This past December 2015, the 21st United Nations Climate Conference (COP21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) took place in Paris, France. The COP meets each year to make decisions that further the implementation of the Convention and to combat climate change.
Many people complain to me that these climate conferences are useless because of how painfully slow and drawn out the process of coming to an agreement is. Although I do agree that climate negotiations should move and come to decisions much quicker, I don’t agree that these global meetings are useless.
The decisions at these climate conferences have to be made by consensus, which unfortunately weakens and slows climate governance. On the other hand, governance is in every way a multiparty procedure. States deal with cities, NGOs, activists, and stakeholders. This is where I think it’s extremely important to know who you’re talking to and what you’re talking about if you dream of any sort of actions passed to protect our environment. During COP21, there was a Climate Generations Area where other forums were held simultaneously to the negotiations. This space was open to the public and provided more than 88,000 visitors the opportunity to share information and attend talks and debates.
My classmate Pamela Millan and I were given the opportunity to attend and participate in these public forum events working for the Sylvia Earle Alliance with Charlotte Vick and underwater photographer and filmmaker Jon Slayer. Our goal for the week was to maintain crucial conversations on the importance of our ocean through interviews for Oceans Inc., social media, and attending talks and events. One such event we particularly enjoyed was We Are the Frontline: for the Coalition of Atoll Nations on Climate Change (CANCC). Where President of Kiribati, Anote Tong, explained the reality, his nation and other low lying islands, are facing today with rising sea levels consuming their very homes.
Pam and I were also able to attend talks at Tara Expéditions, a 36-meter research vessel based on the banks of the Seine under the Pont Alexandre III in Paris. This schooner has traveled across the oceans dedicated to collecting data on climate change impacts on our oceans.
Despite our ocean’s crucial role in our very existence, the lungs of our planet have been somewhat absent in climate change conferences in the past. Organizations such as the Sylvia Earle Alliance, Oceans Inc., Ocean & Climate, and Tara Expéditions are working to change that. One fundamental achievement of the conference was the recognition of the ocean within the Preamble and in the Agreement itself. This is the first time the word ocean is reintroduced in the text.
As underwater photographer, Thomas Peschak has mentioned, “to thrive and survive in this field you have to be a hopeless optimist.” Regardless of the circumstances around me, I still don’t think it’s too late for our ocean. I’ll continue to seek all opportunities. The ocean needs people but we also need the ocean. Unfortunately, the consequences of the negotiations will still be too warm for the ocean but at least the conversation has been revitalized. We need to continue the conversation, move our actions forward, and work together to push for even stronger agreements for future climate conferences.
I can vividly remember the first time I visited my aunt’s beach house on Playa Tivives, Costa Rica about five years ago. This almost untouched beach town nestled away on the Pacific Coast of the Puntarenas province is a surfer’s paradise with its strong currents, nice swell, and large waves. Playa Tivives is under the protection of the government, so it is largely underdeveloped making it a perfect getaway for a relaxing beach vacation. The beach joins with the Jesus Maria River, which then flows into the Pacific Ocean, making swimming and surfing quite risky due to the crocodiles that frequent the salty waters at the river mouth. Going for a run one morning with my sister, we spotted a large crocodile basking in the sun right where the water hits the sand. As we kept running trying not to think of the colossal reptile not too far from us, we eventually came upon the area where the river meets the ocean. To my surprise with such little development and tourism here, there was a mountain of garbage littered all along the coast. The scene appeared to me as a small landfill feeding right into the Pacific Ocean. If this can be seen in small less developed beach towns, it makes you think about how other popular touristic beaches might look like.
While taking the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on Marine Litter through the Open University of the Netherlands and the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) I was able to pick up a few key points on what we can do to curb the litter. First of all we need to cut it at the source and reduce the amount of marine litter we use in our everyday lives. When you order a drink ask the waiter to skip the straw, when you go to the grocery store bring your own reusable bags, and do yourself a favor and buy a reusable water bottle- it’s not only healthier for you AND the environment but will also save you a lot of money in the long run. We need to improve and enforce legislation on marine debris. Creating opportunities to develop collection teams to reuse and recover materials from the beach and use them to create energy is another brilliant way of diverting our waste. Improve education at schools, in the industries, stakeholders, the citizens, and education of the authorities is one of the most important tools we can use to solve our marine pollution. If we have thousands of people without the education on the importance of this issue, why should they care to change their habits?
Solving the problem of marine litter also requires the attention of governments. We need to get governments involved in facilitating local actions, introduce policies, laws such as plastic bag bans, improve waste management systems, encourage businesses to produce in more environmentally responsible ways, and more support for scientific research that improves our understanding of the problem and that aims at developing sustainable solutions.
Overall, one of the most important actions you can take as an individual is to make greener choices. We need to tackle the problem of marine litter at the source and aim at reduction and successful management of the problem if we want to start cleaning up our coastal areas.