Science, Democracy, and International Ocean Policy: Thank You, Secretary Kerry

June 16, 2014 | 12:30 pm
Andrew Rosenberg
Former Contributor

When Secretary of State John Kerry was appointed to be our top diplomat, he told his staff at State that he wanted to take stronger international action to conserve and manage the oceans. This week, the Secretary is holding an international conference in Washington as a signature event fulfilling that commitment. But it is a tumultuous world, and each day we hear that Secretary Kerry is here, there and everywhere; crisis in the Middle East, Ukraine, China, Africa and more. Can he really afford to spend two days talking about ocean conservation?

But then if we just run from crisis to crisis, when do we pay attention to ominous problems such as climate change, biodiversity loss or depletion of ocean resources? These are challenges that affect global society as much as the seemingly endless conflicts the Secretary must work to solve through diplomacy rather than military action.  

slide_mainThe State Department conference was designed around a focus on sustaining fisheries, reducing marine pollution, and addressing the ocean effects of climate change such as ocean acidification. But really we will be talking about the health of the oceans broadly, because human society is impacting the oceans not only through pollution, exploitation and climate change, but through habitat loss, coastal development and many other impacts.

That doesn’t mean that we can or should bring development to a standstill, but it does mean we need to manage our impacts. After all, we don’t manage the oceans. We can only manage human society’s impact on the oceans. Bringing together political leaders from around the globe, as perhaps only the U.S. Secretary of State can do, is an opportunity to truly focus on what needs to be done for the future, not just bemoan the past.

I am honored to serve on the steering committee for the conference as well as being a panelist. My role will be to talk about the scientific work of “assessment” of the status and trends of many different aspects of the ocean. There are broad international and national assessments of ocean conditions and human impacts on the ocean developed over the last several years, including a new Ocean Health Index and a soon to be completed World Ocean Assessment under the auspices of the UN. And of course the IPCC report and the U.S. National Climate Assessment, which includes a chapter on the oceans for the first time, address the overarching challenges of climate change.

From personal experience with these efforts I can tell you that they are huge efforts involving many scientists, and they bring together information sources across the globe. But their real impact should be to focus attention on what needs to done to respond to very real challenges. These scientific syntheses enable citizens and policy makers alike to “see” the direction we are going and take action to address the problems we face. They are designed to be understandable beyond a scientific audience, to present the state of our knowledge as a basis for action.

So thank you, Mr. Secretary, for devoting your time and the weight of your office to ocean issues—and for making the clear connections between science and policy action that are sorely needed in so many areas.