The state of our oceans is critical as we reset the world’s climate compass
Given the relentless alarming news about Earth’s liveability — collapsing bird populations, weather calamities, forests wiped out by pests — you’d think that addressing climate change would be the unrivalled theme for Canada’s election front-runners.
News media are even reporting that some Canadians are not having children because of their despair for the future.
Yet some politicians woo us with shiny tax cuts instead of measures that might help us survive. No wonder it falls to movements like Extinction Rebellion to confront reality.
Resetting the world’s compass toward sustainability requires not just responsible but equitable use of resources — including our oceans.
Covering more than 70 per cent of the Earth’s surface, oceans are home to some of the planet’s most critical ecosystems, supporting the well-being of hundreds of millions of people. But they’re under threat — becoming hotter, more acidic, losing oxygen.
Coastal communities in developing countries are already being punished. They may be the least responsible for climate change, yet bear the brunt of it. Recently, the tiny Pacific nation of Kiribati became the first country forced to buy land in response to rising sea levels.
To push back against climate inequality, we must first understand it. Social scientists can help, by diagnosing its root causes, describing alternative responses and identifying paths to more equitable futures.
For causes, start by considering that coastal communities and marginalized groups are excluded from any ocean governance decisionmaking processes that impact them directly.
As well, uneven access to oceans underlies coastal inequality. Industrial fleets from wealthy nations catch most of the world’s fish, and intensive fishing by developed countries comes at the expense of poorer ones.
One recent study found that five rich countries (China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and Spain) dominate 86 per cent of global fishing effort.
This is exacerbated on the high seas. Not only do most deep-water catches go to feed affluent countries, but their fleets target pelagic fish like tuna, a critical food source for Pacific countries that are falling short of their per capita protein requirements. Perhaps more offensive, many industrial fleets are supported by subsidies. As much as 54 per cent of high-seas fishing would not be profitable without them.
To eliminate or reduce the causes of this injustice, researchers have created different future scenarios by using plausible demographic, economic and governance trends. One international team of climate scientists developed five scenarios called “shared socioeconomic pathways,” or SSPs, that envision dramatically different futures. SSP1 describes a global community of sustainable growth and equality, whereas SSP4 depicts a world where highly unequal investments in human capital, combined with disparities in economic opportunity and political power, lead to increasing inequalities, both between and within countries.
These models — meant to help us see how global governance, demographics and economics could change over the next century — have been adopted by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and are being used to explore how societal choices will affect greenhouse gas emissions, and how the goals of the Paris Agreement could be met.
As for moving toward climate justice for coastal communities, there is already significant research in this space. For instance, transition scholars say the world will become a low-carbon society because of possibilities through innovation, and growing social and political support.
Ocean equity is also becoming mainstreamed into policy. The United Nations is in negotiations to develop a treaty to govern the high seas, and one of the core concerns is equitable distribution of marine resources, particularly to developing countries. In 2018, the High Level Panel on Sustainable Oceans and the Blue Economy issued a call to action for oceanbased climate solutions. The recently announced UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development emphasizes the role that local communities play in advancing climate justice.
Still, some politicians and their bases remain in denial.
The road toward climate justice is one that must be travelled with urgency. Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer than any decade since 1850. Continuing this trend will make human life very difficult, not only for coastal communities but for the entire planet.