Making it Count: National Oceans Month and Rio+20

Actions speak louder than words: hundreds join to show their support for the oceans. Show your support by asking President Obama to represent our oceans’ needs at Rio+20.

We’ve all made promises to ourselves with the best of intentions – to clean out the closet or learn Mandarin – only to make a half-hearted attempt that falls short of the goal.

In the environmental community, we’ve seen this happen on a global scale many times before – particularly at past environmental summits of world leaders, designed to tackle some of the most important issues facing our planet. Another international summit is coming up in Rio de Janeiro this June, when the United Nations’ Earth Summit will bring together thousands of participants and leaders from around the world in hopes of building a more sustainable future for all. The question is: will our world leaders make feeble promises to “clean it up later”, or will they make a real commitment to undertaking the changes we all need?

Rio+20 happens to fall during the same month as World Oceans Day (June 8) and ocean protection will be at the top of the agenda for the summit, as one of seven priority areas. With the destruction of our oceans ever escalating, we’ll need more than good intentions. Now is the time to make our actions count and to hold nations accountable for the outcomes of these negotiations. Specifically, we need to focus our ocean efforts in these three critical areas:

Ocean Acidification

Carbon dioxide pollution – generated primarily from burning dirty fossil fuels like oil and coal – is causing more than just climate change. Scientists have warned that in addition to disrupting the Earth’s processes on land and in the air, carbon dioxide is dissolving into the world’s oceans and making their waters more acidic. This process, called ocean acidification, may undermine the sea’s ability to sustain us by threatening the small creatures that form the foundation of the marine food web.

Our world leaders can help combat this process by creating a network of marine protected areas, like underwater national parks, so that the sea will become more resilient and  better able to withstand the adverse effects of acidification. A coordinated global monitoring network is also needed to better understand the impacts of ocean acidification. In addition, individual nations must commit to reducing their contribution to carbon dioxide pollution so the oceans can recover and the delicate balance of the planet’s chemistry can be restored. By reducing our carbon pollution we can stop ocean acidification before it is too late.

Ocean Plastic Pollution

Plastic pollution is choking our oceans. Up to 80 percent of litter in the seas is plastic, which can take decades or longer to decay and in the meantime wreaks havoc on ocean life. It makes its way up the food chain as fish swallow tiny pieces of degraded plastic, predators consume the fish, and so on. Larger plastic trash chokes seabirds, destroys coral reefs, and entangles seals, dolphins and sea turtles. Plastic blankets once pristine beaches, threatening the economic well-being of communities that depend on coastal tourism.

Cutting down on the amount of “single-use” plastics we use and recycling the plastic we do use is a big part of the solution. We need our world leaders to guide us to get there. That means establishing measurable commitments and real accountability from both corporations and governments to reduce their contribution to plastic pollution. It means holding plastic producers accountable and creating international guidelines that can turn the tide.

Preserving the Hidden Treasures of the High Seas 

We are just beginning to explore and understand the rich ecosystems that lie deep below the waves. The high seas – also called “international waters” – make up half of the planet's total surface and two-thirds of the world's oceans. Current research has shown that these areas hold surprising potential for medical and pharmaceutical discoveries, and hold more diversity of life than coral reefs. But these special places are in danger from increasing threats, including bottom trawling, deep seabed mining, overfishing and pollution. Deep sea biological treasures are lost before they can even be discovered. We need our world leaders to commit to protecting biodiversity on the high seas, so we can preserve the wonder and value – both the known and the undiscovered – that are hidden in some of the world’s most remote places.

We Are Going to Need a Better Map

The ocean world is dynamic, and it doesn’t obey national boundaries or political lines. That’s why international collaboration is key to a healthy ocean future.  

The international community has a collective responsibility to work together on the issues that affect the world’s oceans, coastal economies, and people everywhere. We’re counting on them to safeguard the coral reefs teeming with life, the deep sea mounts with undiscovered creatures, the billions of people who depend on the economic resources provided by the sea, and all of us who have the oceans to thank for the water we drink and the air we breathe. 

Demanding that our leaders create reliable solutions is an important step toward a sustainable ocean future. We need to go beyond good intentions this year and place the focus on action. Join me in asking President Obama to commit to sustainability for the planet and to represent our oceans’ needs at Rio+20.

About the Authors

Sarah Chasis

Senior Attorney and Director, Oceans program

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