World Ocean Weekly

How Do We Fix Major Ocean Problems?

Some estimates suggest that if we recycled all the plastic on earth today, we would never have to make another piece of plastic again…

I have a good friend who sends me links to technical ideas directed at fixing major ocean problems such as acidification, plastic trash, and pollutants in our air and sea that represent clear and present danger to global health and security. These ideas are mostly big geo-engineering proposals – iron filings to adjust ocean pH, harvest of the enormous islands of plastic bottles and other debris found in the Pacific and most recently in the Caribbean, or huge air handlers to suck in and filter large volumes of air to cleanse them of detrimental emissions, the output of the burning of coal and oil to meet the increasing demand for global energy no matter what the source. Indeed, recent news reports indicate that the use of such fossil fuels continues to reach record levels, indifferent to the rapid shift to less polluting alternatives.

These friendly exchanges ask that I think again about my own ideas about such things, and to articulate the arguments that counter their practicality – mostly the extraordinary demands of scale and capital costs invested in strategies that have no certain outcome and may exacerbate the problems as much as solve them. It is a good exercise, but it brings me back again and again to our propensity to fix things by actions that do not address the root cause of the problem at hand and may indeed have even worse consequences than the original situation presents.

It is also qood to ask, who benefits from these ideas? Simply the enthusiastic engineers and inventors and investors who will bet on the next big thing? Or perhaps those with vested interest in the existing system who see any distraction or simplistic hypothetical as a means to prolong the effect, and profits, of the status quo?

What bothers me most about this is the resolve not to address the problem itself at its source.

Over the past two decades we have been well aware of the destructive public health consequences of our dependence on fossil fuels. The debate has been serious and intense, to the point that we have engaged in military adventures to protect or possess oil and gas reserves abroad, advanced technologies such as fracking to poisonous effect as a means to extend the value of the resources we already have, bend our geopolitical agenda and behavior in support of policies and actions directly against our long-term benefit, and attempt to undermine alternative technologies even when they are proved economical and transformative.

So let’s look at what might be a simpler, more direct, point source to solution to some of these issues. With regard to acidification and toxins in air and water, the best possible action would be to regulate or stop such emissions altogether and pursue new, proven technologies such as solar or geothermal energy production that is already providing clean, economical power for many individual homes and factories, some prescient cities, and indeed, some nations. If the United States wanted true energy independence, it would emphasize and incentivize aggressive change over to such technology at every level. As have been suggested, what if we built large-scale solar farms on public lands, using public funds for construction and connection to a new “smart” grid distribution system? Some estimates suggest that such a strategy would provide every erg of energy required for an expanding US economy with a return on investment that would far exceed the profits of the recalcitrant energy companies fearful of change. What if we just accept that our existing system is strategically bankrupt and financially counter-productive, holding our economy and employment back, and make a revolutionary shift to the future using knowledge and capital readily available if we decide to invest it?

And what about plastics? Well, there may be a short-term benefit is harvesting and re-cycling plastic waste where it is available in large concentration – at sea or at the local dump – and recycle? What holds us back from that action now? Presumably price. But who benefits from the need to make more and more plastics? Right, the fossil fuel industry. Some estimates suggest that if we recycled all the plastic on earth today, we would never have to make another piece of plastic again. Or, what if we simply stopped buying plastic containers for our products and water, and used recycled paper containers instead? What’s the difference other than a re-allocation of investment to support a better alternative? Indeed, such products exist but are circumscribed in the market because there is no public groundswell for a fresh, less polluting, new employment, practical idea.

Finally, there is the role of the individual as the most common denominator in the market. If we boycott plastic, shift our investments in regressive product and production, legislate against it use as is being done in many locales, and demand alternatives in all instances against the continuing ill-effect of associated toxic waste and pollutants, we can take back our air and water and health and governance from those who do not have our best interest at heart.

We are the ultimate geo-engineers; we are the point men and women; we are the ultimate solution.

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of “The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society.” He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, our weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.

Who Owns The Economic Rights to Arctic Resources?

Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker YAMAL. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In 1969, an ice-breaking tanker carried a single, symbolic barrel of oil from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to the Atlantic Ocean through the Northwest Passage. This set off a lively dispute between the United States and Canada as to who owns that water. Was it a Canadian internal waterway or non-territorial ocean subject to universal right of passage? Thus began a debate focused not so much on the transportation route itself but more so on what might lie under that water in the form of exploitable resources. Suddenly, national interests were at stake.

A similar such debate was generated in the United Nations in 2007 when two Russian mini-submarines planted a titanium Russian flag on the seabed below the North Pole near the Lomonosov Ridge which Moscow claimed was directly connected to its continental shelf and established new outer limits beyond 200 miles as a vast area rich with economic potential subject to its territorial possession. Denmark and Canada immediately responded; the Danes asserting that the ridge was an extension of Greenland and the Canadians making a comparable link to its own geology. Scholarly studies ensued, conclusions were justified, maps and documents were submitted, and the 21member UN arbitration panel took the question under advisement.

In 2007, Russia planted a titanium flag on the Arctic seafloor at the North Pole. “Our task is to remind the world that Russia is a great Arctic and scientific power,” said the leader of the expedition.

In 2014, Denmark filed its own claim for some 895,000 square kilometers in the region of the ridge, citing evidence of geological movements from the late Paleozoic, Paleocene, and Eocene eras many thousands of years ago that presumably were exclusive enough to preclude the Russians from at least some part of the vast area for claim. There was talk of negotiation and partition, perhaps a dividing of the spoils. However, in August of 2017, the Russians announced that in the next session of the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf they would again file a revised bid as a result of changing membership, new appointees who might be persuaded by better arguments. The Russian Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources, was quoted in The Daily Telegraph as saying that the Russians were looking for “recognition of exclusive economic rights to about 460,000 square miles, estimated to hold five billion tons of hitherto unexploited oil and gas”. The Telegraph continued, “Vladimir Putin has described the Arctic as a region of Russian ‘special interest,” and has expanded military presence in the high north to secure it claims in the region. The Russian government plans to spend 2.8 billion pounds on Arctic development between 2015 and 2020.” Meanwhile in the Arctic Council, the group of nations contiguous with the Arctic, the conversations continue, genial and general, as if this underlying tension does not exist as an expression of geo-political conflict can undermine it all. Stay tuned.

Sometimes, national aspirations can appear positively absurd. For example, at the Arctic Circle meeting in 2015, Brazil hosted a break-out session to discuss its claim for Arctic involvement. When I asked what was the legal or logical principle on which their argument was based, I was told that “the fish migrate from Brazil water to the Arctic and return, thus they represent a connection by which we justify our claim.” The presence of Brazilian fish, it would seem, is comparable to a geological connection of land mass formed over eons of time, But what if the fish were Arctic? Would that justify an Arctic claim on Brazilian resources, its oil and gas, minerals, and fisheries? I am afraid I asked the follow-up question to no reply.*1Vz53BetUikE9Q1czmhn0A.jpeg

Source: Wang Qian, China Daily

And then there’s China. At the past Arctic Circle meetings in Iceland, the Chinese have arrived in full force with a major policy statement, new research initiatives, aggressive icebreaker construction program, and other insinuated actions that signal they are players in the future Arctic whether or not they have a territorial claim. This energy and financial investment is intimidating when you realize the limits of other national engagement and the challenge to budgets, particularly in the United States where financing for scientific research, environmental studies, and other Arctic investments are being curtailed. It is amazing to watch how the Chinese presence and American withdrawal have changed the levels of influence in all aspects of the Arctic conversation.

When you consider all the time, energy, skill, and funds tied up in these machinations you being to question where the true interest lies. The imbalance of investment becomes clear, and that clarity informs the true agenda of all the players, either to expand or defend access they already have and to assure their part of the spoils should all the best intentions fail and the Arctic become an area that no one nation, no international agency, no collective of cooperative interests, or no court of law can protect.

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of “The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society.” He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, our weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.

The Future of Arctic Fisheries Management

As the Arctic grows annually bigger with faster and more extensive melting of the sea ice, the temptation to exploit grows exponentially. What to do?

As fisheries worldwide are being seriously depleted by over-fishing and illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) harvest in the ocean beyond the interests and protections of national exclusive economic zones, focus has shifted from artisanal and coastal fishing to new grounds in faraway places, accessible by larger vessels and new technologies and presumably filled with all those fish that have gotten away from the innumerable hooks and insatiable nets. With the melting of sea ice in the Arctic and Antarctic, those areas have been inevitably invaded, raising obvious concerns that the ethos of total consumption will extend to those areas with depletion and final collapse a foreseeable outcome. The pressure is enormous and fisheries has joined the major categories for natural resource exploitation in those regions — oil, gas, precious metals, and now protein suddenly available in these remote waters.

If we look to the Arctic as the most viable example, we must change our global perspective from an equator-based to a top-down view, with the North Pole at the center of a series of concentric circles of ice and water: first, the international area of the Central Arctic Ocean, then the adjacent ring of Arctic waters including the surrounding seas, — the Bering Sea, the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, the Greenland Sea, the Norwegian Sea, the Barents Sea, the Kara Sea, the Laptev Sea, the East Siberian Sea, and the Chukchi Sea — marine areas within the geographical purview of the US, Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Norway, and the Russian Federation. As the area grows annually bigger with faster and more extensive melting of the sea ice, the temptation to exploit grows exponentially. What to do?

In July 2015, these five peripheral nations met in Oslo, Norway, to discuss regulatory prospects. In a joint declaration, they recognized the removal of barriers to the area as a result of climate change, the threat to an unique, shared ecosystem, the environmental dangers, the problems of jurisdiction, the lack of scientific knowledge, and the threat by commercial interests with no management regulations or authority in place. They also acknowledged the value of the traditional knowledge and experience of the indigenous residents and the impact of new development on these local users and their communities.

The self-imposed limits were conservative: no authorized presence of national vessels outside one or more regional fisheries management organizations; establishment of a joint program of scientific research; compliance of interim measure with relevant international law; coordination of monitoring control and surveillance activities in the area; assurance that non-commercial fishing does not undermine the agreement; and commitment to respect, cooperation, and continuing process.

In April 2017, according to a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts, these five nations, joined by delegations from Iceland, China, the European Union, Japan, and South Korea, took the agreement forward in a legally binding agreement that would prevent commercial fishing in 1.1 million square miles of the Central Arctic Ocean until a science-based fishery management measure is in place. The new proposal built on and extended the earlier precautionary approach by specifying a joint research program, formally incorporating indigenous knowledge into management policies, and completing the legal description of the area to be covered, procedures for decision-making, and outlining the conditions for additional management an oversight. This resolve was far more direct, proscriptive, and responsive to the sudden increase by 40% of area in the region open, ice-free as open water, for the first time in human history.

I never know quite what to make of these declarations. On paper, on the surface, they communicate real intent and purpose. But I never know what happens after: how the research projects are designed, implemented, researched, and published; how the regulatory specifics are defined, applied, and enforced; how the funds are accrued and distributed; how what is said is what is meant, how what is meant is what is done, how what is done actually relates to and advances what the process is meant to be. I tend to be disappointed when, a year or so later, the follow-up meeting reveals some few incremental steps forward, much stasis, some unexpected circumstance that compromises or diverts from forward motion.

Diplomats, delegates, and negotiators survive by taking the longer view. They understand the inherent stop-time of consensus building. They see progress in terms of interval from report to report, conference to conference, declaration to declaration, election to election, decade to decade over a temporary appointment or long career. They are accountable to best intentions, possible goals, shifting priorities, and rationalized outcomes. I often wonder what would be progress to what ends if the only participants at the table were the persons who actually lived in this changing circumpolar world, whose ideas, in short term reality even as they are derived from the longest traditional view, would shape a very different message for all the world to hear.


PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of “The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society.”

The Future of the Arctic (part three)

A multi-part series on Arctic issues exploring governance, policy, oversight, climate, resources, and the challenges for a changing Arctic.

Pangnirtung, Nunavut. Credit: REUTERS/Chris Wattie

When we imagine the Arctic we think of ice — endless vistas of white emptiness, etched by shifting dark lines and blue shadows. It is the place where no one can live and survive, even though people do. And to do so they demonstrate skills and tradition demanded by the environment to provide warmth, shelter, and food as sustenance for families and communities that have survived there for centuries. Ice is their world the way grasslands or tropical forests or coastal marshlands are ours. What right do we have to dismiss them or destroy them? What right do we have to think their lives are less than ours, their wants and needs any less important? How would we react to the destruction of our grasslands, forests, and coastal marshes? How would they feel if we took away their ice?

If we look closely, we might see that we have already diminished those nurturing environments, given over those resources to voracious consumption, to extraction and profits, to urban sprawl. We are paying the price and now they too are faced with results of our indifference.
The statistics and observations are convincing. The dimensions of the ice sheet that stretched around the circumpolar region are diminished by breadth and thickness. The glacial formations too have begun to melt, dropping huge segments like the sides of mountains into the sea. The water temperature increases at record rate year after year. What was solid mass becomes slush and open water, sooner and over a much-increased area, with sea level rise and increased temperatures, with amplifying consequences for flora and fauna and the people who have habituated themselves to past conditions and now must adapt anew.

Russian cruise ship. Norway. Thomas Hallermann | Marine Photobank

The Northwest Passage, a sea route linking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, across the top of Canada, is now possible for passage by more than a few explorers and hardy yachtsmen. In 1969, the SS Manhattan, an oil tanker sailing under the US flag, was converted to carry an ice-breaking bow and made the transit from east to west to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, where she was loaded with a single barrel of oil for the return trip, a demonstration of what might become a lucrative transportation route bringing western oil to eastern cities. In 2016, a giant cruise ship with a thousand passengers made the west to east trip, demonstrating another lucrative opportunity made feasible by the changed conditions of the intervening sea ice. From one barrel of oil to a thousand tourists in less than twenty years; what will the future bring?

This potential raises an enormous number of existential questions for the Arctic. The obvious first ones concern safety and the environment. What happens if there is an accident, an oil spill of any proportion or a grounding requiring passenger evacuation in remotes areas where emergency response is impossible? No equipment, no access, no communications, no infrastructure. The responsible parties — the member nations of the Arctic Council and the United Nations Agencies — have not ignored these questions. They have approved a new Polar Code for ship specifications and safety. They have explored communications options to address emergency needs. They are concerned with the operational aspects of this new situation and in their way they are acting responsibly, albeit slowly, as only bureaucracies can. Designs and funds are pursued for a new generation of ice-breakers to escort vessels in passage, and, amazingly enough, the Daewoo Shipbuilding Company has announced the construction of 16 modern ice-breaking LNG tankers, designed for the Northern Sea Route, the other half of the circumpolar route across the top of Russia, also opening for commercial passage linking the two oceans and bringing eastern oil to western cities.

So there you have it. The assumptions are that the ice will continue to melt, the passages will continue to be open and accessible longer for merchant or expedition ships, and economic and political rights will be exercised without question. Claims and counter-claims regarding the expansion and enforcement of territorial rights will simply refine the presumption that these water ways are national routes for the advancement of national economic and strategic agendas, and all the niceties of collective management, consensus agreement, and environmental and social concerns will be forgotten. Suddenly, the under-lying weakness of Arctic policy is revealed, stripped of its best intentions and lip-service, as yet another example of the old patterns of extraction, exploitation, and profit. The ice is gone, ironically melted by those patterns, and still the indifference to the environment, the indigenous people, and to change remains.

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of “The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society.”

The Future of the Arctic (part two)

A multi-part series on Arctic issues exploring governance, policy, oversight, climate, resources, and the challenges for a changing Arctic.

In 2017, Finland became the Chair of the Arctic Council, the international group of Arctic nations and other interested parties with interest in governance of the circumpolar region. In its statement of intent, it underscored the goals that had been emphasized by the US, the prior Chair, a program that was long on aspiration but not so successful in specific execution. These goals were expressed by the United Nations in its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted in 2015, which could be expressed in the Arctic “as a region of peace, stability, and constructive cooperation.”

Finland subscribed to these aspirations in its own agenda statement: “The Arctic is developing into an important hub for the twenty-first century. The economic potential in the region should be harnessed in a way that brings prosperity to, and guarantees the livelihood and social progress of, Arctic inhabitants and communities. Sustainable economic development is the key to resilient communities.” The predictable focus is there: on capacity-building, risk management, connectivity, cold climate technologies and services, maritime transport, bio-economy, tourism, housing, and mining. But if you parse the statement carefully, you might sense a different emphasis on what this development is for, not necessarily for the purposes of the international business community alone, but for the advantage of Arctic inhabitants and communities. There is a difference here from prior Arctic statements of intent. There has always been a declared commitment to the needs of Arctic communities and indigenous peoples in Arctic Council statements of intent and policies, but that commitment has not always found its way on the ground, with profits associated with the exploitation of Arctic resources often exported leaving far too little value behind. It seems fair to conclude that if more of those profits had been shared in the form of jobs, housing, education, public health, and revenue, the social crises faced today by Arctic inhabitants might not be so obvious, egregious, and unjust.

Why is the Finland statement different? First, it outlines very distinct goals, projects that can begin and end with very specific outcomes. Second, it focuses almost exclusively on projects that address the more immediate needs of the people who live in the Arctic, not those with interests and applications far away. And third, it is based on the cultural values of Finland, a small nation with strong relation to the north and Nature, a practical economy, and even a design sense that is simple and utilitarian as expressed in its architecture, products, and life-style.

Thus, their Arctic priorities are based at the core on environmental protection, with concern for the conservation of natural resources and biodiversity, mitigation and adaptation to climate change, and protection from pollution and destruction. With regard to technology and science, Finland proposes a focus on emphasis on climate change impacts, through assessments of black carbon, methane emissions, permafrost, and fresh water supply among other practical research. It proposes major upgrades in Arctic communications networks and services to facilitate e-learning, digital health, social services, and media connectivity. It proposes increases circumpolar meteorological and oceanographic cooperation. It proposes significant improvement and equal access to secondary education, facilities, job training, teacher recruitment, and university experience to build resilience. It proposes a “Pan-Arctic Network of Marine Protected Areas” as a strategy to protect Arctic waters from the inevitable intrusion of transportation, tourism, accident, extraction, and other increased activity resulting from melting sea ice.

Above all, it proposes to focus on the human dimension of the Arctic — a primary emphasis on basic education, sustainable work, and well-functioning health and social services. It supports increased participation of indigenous peoples in the work of the Arctic Council and the integration of traditional and local knowledge in its programs and projects. It proposes to address occupational health hazards, small scale and alternative energy development, training for local administrators and managers, gender equality, and a Model Arctic Council to engage the next generation of Arctic leaders in the understanding and management of the Arctic future.

As an observer of Arctic issues for some time now, I can tell you that this is a very different approach from the past assertions of grand intent, vague policy discussions, and the underlying influence of non-Arctic economic interests. It is direct, innovative, science-based, and humanities driven; possible to achieve with real consequence in a very special place, and an example of value-driven action required to maintain a sustainable world.

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of “The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society.”