“Conflict, geostrategic games, climate change, environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, food, energy, and water security are the primary issues of our times. Each of these affects the oceans, whether it be through degradation and pollution, overfishing, or as a source of conflict. In turn, the state of the oceans affects the people who live on it, near it, and indeed all of us, not to mention the remarkable range of biota that live in it. And 90% of global trade depends on passage across the oceans.
The oceans are a critical part of our global commons. But too often we are seeing the tragedy of the commons playing out in our marine estate. Overfishing and illegal fishing are depleting sustainable fish stocks, yet marine life is critical to the food chain of many species, including ourselves. What is the potential of seaweed both as a food stock and as a carbon capture tool? The concept of the circular economy is yet to have meaning in our oceans which accumulate debris of all types from lost containers to microplastics and chemical pollutants. The oceans have been critical buffers in absorbing much of our heat production, but at an enormous cost of acidification and loss of oxygen with major effects on the food chain. The sea level rise is no longer a theoretical issue, look at countries like Tuvalu or territories like Tokelau, and indeed many other coastal communities around the world that are seeing the impact of these rises.
The oceans remain a place of dispute as governments seek a geostrategic or economic advantage. Marine borders can be highly disputed, and we have seen international conventions and jurisprudence ignored regarding the South China Sea.
And the issues confronting the oceans continue to grow. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) agreed to in 1982 has many limitations reflecting national interests. Countries such as the USA have not ratified and others have ignored its regulations. The International Seabed Authority is meant to regulate seabed mining, but final regulations have not been agreed and Nauru, for example, has indicated that it will exert its rights to proceed next year in absence of a formal license. Despite many scientists wishing for a moratorium until we understand more of the impacts, especially in sensitive areas, once Pandora’s box is opened the rush to exploit the seabed seems almost inevitable.
The list of scientific questions is almost endless. But too much of our science is siloed. I worry about the pacific island states. To improve their outlook, so many groups of scientists need to work together, and not just as scientists, but with local societies and political and societal leaders. This needs an evolving form of science: transdisciplinarity. As of yet we have little in the way of knowing how to fund, assess and develop that form of science. The ISC is taking the lead in thinking through these issues.
But the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) have other problems – they live off the sea but so often only to the extent of a subsistence level. How, with their often very small populations, can they achieve the standards of living we enjoy? Does the digital world offer a way? The ISC has also recognized that their intellectuals are largely excluded from the global community of scientists. So, we have established a SIDS Advisory Committee and are working towards even more inclusive approaches.
Beyond the 12-mile limits and exclusive economic zones, the oceans are an ungoverned space. There are other ungoverned spaces – space, cyberspace and the Antarctic being other obvious ones. The first two, like the oceans, face the challenge not only of national interests but of unrestrained private sector interests as we have seen recently in the case of the rush to the privatization of space. The reality is that countries have little control over cyberspace except where there are very repressive regimes.
Antarctica is quite different – the Antarctic treaty of 1959 is quite distinct – here we have a whole continent assigned to peaceful purposes and effectively restricted to scientific purposes. How was that achieved? First our predecessor organization ICSU developed the International Geophysical Year (1957) and its success formed the basis of moving to the Antarctic Treaty in 1959. This is not the only example of science pushing diplomacy forward in a time of tension – ICSU played a major role in the meeting in 1985 that pushed member states to agree to the IPCC. The Montreal Protocol came very rapidly after scientific breakthroughs. The Antarctic Treaty has stood the test of time and is seen as the highest achievement of science diplomacy. Could we achieve a similar outcome for the world’s oceans with a new form of science-informed, more effective governance?
It may be hard and seem beyond achievability, but the toolkit of science diplomacy will be needed if we are to avoid the tragedy of the commons. But we cannot do so without thinking about all the other SDGs. Ocean health is not independent of other aspects of environmental, economic, and human sustainability. Nationalism and self-interest are affecting all the SDGs, while conflict and COVID-19 have set us back at the very time we must move forward.
We have real challenges – how to balance the real need for human wellbeing, economic, food, water, and energy security with our need to preserve the planet and all its biota, including ourselves. Science alone cannot provide the answers, but science is the key to all societies making real progress.
The ISC as the ‘global voice for science’ and the world’s primary scientific non-governmental organization is committed to working towards these broader objectives. This is the Ocean Decade, but it is also the decade of the SDGs – it is now only eight years until the landmark year of 2030. All parties including the private sector and policy-makers need to rekindle their efforts. Oceanic collapse is as real as the other existential risks we face. We are in a critical decade, but nationalism, polarization and geostrategic division make it much harder. Track 2 science diplomacy must play a greater role.”
ISC President, ISC Fellow, Member of the Fellowship Council, Member of the Global Commission on Science Missions for Sustainability.
Head of Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures, University of Auckland, New Zealand.
Image (Alcyonacea, or soft corals) by Alexander Van Steenberge on Unsplash.