The Ocean Takes Center Stage at the Global Climate Action Summit

By Robin Happel

September 17, 2018

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently called climate change the defining issue of our time. Former Secretary of State John Kerry felt similarly this past Friday, stating that “I don’t want to be the skunk at a garden party… but I am going to tell the truth. And the truth is we are not anywhere near where we need to be.”

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Speaking at the opening of the second day of the Global Climate Action Summit, Kerry reflected on his past diplomatic work organizing the vital “Our Ocean” talks. The ocean has long served as a carbon sink, soaking up CO2 emissions and up to 90% of the Earth’s excess heat. As the ocean warms, tropical storms become stronger, corals bleach, and sea levels rise, threatening coastal communities from Chile to the Carolinas. The threats the ocean faces are uniquely global in scope, and as such, the United Nations plays a crucial role in forging solutions, both at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco and in ongoing negotiations in New York concerning the fate of the high seas.

Perhaps the largest ever climate gathering, the Global Climate Action Summit brought together activists, inventors, diplomats, and business leaders from the Arctic to the Amazon. Several delegates spoke poignantly about their fears in the path of Hurricane Florence, as well as the fate of Fiji and other island nations that may soon be underwater. “When the ocean is rising, you can’t just call AAA,” quipped Queen Quet Marquetta L. Goodwine, chieftess of the Gullah Geechee. As residents of barrier islands across the American South, the Gullah Geechee are uniquely vulnerable to hurricanes like Florence, yet the optimism of Queen Quet and her fellow diplomats remains undaunted. “We are optimistic – we have to be optimistic,” said Inia Seruiratu of Fiji. “According to our Prime Minister, we are all in the same canoe.”

This sense of unity is perhaps one of the most profound outcomes of the UN’s diplomatic efforts, from COP23 to the U.N. Ocean Conference and finally the Global Climate Action Summit this past week. By putting leaders from Sweden to South America on the same stage, the United Nations shows us that the fate of the ocean truly depends on everyone, and we all depend on it. While there is still much left to be done, from adequately funding the Green Climate Fund to addressing the disproportionate burdens placed upon Inuit and other indigenous communities, this summit marks something of a sea change, and a movement to at last place ocean conservation front and center.

One of the most inspiring things to me was the leading role our generation is playing in fighting for the ocean. From the recent launch of Boyan Slat’s Ocean Cleanup Project to a powerful speech given by Sustainable Ocean Alliance President Daniela Fernandez near the summit’s close, the past week alone has seen countless young people step up and take charge. To borrow a phrase from the March for the Ocean that Ms. Fernandez helped organize last summer, the ocean is rising, but so are we. It is up to our generation to turn the tide.


About the Author: 

Robin Happel is a guest writer for the United Nations Association of the USA, selected from a competitive pool of applicants to serve as a UNA-USA 2018 Global Climate Action Summit Fellow. To learn more about UNA-USA fellowships and opportunities, subscribe to our mailing list

About the Summit: 

The Global Climate Action Summit will bring leaders and people together from around the world to “Take Ambition to the Next Level.” It will be a moment to celebrate the extraordinary achievements of states, regions, cities, companies, investors and citizens with respect to climate action. It will also be a launchpad for deeper worldwide commitments and accelerated action from countries—supported by all sectors of society—that can put the globe on track to prevent dangerous climate change and realize the historic Paris Agreement. To relive the action, watch recorded sessions and behind-the-scenes interviews from the recorded livestream

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