “we are not winning”. The time for speeches is over, and serious, urgent ocean-climate action is needed. If we are to secure a healthy, productive and resilient ocean – as spotlighted by Jane Lubchenco – innovative, nature-based solutions that sit across the ocean-climate nexus will be key.
Our Ocean concluded in a handover ceremony, as the seventh Our Ocean in 2020 will take place in Palau – an Island nation in the Pacific Ocean. Palau is a natural choice for Our Ocean 2020. The country has an ancient relationship with the ocean and Palauans have preserved their part of it for generations, but it is currently facing serious ocean threats. Palauans’ lives begin and end with the ocean – as do all our lives. After all, a healthy, productive and resilient ocean is critical to all life on earth, not only because it makes life possible, but because it is a source of what makes life on this planet worth living.
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