OPINION: Any comprehensive climate solution must remember the oceans

An aerial view of a long, skinny, blue canal surrounded by desert.
A large container ship slows down global trade and becomes an internet sensation by blocking the Suez Canal in Egypt. (Courtesy: Axelspace Corporation via Wikimedia Commons)

Anyone who followed the saga of Ever Given getting stuck in the Suez Canal for six days last month will remember that, in addition to costs to global trade worth billions of dollars, the event was also responsible for several highly memorable internet memes. Many of these memes humorously compared the ship and efforts to free it to people’s various personal problems. 

But, Ever Given offers parallels to broader societal topics as well. As a longtime climate activist, I found the whole episode suggestive of an overlooked aspect of the global struggle to mitigate climate change: the need to utilize and develop the so-called blue economy. And it demonstrates how the climate crisis demands that we look beyond our immediate environments and embrace the necessity of coordination on a much more ambitious scale.

Ever Given drew attention to how reliant the global economy is on maritime shipping, having delayed $9.6 billion of trade for each day it was stuck, or $6.7 million per minute. The centrality of maritime shipping to our way of life leads me to wonder why shipping, and more broadly the way we use the oceans, doesn’t receive that much attention when it comes to efforts to phase greenhouse gases out of our economy. 

Global shipping is responsible for over 90 percent of global trade by volume, and generated three percent of the world’s annual carbon dioxide emissions, in data from 2007 to 2012 — a higher percentage than all but the top-emitting countries. By some estimates, shipping could constitute 10 percent of global GHG emissions by 2050, even if other sectors decarbonize enough to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Then, there are all the other ways we use the oceans, whose climate impacts are far from insignificant. This was recently illuminated by a study that found that bottom trawling — a highly destructive industrial fishing technique that involves dragging nets across the seafloor — releases so much carbon dioxide stored in ocean sediment that its annual impact on worldwide emissions is on par with that of aviation.

We also must remember how high the stakes are for people around the world whose livelihoods are threatened as the planet warms. Forty percent of the world’s population lives within 60 miles of the coast, and fisheries and aquaculture alone provide income for about 10 percent of the global population. Fish provide around 17 percent of the world’s animal protein, and as high as 70 percent in many developing countries, constituting a critical lifeline for countless communities who would face malnutrition otherwise.

The oceans have already warmed by about 0.2 degrees Celsius since only 2000, intensifying ocean acidification, bleaching coral reefs and placing greater pressure on the ocean’s supply of fish and other critical resources. According to data from the United Nations, 80 percent of analyzed global fish stocks are either “fully exploited or overexploited.”

Among activists in the West, though, strategies to fight climate change by using the oceans more sustainably are often treated as more of an afterthought. This even applies to progressive rallying cries like the Green New Deal — in the form of the resolution introduced in Congress in 2019 — whose text only mentions the word “ocean” once, as part of a list of objectives that include everything from promoting domestic manufacturing to safeguarding Indigenous land rights.

Ocean-related issues are clearly as worthy of our attention as any of these other goals. And, if the ocean doesn’t receive as much attention, I’m sure it’s not because activists aren’t sufficiently concerned about it. Instead, I suspect it’s due to an overreliance on the “think global, act local” mantra that many activists, including myself, have long endeavored to adhere to.

“Think global, act local” emphasizes that the most fertile ground for positive change is one’s local community. That’s all well and good, but such a mindset can have the side effect of drawing attention away from more macrocosmic issues that no one community can call local.

Issues like GHG emissions from maritime shipping, overfishing or destruction of coral reefs are far too expansive for any local community to handle; they require expert coordination at the national and even international levels, arenas that citizen-activists are often less experienced in and understandably are more likely to feel intimidated by.

Luckily, there are plans of the necessary scale that can guide us. Among the most promising is the Ocean Climate Action Plan, perhaps better known as the Blue New Deal, released last year. It offers a set of realistic but highly ambitious proposals to reduce climate-warming emissions and make more sustainable use of the oceans at the same time: through measures to help vulnerable coastal communities become more resilient to climate impacts, decarbonize ports and shipping and promote sustainable aquaculture to reduce the environmental impacts of the fishing industry.

Another critical component of turning the blue economy green is expanding marine protected areas, both to protect irreplaceable biodiversity and to avert emissions from extractive activities. This is the goal of the 30 by 30 Initiative, which aims to protect 30 percent of the world’s oceans by 2030, up from the current target of 10 percent. It is supported by a wide range of experts and environmental organizations and has been endorsed by President Biden in an executive order.

For climate activists gearing up for the policy fights that the rest of 2021 will bring, it would be good to take something more from the Ever Given episode than a couple memes. We should think about what this huge ship can teach us about the climate problems, and perhaps solutions, that have not received the attention they deserve. Even if our efforts feel like a drop in the ocean, we can’t afford to look the other way.

Ben Reicher PO ’22 is from Agoura Hills, California. He joined his high school newspaper in ninth grade because he loved to argue, and hasn’t stopped since.

Facebook Comments