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Ministry for Foreign Affairs

Oceans and Climate: A Policy Perspective

A Statement by Ambassador Gunnar Pálsson

Directorof the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs

Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Iceland

in a Panel Discussion at

The Third Global Conference on Oceans, Coasts and Islands

UNESCO, Paris, 26 January 2006

It is a great honour for me to participate again in the Global Conference on Oceans, Coasts and Islands.

Where I come from we sometimes like to say that while land separates countries, the oceans connect them. This integrating role of the oceans is but one aspect of the vital contribution the oceans make to our daily lives; providing us with food, energy and water, sustaining the livelihood of hundreds of millions of people and serving as the main highway for international trade and stabilizer of the world´s climate.

Maintaining the ecosystem services of the world´s oceans is instrumental to achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). At least four of the eight MDGs bear close links the conservation and utilization of natural resources, including living marine resources.   More than a billion people depend on fish for their main intake of protein and 95% of  those who rely on fisheries for their livelihood live in the developing world. If  we are to eradicate poverty and hunger, reduce child mortality, combat disease and secure environmental sustainability we need to prevent and reverse the degradation of the oceans.

Regrettably, we are coming up short, by most accounts, in our efforts to do so.  As GESAMP observed in its report “A Sea of Troubles” five years ago, the state of the marine environment is deteriorating. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, drawing inter alia on information from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), identifies fishing as the most important driver of change in marine ecosystems in the past fifty years. We are now becoming more aware that, aside from pollution and overfishing, climate variability and change may threaten the productivity of our oceans.

The world has recently been witness to quite an upsurge of interest in climate issues.   Claims as to the nature and extent of climate change are frequently overblown. Someone – a skeptic, no doubt – once argued that the only thing constant about climate change was change. Nevertheless, few would deny that in matters climatic something is afoot – or at any rate afloat – in respect of the ocean environment.   Small island developing states are concerned about rising sea levels. Higher waves and storm surges are causing severe land erosion in Alaska. There is increased flooding of coastal wetlands in Siberia. In my own country, keeping track of certain commercially important fish stocks is becoming more difficult as their distribution and range apparently responds to changes in ocean salinity and temperature. Many more such examples are highlighted in the groundbreaking work of the Arctic Council, the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA).

The challenge for governments is to understand the complex processes that explain such impacts and spell out policies that adequately respond to them.  Such an undertaking is hazardous at best, for at least two reasons. There are, according to scientists, considerable gaps in current knowledge of the interaction of atmosphere and oceans, not to speak of the uncertainty involved in the use models to project developments far into the future. Furthermore, even if we filled all the gaps, the path from science to public policy is rarely a linear or straightforward one, at least not in democratic societies, where claims to rational objectivity must contend with economic, social and political choices.

This should not, of course, become an excuse for inaction. Far too much is at stake for us to neglect the compelling risks and unprecedented opportunities that lie ahead with respect to climate and oceans. Therefore, let me venture to submit the following points for consideration: 

The first point derives from the very complexity of the issue at hand. To comprehend the interaction between ocean and climate we need an input from many different disciplines. At the same time, we must be able to integrate what we have learned by means of approaches like the ecosystem approach.  Applying such approaches can also yield practical benefits. For example: Changes in the abundance of various fish stocks are not caused only by overfishing; they also respond to changes in ocean temperature, chemical pollution, current shifts and increased influx of freshwater and silt, as a result of increased precipitation and the melting of sea ice and glaciers. The point is not to detract from the problem of overfishing, but to underline that in order to know the full picture we need to be able to connect all the dots. 

Second,  we must synchronize the clocks of policy makers and scientists. Recent studies of climate change include long-range projections of future developments based on a selection and synthesis of complex scientific models. This is necessary, if only to enable us to distinguish between natural climate variability and man-induced climate change. But while the scientist will normally try to understand the significance of events over the longer term, the policy-maker is often focused on the shorter term. The latter approach has at least two advantages. Setting or re-examining policies at short and regular intervals allows for necessary adjustments based on what new information is forthcoming. As information becomes fuller and more dependable, we become more adept at predicting as opposed to simply projecting events.

Existing data on various factors and how they influence the climate should make it possible for scientists to make relatively accurate predictions concerning climate variability and change within the next twenty-five years or so.  This should become the basis for assessing with greater accuracy changes in the influx of freshwater into, for example, the North-Atlantic, which in turn affects the salinity of the ocean and ocean currents.  Furthermore, we also have to understand how changes in ocean surface temperature caused by global warming could affect the marine ecosystem.

How, precisely, such predictions are converted into appropriate adaptation policies on, say, fisheries management, harbour development or civil emergency planning, is not easy to determine. But it is this kind of information rather than the one hundred years scenario that is found to be of most use to the policy-maker.

Third – and related to the previous points – global climate scenarios need to be checked against more specific studies at the regional or sub-regional levels.  One of the most intriguing questions concerning the ocean-climate interchange illustrates the need to undertake such studies. Measurements have shown moderate warming of Icelandic waters. But according to some projections, increasing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations may slow or even close down the oceanic conveyor belt that distributes the world´s heat. If this were to happen, the North Atlantic Current that keeps Iceland and Northern Europe 5-10° Celsius warmer than the average of the corresponding latitude belt, would disappear.  Which way is the coin going to flip? Will the warming continue or will global warming result in local cooling?  These issues need to be given much more consideration and study, if policy is to meet the challenges posed by climate change in the marine environment.

Fourth,  as we adapt our policies to the impacts of climate variability and change on the marine environment, opportunities should be considered as well as risks.  Countries in the polar regions could benefit from warming in various ways. A rise in ocean temperature is likely to affect the recruitment, growth, migration and place of residence of fish stocks in a manner both positive and negative, as well as affecting the chemical and biological processes in the oceans, that are so fundamental to the ocean´s productivity.  Reduction in sea ice will facilitate access to natural resources and open up new commercial shipping routes between the North-Atlantic and the Pacific, the “holy grail” of  explorers past. While care should be taken not to impose added strain on the highly sensitive Arctic environment, a maritime shortcut would decrease transportation time, thereby saving energy and reducing global gas emissions from seaborne traffic.

Fifth is the area of mitigation, whereby efforts are undertaken to address greenhouse gas emissions and limit them in the long-term to levels consistent with the ultimate objective of the UNFCCC. As this has been treated in depth at the recent world climate conference in Montreal, I will shortcut here myself and go on to my sixth and last point, communication and the role of government.

Governments have a duty to promote science and research, without trying to influence the outcome of the work of scientists. But governments should also facilitate a dialogue between themselves and the science community to ensure that policy is informed by the best available information. As far as global challenges are concerned, this can only be done in an international context, especially, of course, if the field in question is as resource demanding as ocean research.

Five years ago, the GESAMP identified ineffective communication between scientists and government policy-makers and the public alike as a key cause of our failure to tackle the deteriorating condition of the world´s oceans. Taking  the truth of that suggestion to heart, world leaders, at their Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002, agreed to establish a regular process under the United Nations, for global reporting and assessment of the state of the marine environment, including socio-economic aspects. By way of follow-up,   the United Nations General Assembly decided last November to launch a start-up phase, an assessment of assessments, as a preparatory stage towards the establishment of the regular process.

In initiating work required for the eventual set up of the regular process, we have an excellent opportunity to integrate information on the interaction of oceans and climate with other drivers of change in the marine ecosystem, including, most importantly, land-based pollution. The assessment, to be concluded within two years,  will draw together existing scientific and technical data and identify gaps in our scientific understanding, applying an ecosystem approach.

The bottom line is this: With accelerating climate variability and change   reliable scientific information becomes crucial for formulating policies on a wide range of issues, including fisheries, maritime infrastructure and transportation. Therefore, more resources should be devoted to ocean climate research, paying particular attention to the short- and medium term, to the regional impacts of climate change in relation to the global and benefits as well as risks. Last but not least, efforts are needed to improve the integration and communication of  scientific findings in the  public domain.



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