J. Carl Ganter: It’s ironic that many environmental issues remain isolated or siloed from each other. Policy and politics, science and data. But that’s changing as the connections between water, food, and energy in a changing climate become more closely linked. But what about oceans, literally where the river meets the sea? I’m J. Carl Ganter and this is Speaking of Water from Circle of Blue.
At the Aspen Ideas Conference in Aspen, Colorado, I sat down with Janis Searles Jones, CEO of the Ocean Conservancy. I wanted to learn more about how oceans have seized the world’s stage and the obvious and not-so-obvious connection to fresh water as we see more and more how our world’s ecosystems are connected.
We’re at this really interesting moment in history. I want you to try to describe that for me. What are you feeling today as there are all sorts of converging forces, both probably environmentally, system-wide, planetarily, politically. Can you describe that moment for me?
Janis Searles Jones: Sure. I think we are at a pretty fundamental tipping point when it comes to planetary systems. But at the same time, I’m hugely optimistic because I also feel like we are at a tipping point when it comes to citizen awareness of what challenges we’re all facing. When we look toward our future, you’re seeing more and more engage across sectors, across individuals, and so many more people getting invested and thinking about what the solutions are.
So, while I think our current projectory projections are certainly dire and there are a lot of converging threats that we all need to think about, at the same time I’m starting to see that balanced out by appetite for engagement and enthusiasm for actually grappling with this problem. So I think we’re right in the right spot and we’re tipping over into the right direction here where we’ll actually be able to have a sustainable future for our planet and for all of us.
J. Carl Ganter: Okay. So let’s describe this teeter-totter. On one side we have these planetary challenges. Lay them out for me from the ocean perspective.
Janis Searles Jones: Well, one of the things we’ve been doing a lot of work on lately is the twin issues that are starting to gain public attention. On the one hand you have plastics, which has really galvanized a lot of people when it comes to ocean conservation. On the other hand you have climate, and a lot of people don’t necessarily think of ocean and climate in the same breath. But literally they are part of the same breath.
So, one of the things that we’re trying to do at Ocean Conservancy is making sure that as we think about climate change impacts, as we think about mitigation targets, as we think about adaptation, we have the ocean squarely in the center of that thought. Because the ocean is inextricably linked with climate change, and ocean solutions and climate change solutions need to be one and the same.
J. Carl Ganter: So now on the other side, Bill McKibben the other night said we’re 25 years too late. We should have started, and he’s talking about climate change, a lot of this should have been started 25 years ago. We should have seen it. Why did we miss it?
Janis Searles Jones: I think climate change is one of those very difficult things for people to grapple with in the short term. It really challenges a lot of short term-long term thinking. As a species we’re not that great at long term thinking. And I also think there was a very effective effort to try to, particularly in the United States, muddy the science that was in there and make if more of a scientific dispute that it actually is.
And so I think Bill’s exactly right, that we are late to do what we need to do. But I do think it’s clear what we need to do we’re capable of doing it. The biggest challenge here is political will across the board. And that’s where I do have this optimism that more and more people are starting to get invested, seeing what the future holds. We have the whole rise of the youth movement, which is absolutely phenomenal to watch their investment in their future. And then I think older generations recognizing what we owe to the next generation. I think that’s starting to change in a way that gives me a lot of hope for where we’re headed in the next 25 years.
J. Carl Ganter: What’s causing that tipping point?
Janis Searles Jones: I think there are a few different things. I do think media has a huge role to play, and there is more and more reporting on climate which I think is hugely important. There should be more reporting on ocean and climate and I hope to see more of that in the coming years. There is no question that plastics, for example, has massive issue salience among the public. I think a large part of that is we all touch plastic. We can all relate to plastic. We can all relate to trash. And then those viral images. The sea turtle with the straw up her nose. The seahorse wrapped around a Q-tip rather than a seaweed or a sea grass.
Janis Searles: I think those are incredibly powerful ways, because everybody agrees that plastic does not belong in nature. When you have those images that can really bring that home, together with that sense you have some responsibility both for advocating for corporate responsibility, but also in your own life and with your own policies in your city, your state, your nation. I think that really brings together both the heart and the mind, and brings some passion to the issues which is great to see.
J. Carl Ganter: Let’s go back and talk about some of those grand challenges. I want to come back to Bill McKibben because talking about locking in certain trends and unlocking certain trends. Maybe you can describe some of those that we can course correct, and also some of the things we really need to be aware of in how we’re talking about climate and how we’re talking about some of these grand challenges.
Janis Searles Jones: So one example I would use that is particular to the ocean is the concept of ocean acidification. The ocean has absorbed about 90% of the heat that we have emitted as a result of burning fossil fuels, and it’s also absorbed about 30% of the carbon dioxide that we have emitted. When that happens a chemical reaction happens in seawater and it becomes more acidic. It becomes more difficult for animals that build shells to actually build those shells.
So one of the things that’s really important to think about when we think about mitigation, we have to mitigate across the array of greenhouse gases. But from the ocean perspective, carbon dioxide is particularly important because if you don’t actually reduce carbon dioxide emissions you will not be able to solve the ocean acidification problem. Right now under a business-as-usual scenario, scientists estimate that once we get to century’s end if we don’t actually deal with mitigation, sea water will be so acidic that it will actually dissolve corals. We’re already starting to see impacts with oysters, for example, in the Pacific Northwest. Have to pump in different kinds of water so that the baby oysters can actually survive.
So we’re having impacts to real communities, real industries, real people, right now. We need to be thinking about those as we’re setting our mitigation targets and actually figuring out which greenhouse gases we’re going to tackle in which order, so we don’t lock on a much longer tale in the ocean because a lot of those calcareous animals are actually the base of the food chain. So if you inhibit their ability to form their shells and inhibit their ability to grow and grow productively, you actually have food chain impacts up the food chain as well. So it’s a really important thing for all of us because there are a lot of people on the planet who rely on seafood as their primary source of protein. So this has food security impacts across the globe as well.
Freshwater people don’t necessarily hang out with the ocean people and the ocean people don’t necessarily hang out with the freshwater people. What’s up with that?
J. Carl Ganter: Wow. Some intense pieces. So I’m a water guy. I have a tee shirt that says, “The Great Lakes Unsalted.”Freshwater people don’t necessarily hang out with the ocean people and the ocean people don’t necessarily hang out with the freshwater people. What’s up with that?
Janis Searles Jones: That is a great question, and I do think all water is connected. The ocean holds 97% of the planet’s water and it is all connected. In a lot of ways, the ocean ends up being the end of the pipe for all those freshwater systems. And I do think two places where we interact a great deal with freshwater advocates are around plastic and around pollution.
So plastic, we run an international coastal clean-up globally. We clean waterways and beaches. So you get that connection there. Last year we had more than a million volunteers around the planet and removed somewhere on the order of 28 million pounds of trash. It’s a really significant event. We collect all data and then we share all that data out. Two years ago was the first year that all of the top ten items in that data collected were plastic. So I think literal trash is a great place where we interact a great deal with freshwater advocates.
The other place is around pollution and nutrient pollution in particular. For example, the Mississippi River which drains the Midwest and dumps out into the Gulf of Mexico, is the source of a lot of the nutrient pollution in the Gulf of Mexico which leads to a massive dead zone in ocean waters where animals basically can no longer live. It’s predictable. It happens every year. This year it’s predicted to be much larger than usual because of that super heavy rainfall in the Midwest that’s flushed out a lot of that nitrogen and phosphorus and other fertilizers. So there are a lot of upstream impacts that are felt in the ocean. That’s another real strong connection between advocates for clean water and riverine systems have the same issues as we do when they get down into the Gulf of Mexico.
J. Carl Ganter: Great. So you’re talking about systems, and in the environment world and even the freshwater world, a lot of the freshwater NGO’s and even research like fish swimming around in little glass jars, they look at each other and then they continue swimming around in their little glass jar. Is there a system’s approach, system merging, that is much more connected today?
I’m a litigator by trade so I often look at this from a governance standpoint. Natural systems don’t know jurisdictional boundaries. They don’t appreciate our governance systems which are completely different for freshwater than they are for the ocean.
Janis Searles Jones: I think we are starting to see that more and more. It’s not that hard to collaborate, but it’s also easy not to, in part because everybody is so invested in what they’re actually doing and in grappling with the system in which they’re operating. I’m a litigator by trade so I often look at this from a governance standpoint. Natural systems don’t know jurisdictional boundaries. They don’t appreciate our governance systems which are completely different for freshwater than they are for the ocean.
So one of the things we need to do is take a natural view of all the work that we’re doing and try to figure out how to harmonize those governance systems that we’re working with, those advocacy systems that we’re working with, and overcome the structures that we put in place that are real barriers to some of that systems thinking that really needs to happen for us to solve these problems. I mean to solve the Gulf of Mexico problem, you need to work on the Farm Bill. So having ocean people thinking about working on a farm bill. Having river people thinking about working on emissions from an ocean acidification perspective. Those are really important things that we need to sort of catalyze and increase that kind of collaboration and cooperation to really make these systems be the most important thing we’re thinking about rather than the jurisdictions and the governance systems.
J. Carl Ganter: Is that starting to change? I mean we’re looking specifically at the US, but look at other parts of the world where you have coarse governance and corruption. Let’s look at the impediments. What are the greatest impediments and how do we break them down quickly.
It’s extraordinary that human beings have actually heated the ocean. I mean it is a massive body of water, and that we have had such an impact that you have seawater warmer. It is extraordinary. And that is the age that we’re in so we really need to think about those kinds of solutions which require international cooperation, even in the face of having corruption and a lot of divergence when it comes to geopolitical interests.
Janis Searles Jones: So one of the interesting things for me, again being kind of a governance nerd around water and oceans, is just the very concept of public commons, right? So we are dealing with places that are not privatized, that are supposed to be held for the public good. That creates great opportunity on the one hand, but also great challenges on the other because you don’t have someone who is in charge of ocean conservation, for example. You don’t have someone who’s in charge of freshwater supplies that are connected underground or through atmospheric. You have all of these different jurisdictions.
So I do think that that is one of the big questions for the age of this planet that we are in when we are feeling the human impacts at a scope and a scale where we are truly effecting systems. It’s extraordinary that human beings have actually heated the ocean. I mean it is a massive body of water, and that we have had such an impact that you have seawater warmer. It is extraordinary. And that is the age that we’re in so we really need to think about those kinds of solutions which require international cooperation, even in the face of having corruption and a lot of divergence when it comes to geopolitical interests.
At the end of the day, you know everybody always says, “There is no planet B.” So really driving toward figuring out how to make those systems work in concert with the natural systems is really the daunting challenge of our age. But I don’t see any alternative. We’re going to have to do it because we all want to continue to survive on this planet.
J. Carl Ganter: Okay. So surviving on the planet. Five years from now, what do you think will be the big stories, if you’re stepping back in orbit saying, “Okay. Here are the big stories on the planet”? Let’s do both sides of the teeter-totter. What’s the biggest positive news? What’s the biggest negative news? Where are we going to be in five years?
Janis Searles Jones: So it is definitely my hope that in five years one of the biggest stories is around renewables. That is emissions reduction is key to a lot of the challenges facing the ocean. And while there’s a lot of interesting adaptation we can do, and amelioration of localized impacts, we still have to deal with emissions reduction.
So I think that seeing renewables, and possibly even ocean renewables, really vault into the orders of magnitude above where they are now is absolutely critical to the future that we all need. So I would expect that five years from now we would have been through a transformative period of time in the United States and globally where those renewables are really taking off.
On the people side of things I do think, as I mentioned before, the rise of youth movements and seeing more and more nations and nation states listening to coastal communities and listening to people who are actually experiencing sea level rise, for example, and having to deal with that direct impact on real human beings, real communities right now. I think that makes response to climate change much less abstract and much more direct. And governments are better at dealing with what’s right in front of their nose. So I think that you will continue to see that movement of population demanding more from their governments around climate change, and I think that that’s going to be a real positive as well.
So plastics, it is my hope that we, our bold goal at Ocean Conservancy together with partners, actually end the flow of plastics into the ocean by 2030. That is a very tall order when you think of how much plastics is flowing into the ocean every year, about 8 million metric tons. So I would expect to see a little bit of a sea change. We’ve been working on plastics in particular and really investing in some of the science for the past seven to eight years. You’ve already seen a massive change in public awareness and in the conversation. So I think that in the next five years you’re going to see huge shifts in consumption patterns. You’re seeing corporations across the board making commitments to reduce their single use plastics, move to a fully recyclable system, and ultimately get to a circular economy where you don’t have excess plastic and you reuse every plastic that’s actually out there. I think that trend is increasing rapidly, so I think in five years you’re actually going to see some real measurable success on that front.
J. Carl Ganter: You’ve been listening to a conversation with Janis Searles Jones, CEO of the Ocean Conservancy recorded at the Aspen Ideas Festival. For the latest water news roundup tune in on Mondays to What’s Up With Water, our weekly podcast of what you need to know. To learn more visit us at circleofblue.org and tweet us at Circle of Blue. We rely on support from people like you, and thanks for listening. I’m J. Carl Ganter speaking of water.
J. Carl Ganter is co-founder and director of Circle of Blue, the internationally recognized center for original frontline reporting, research, and analysis on resource issues with a focus on the intersection between water, food, and energy.