The day the ocean arrived

© Mike Crispino/WWF

Reflections on the opening of the first ever UN Ocean Conference, New York.

I’ve been working in ocean conservation for more than two decades and this week feels different from any I’ve experienced before.

I think we’ve made a breakthrough for the ocean. It’s no single initiative – although I’m seeing many strong ones being put forward – and it’s no one sweeping ambition, and we surely need to be bolder in the face of urgent threats. What’s different is that this is the first ocean conference ever convened formally by the United Nations. It symbolises the arrival of the ocean fully as a foundational piece of what leaders are using to steer our world towards a healthy future. It’s nothing short of what will shape humanity and our place on this planet.

Working to protect ocean ecosystems – from the tropics to the poles – often meant pushing against doors that were not to be opened, or only reluctantly, in order to have the important conversations about the ocean with those who could make the difference. Those days are ending. The ocean is relevant, to people, to economies and to the big political agendas of our time.

So what difference does yet another conference make? There will be many who have become jaded about conferences and summits, and sometimes I count myself among them – knowing that we don’t need more evidence, or more talk; what we need is action. But I also know that sometimes the powerful movements are those that arrive when the time is ripe and when people gather for the right reasons.

© Jessica Battle/WWF

I listened carefully yesterday to the opening statements from the UN Secretary-General and the conference co-hosts – the Prime Minister of Fiji and the Deputy Prime Minister of Sweden (see left). I was struck by the direct acknowledgement of the severity of the problems facing the world’s ocean, and the clear sense of urgency. Absent were the caveats and signs of procrastination.

It feels to me and to many I speak to here in New York that the ocean’s moment is now. This is the era for the ocean and this conference has crystallised much of what is important about the ocean and the nexus with the future of the planet. It is now well understood that the ocean is in dire need of restorative action and that this action is also crucial for the well-being of billions of people through the turbulent decades ahead.

The last few years have seen leaders stepping up for the ocean and bringing together some of the most active and influential opinion-shapers in the world. The drum beat that was distant and almost inaudible has become assertive and confident, and now it reverberates all around the world. It feels like we have finally reached the point where the ocean will no longer be an afterthought or even worse, the part of the planet assumed to be without limits. We should reflect on the great efforts of the women and men who have shown real leadership over the last few years to get us to where we are in New York this week.

This historic conference, as important as it is, will not deliver all the ocean needs – that would be an unfair and naïve expectation – but I believe this meeting is already demonstrating that the ocean is positioned on the global agenda where it should be, to unleash the kind of coherent action so clearly needed. This will require leaders to look beyond their immediate interests and instead to the common good, and that demands real foresight, wisdom and the investment of considerable political capital.

The UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in his opening address to the assembled Member States: “We must put aside short-term national gain, to prevent long-term catastrophe. Conserving our oceans and using them sustainably is preserving life itself.” Another point that particularly resonated with me was the Secretary General’s call for action at scale: “…a step change, from local and national initiatives to an urgent, coordinated global effort.”

Countries like Fiji – the fitting co-convenor of this conference – in many ways are on the front line of ocean degradation and climate change, and in working with the Small Island Developing States deserve enormous credit for taking on so much of the leadership on this issue. The current President of the UN General Assembly, Peter Thomson, from Fiji, made some key points that I think are worth mentioning here: “…SDG 14, the Ocean’s goal, is humanity’s only universally agreed measure to conserve and sustainably manage the resources of the Ocean.” He pointed out the importance of both the inclusion of the ocean in the 2030 Agenda and the ratification of the Paris Climate Agreement as indications that action had already started, and that: “We now live in the years of action and implementation.”

Against all the daunting challenges we face, it is worth reflecting on how invisible the ocean was just a few years ago and how far we have all come, and not a moment too soon. That’s why it feels to me that the ocean has arrived to take its rightful place on the main agenda of leaders from all sectors, and why we can and should have the expectation and the momentum for massive, linked-up action like we’ve never seen before.

I’ll end with the inspiring words of the Deputy Prime Minister of Sweden, Isabella Lövin, who ended her address by saying: “We know what needs to be done. We know the ocean is broken. We now need to sit together the next five days and make the long to-do list we all need to be ticking off, together in order to fix it. This is a moment and a better moment will never arrive.”

I will write again in the next days with my thoughts on the priority ‘to-do’ list and how I think the conference is performing to meet our ambitions.

© Matt Lee/WWF

John Tanzer, Leader – Global Oceans Practice, WWF International @WWFLeadOceans

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