Al Gore, Vice-President of the United States (1993-2001), Chairman and Co-Founder, Generation Investment Management, sounded the alarm bells today, proclaiming a “true, full-blown global emergency” for the planet’s oceans. “That reflects what the scientific community has been telling us,” he said, “and their predictions have been right in the past.”
The prominent environmental activist warned that global warming now traps the equivalent heat energy of 500,000 Hiroshima-class atomic bombs every day. As oceans warm, the impact on humanity is devastating, he said, with more common extreme weather events and food scarcity resulting from lower oxygen levels, and migrations and die-offs of vital fish stocks. “Apologies to Las Vegas,” said Gore, “but what happens in the ocean doesn’t stay in the ocean.”
Other experts echoed the urgency of Gore’s message. “If everyone knew how serious this is, everyone would be activists,” said Nina Jensen, Chief Executive Officer of REV Ocean. “In our lifetime – in the last 40 years – we’ve lost 40% of life in the oceans.”
With over 50% of ocean surfaces being targeted by industrial fishing fleets, 90% of the large fish in the oceans, including tuna and sharks, have now vanished, according to Enric Sala, Explorer-in-Residence, National Geographic Society. “We’ve eaten them in the last 100 years,” he said.
“We’re taking out each year in fishing the human weight of China,” noted Gore.
Industrial fishing off the coast of West Africa has deprived local people of food security, Sala added, placing immigration pressure on Europe. “The economic implications are huge,” he said. “Twenty-three billion dollars is lost annually through illegal fishing.”
The good news, said Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and President of Chile (2006-2010), is that marine life can bounce back quickly when left to heal. “When you protect areas from fishing, recovery is spectacular.” Panellists praised Bachelet for summoning the political will to push through and enforce protections for large sections of Chile’s long coastline. But with that kind of political will absent at the national level for some of the world’s largest economies, Bachelet emphasized that subnational actors – governors and mayors of coastal geographies, as well as companies – can take meaningful action.
Plastic pollution has emerged as one of the more visible crises our oceans now face. Gore warned that, at current rates, “the weight of plastic will be more than the weight of fish” in the world’s oceans by the year 2050. But it is also a problem that can be addressed. “Ten rivers bring 80% of plastic into oceans,” said Sala, suggesting that, “if we figure out how plastic goes into those rivers, we can do something about it.”
Marc Benioff, Chairman and Co-Chief Executive Officer of Salesforce, and Founder of Friends of OceanAction, pointed to one potential catastrophe that focused efforts could still prevent: Sea-bed mining. “There are companies creating sea-bed mining vehicles using these Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies,” he said. “These autonomous vehicles are all about to go under, digging and grinding things up, and toxic plumes will come up, and will go into our ecosystem. Sea-bed mining hasn’t started yet. We need to get to our local politicians. We need declarations around sea-bed mining. It has not yet happened,” said Benioff, adding, “That’s a case for optimism.”
The panellists all stressed the urgent need to fund better marine science and oceanographic research. “What we want to do is improve our knowledge and understanding, bring that knowledge to decision-makers, and turn that knowledge into action.” Funding research and non-profits focused on protecting oceans and marine life is one area where philanthropists and businesspeople need to focus, panellists concurred. While agreeing that it is never too late for action, however, Sala lamented, “We are in the casino in the Titanic, trying to make as much money as we can after hitting the iceberg.”