US Secretary of State, Mr John Kerry at UN-Oceans Breakfast in Paris on Tuesday, 8 Dec 2015
US Secretary of State, Mr John Kerry at UN-Oceans Breakfast in Paris on Tuesday, 8 Dec 2015

Address to UN Foundation Breakfast -- The Ocean
By Ove Hoegh-Guldberg
Global Change Institute
The University of Queensland
Tuesday, 8 Dec 2015

Thank you for the invitation to speak this morning.

In doing so – I would like to recognise SECRETARY KERRY, who has TIRELESSLY campaigned for the Ocean for decades now – despite the many other important issues that  have demanded his attention. 

No one else has been able to bring this issue to the forefront of global attention as you have, Secretary Kerry!

I would also like to pay my respects to the Ocean Elders who are also here today, noting particularly the PRESENCE of ‘her Deepness’, Dr Sylvia Earle, and the distinguished philanthropist Mr Ted Turner, who – among many other things – was instrumental in the establishment of the very UN-Foundation that is our gracious host here today. 

Distinguished guests and leaders, I would like to begin by EMPHASISING the central role of the OCEAN to our WORLD.

Not only did life originate in the Ocean, but its ongoing survival is deeply rooted within the oceanic processes that regulate our atmosphere, stabilise our climate, and support a productive biosphere that involves MILLIONS of species as well as the NOURISHMENT of billions.

Our OCEAN is critically important to ongoing FOOD SECURITY with over 1 Billion people deriving much of their food and livelihoods from the Ocean each day.

The weather and climate that surrounds us is also DRIVEN by the Ocean - and HALF of the oxygen we depend on - is regenerated by marine plants that grow within its waters.

The Ocean is also a source of GREAT inspiration and is a CENTRAL plank for hundreds of cultures across the world. 

In short – the Ocean is our passion, our security, and our future.

Consequently, maintaining the HEALTH and STABILITY of our Ocean and its COASTAL regions could not be more important or more obligatory in the CONTEXT of human well-being and survival. 

Unfortunately, the CONSENSUS SCIENCE tells us that the ocean – ONCE thought to be TOO BIG to FAIL – is in dire risk of FAILING.

And as a result, there are SIGNIFICANT risks for humanity if we don’t take effective ACTION today to prevent it from failing. 

Many of these RISKS to the Ocean come from non-climate related stresses.

POLLUTION from chemicals and plastics have begun to choke entire coastlines.

While toxic LOW OXYGEN dead zones are expanding exponentially and now occupy an area the size of Italy.

At the same time, many of the world’s most valuable ecosystems – the planet’s coral reefs, kelp forests, oyster beds and mangroves - are disappearing at rates up to 1-2% per year.

Many FISHERIES are ALSO in trouble.

The FAO estimates that one in five fisheries is depleted and that another 40% are fully exploited. 

Non-market – small scale – fisheries have also degraded rapidly, exposing hundreds of millions of people to deteriorating livelihoods along tropical coastlines.

These impacts - from the deepest seas to our coasts - are threatening to FORECLOSE on future Ocean wealth and opportunity.

And as we all know – on a planet about to add another 3 billion people – the consequences of a FAILING OCEAN are extremely serious for humanity and its future. 

AS if to add INSULT to INJURY – the Ocean is ALSO rapidly warming and acidifying under the influence of CARBON POLLUTION.

While EACH has its own impacts on the OCEAN – together ocean warming and acidification

ACT as THREAT MULTIPLIERS to existing risks to the health of the Ocean.

One of the roles I have had over the past 5 years is to lead the “Ocean” chapter for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC. 

The latest IPCC report – as we all know - is a sobering read - the substance of which we have provided you as a SUMMARY and WEB SITE.

Perhaps the statement which I find MOST challenging in the LATEST IPCC report is the statement that: “The current rate of ocean acidification is UNPRECEDENTED within the last 65 Million years if not the last 300 Million Years.”

This is EXTREMELY TROUBLING in that it implies that our current ocean is rapidly transitioning beyond the CONDITIONS that ocean life is adapted to.

Despite HUGE GAPS in our understanding – the effects of this CHANGING CHEMISTRY is already being felt. 

For example, the reproduction of many marine species are already being affected – with consequences for people and industry.

For example – the oyster industry in the Pacific Northwest of the USA has already lost annual revenue of US$110 million – and over 3000 jobs have been cut due to ocean acidification affecting spawning and settlement of the juvenile bivalves.

We ALSO KNOW that the physiology of key fish species is also interrupted – leading to reduced metabolic scope and neural dysfunction.

These changes have profound implications for ECOSYSTEMS, INDUSTRIES and PEOPLE.

We ALSO know that the CORALS that build coral reefs suffer from the equivalence of osteoporosis as water acidify. 

As waters have acidified, the ability of corals to create and maintain their skeletons has waned.

When combined with ocean warming under our current emission trajectory, CORAL REEFS are under the threat of disappearing by mid-century. 

The loss of coral reefs will put at least 500 million– most poor - people at risk. 

I could go ON and ON regarding these changes – I want to finish now by talking about what we must do to SOLVE the growing Ocean crisis.

The FIRST is that we MUST keep average global temperature below 2°C above the pre-industrial period - and below 1.5°C in the long-term – to preserve coral reefs like the Great Barrier Reef.

This is what the consensus science tells us overwhelmingly.

Take CORAL REEFS for example – we have already lost 30% of coral reefs to underwater heatwaves over the past 30 years. 

AND if we don’t reduce the current rate of WARMING, we will lose coral reefs for HUNDREDS if not thousands of years.

If you find this hard to believe – please have a look at the information and consensus statement SUPPLIED by over 1600 coral reef scientists – also provided for you today.

The SECOND is that we must act on the non-climate stresses that are IMPACTING marine ecosystems. 

As we struggle to STABILISE ocean conditions, we need to MAXIMISE the health of ocean ecosystems so that they have the best chance of surviving the changes already in the climate system.

Given the importance of dealing with threats to the ocean from plastics, unsustainable coastal development and over-fishing on important marine ecosystems – solving these problems will yield IMPORTANT benefits for people and ocean ecosystems – CLIMATE CHANGE or NO CLIMATE CHANGE.

The THIRD is to ensure that we DON’T develop might be referred to as “OCEAN BLINDNESS”.

Ocean blindness is a consequence of our terrestrial origins – that despite the fact that 71% of the planet is covered by the Ocean, that we tend to underplay its IMPORTANCE and SIGNIFICANCE.

This problem continues to this very moment.

FOR EXAMPLE – if you take the current ADP draft text presented to COP21 on 5 Dec – you will fail to find any reference to the OCEAN or marine ecosystems – yet you will can find numerous references to FORESTS and other TERRESTRIAL systems throughout the text.

At a time when issues like Blue Carbon are in the ascendancy – it seems strange that we fail to mention the key importance of the Ocean.

From MOST angles – it looks like we are pretending the OCEAN didn’t exist.

THIS has to change if we are to properly understand and solve climate change.

Perhaps a change that IS traveling in the RIGHT direction is the appearance of Sustainable Development Goal 14 – which is specifically focused on developing sustainable use of the Ocean. 

This is clearly a ‘watch this space’.

So – in SUMMARY – the changes that are occurring in Ocean conditions are unprecedented in tens of millions of years. 

THESE CHANGES are driving fundamental changes in marine ecosystems – which, in turn, are already beginning to impact the lives of millions of people.

To avoid a potentially devastating future – we must strive to keep average global temperatures below 2°C above the Pre-Industrial Period - and 1.5°C in the long-term.

THIS means that we must drive CARBON POLLUTION to zero by 2050 or face a collapsing and FAILING ocean.

Dealing with climate change related changes must be combined with efforts to reduce the pressure of non-climate related stresses on ocean systems.

While the costs of mitigation to achieve this transition to a stable marine environment may be large – the costs of not acting to prevent the collapse of ocean systems like coral reefs is much higher.

This should give us more than pause for thought.

THANK YOU very much for listening.


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