This blog is from Ocean Conservancy’s former President, Andreas Merkl.
Gavin Schmidt, Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, elegantly responded to the potential US withdrawal from the Paris Climate treaty with a simple quote by Galileo: “eppure si riscalda (and yet it moves).” As history has it, this was Galileo’s stubborn response to church inquisitors questioning his findings about the earth orbiting the sun. He is basically saying that: regardless of whether or not the inquisitors believed him, it didn’t matter. It just is.
And yet it warms. The science on climate change is settled. It is happening. No inquisitor, no ideologue, no Presidential decree will change that. Much will be written elsewhere about President Trump’s decision–its lack of scientific basis, its strategic flaws, its international diplomatic ramifications. But here, we want to talk about what it means for our work–specifically for the ocean.
For the ocean, the implications of the U.S. withdrawal may or may not be severe–it all depends on the response of the 141 remaining signatory parties/countries (the U.S. emits 17% of global greenhouse gases). Some have suggested that with the U.S. out of the treaty, a major obstacle for decisive action has been removed, and the carbon mitigation agenda, led by Europe and China (yes, China), will, in fact, be strengthened. Others are concerned about copycat withdrawals by other countries, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and even India, which could shake the treaty to its core. Some have pointed out that the U.S. reductions of CO2 emissions were always likely to be driven more by technology innovation and market forces, rather than by regulations, and that the net effect is thus likely to be small.
Regardless of whether or not the U.S. stays in the treaty, we know that we need to reduce emissions for the sake of the ocean and all it provides us. The ocean is an unfathomably complex system which provides us with absolutely essential services–modulation of our weather, massive storage of heat and carbon, production of protein. Disturbing this system by adding heat and acidity is resulting in the world’s biggest science experiment. Complex, interconnected systems like the ocean are unpredictable–at first, they tend to be rather resilient to new stresses (like heat or overfishing)–but when change finally occurs, it can be massive and catastrophic, and irreversible.
From an ocean perspective, there is no such thing as “America First.” The ocean is a globally interconnected system of continually shifting massive flows of water, energy and life. Imperiling this system imperils us all–Bangladeshis and Floridians, New Yorkers and Londoners, a Vietnamese fisherman and a Maine lobsterman. We can’t blow this system up and expect it to function like usual.
We have no choice but to turn President Trump’s lemon into lemonade. The ocean’s ability to function, in its current form, beyond a threshold of two-degree warming is very much in question–we simply can’t afford to find out the answer. But we have a chance. The pace of technological disruption in energy, transportation, building and industrial sectors needs to remain on its current dizzying pace, supported by government funding–not because of climate, but because of its inherent business logic. The remaining parties to the Paris treaty need to make good use of their ability to continually “ratchet up” their CO2 reduction commitment levels over the next 20 years. The newly emboldened EU and Chinese leadership needs to make this a central priority. We all need to let the world know that when it comes to climate change, President Trump does not speak for the majority of Americans. And we know that the world’s addiction to fossil fuels is slowly waning. We need to speed up our transition to a clean energy economy. California has shown how economic growth can be entirely uncoupled from CO2 emission growth, and that President Trump’s “climate change vs. economic growth” is the mother of all false dichotomies.
The reports about Paris are disheartening, but they are only a bump in the road. Progress on climate is inevitable. And yet it moves. And Ocean Conservancy will be there every step of the way.