Analysis: "This Gets Us in the Game"


On Dec. 12, Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego researchers cheered not only a landmark agreement to fight climate change signed by 195 countries at COP21 in Paris but also what was included in the text of the agreement.         

The preamble to the Paris Agreement mentions that the signatories note “the importance of ensuring the integrity of all ecosystems, including oceans.” At first blush, it seems like a mere stipulation of an obvious sentiment but the explicit mention of oceans is a first in the 21-year history of United Nations-sponsored annual climate negotiations. Inclusion of the passage, according to expert watchers of the process, could open doors to more ocean protections in future iterations of international climate agreements. 

“This just gets us in the game,” said John O. Niles, director of the Carbon Institute and a visiting scholar of Global Carbon Science and Policy at UC San Diego. “It changes the nature of the conversation.”

Fifteen physical scientists, political scientists, and students from UC San Diego were part of the University of California delegation to the 21st Conference of the Parties, more commonly known as COP21, the latest in a series of negotiations held annually under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Scripps researchers attended to advance the institution’s mission of understanding and protecting the planet. They drew the attention of negotiators and other COP attendees to a range of climate change-related issues such as ocean deoxygenation and acidification. Scientists also proposed solutions such as mitigating so-called short-lived climate pollutants like soot and methane in addition to curbing the carbon dioxide emitted by the burning of fossil fuels.

If the terms of the agreement are carried out by all signatories, the planet might still not slow the pace of global warming enough to keep it below a generally accepted threshold of manageable risk. However, as UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy Professor David Victor pointed out, it was a victory in that it finally allowed countries to align international climate action goals with their own national interests, making negotiations a success.

Likewise, scientists at the conference saw the conference as a step forward in that it created a framework that will enable concrete steps to protect the environment going forward.

Scripps Distinguished Professor of Climate and Atmospheric Sciences Veerabhadran Ramanathan attended COP21 as a member of the Holy See’s delegation, a reflection of his work as a member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Ramanathan was there to advance a message of opportunity in listing the benefits to be achieved by expanding the options for slowing the pace of climate change. He was also there to weave that into a narrative of climate change that points out the outsized effect climate change has on the world’s poorest people, despite their relatively small contribution to the problem, a facet of the problem that Pope Francis highlighted in the encyclical Laudato Si this summer.

Ramanathan had an additional objective of relating these messages to recent efforts by the University of California and the state of California to achieve carbon neutrality. A major step forward in that arena took place outside the negotiations at the outset of COP21 when Microsoft founder Bill Gates announced a multibillion-dollar endeavor, funded by some of the world’s wealthiest people, to accelerate clean energy development. The University of California is the sole university partner in the initiative, which will put it in a position to provide the solutions Gates and other philanthropists seek to achieve.

Ramanathan took part in several panel discussions within the confines of the COP21 negotiation venue at Le Bourget just outside of Paris. The theme of most were on the economics or the morality of climate change mitigation strategies, particularly those that Ramanathan has researched extensively such as the controlling of emissions of methane, soot and other forms of black carbon, refrigerants and other agents that produce a strong greenhouse effect in the atmosphere but for substantially shorter periods of time than carbon dioxide.

“You can't [meet global temperature control goals] by CO2 alone. We have lost that luxury,” Ramanathan told one audience.

In recent years, Ramanathan has engaged with spiritual leaders to frame climate change as a moral issue, one with the potential to create environmental injustice on a global scale. A talking point Ramanathan repeated frequently throughout COP21 is his observation that the 1 billion most affluent people in the world generate 50 to 60 percent of society’s greenhouse agent emissions while the 3 billion poorest people on the planet, with relatively scant access to resources, are responsible only for less than 5 percent of greenhouse emissions. Helping the poorest meet their energy needs as they cope with heat waves, floods and other climate change consequences is possible in an era in which clean energy becomes increasingly cost-competitive with fossil fuels, he said.

“Clean energy is accessible,” he said. “We just have to make it affordable.”

In his role as a Holy See delegate, Ramanathan also served as an intermediary, making recommendations to negotiators that engaged the Vatican. Though several countries sought the Vatican’s support for language in the agreement stating a goal of limiting global temperature increase to no more than 1.5° C (2.7° F) above pre-Industrial levels, Ramanathan suggested to negotiators pushing for that statement that they were pursuing a goal that was not realistic from a scientific viewpoint. He pointed out that ocean data collected by the Argo network of ocean sensors co-led by Scripps researchers indicate that the oceans already store enough heat to raise atmospheric temperatures .5° to .6° C. That increase, added to the amount of warming the world has already experience in the past two centuries, will make an increase beyond 1.5° C inevitable.

“That was primarily my role in ensuring that the agreement was scientifically consistent with the data available,” Ramanathan said.

After COP21, Ramanathan said he was happy with the outcome of COP21 even if the agreement does not achieve the slowing of global warming that most scientists believe is necessary.

“Overall I’m extremely happy that we now have a framework. I think of it as a major step forward,” he said. “I still hold onto my view that it’s not too late to avoid disaster.”

Scripps researchers took part in several events designed to raise the profile of threats to the oceans posed by climate change. Their highest-profile actions were a side event at the COP21 venue that Scripps co-hosted with the government of Chile on the topic of ocean stresses and protection strategies and a Dec. 9 panel discussion hosted by the U.S. State Department that four Scripps graduate students a chance to give their perspective on ocean science. Contributions by Scripps donors enabled Scripps students to attend the conference. 

Chilean negotiators said they were thrilled with the mention of the oceans in the Paris Agreement and that an ocean focus will need to become sharper in future negotiations.

“We are convinced that the ocean will be key in the implementation of the Paris Agreement,” said Julio Cordano, head of the Department of Climate Change and Sustainable Development in the Environment Division of Chile’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Parties to the Convention need to be aware that this is an urgent task, and that very focused efforts are needed in the context of the UNFCCC.”

At the outset of the climate talks, Chile promoted a declaration called “Because the Ocean” co-led by France and Monaco that advocated measures that enhance ocean resilience in the face of climate change. More than 20 countries signed the declaration during COP21 and Chilean negotiators plan to use this base to promote an oceans agenda under the UNFCCC in the upcoming sessions.

“The development of this idea and of this line of work could not have been possible without a very close collaboration with the scientific community, as seen in the side event that we organized with Scripps,” Cordano said. “The knowledge that comes from scientific evidence is the reason why we are pushing to protect the ocean and preserve it.”

As in years past, Scripps researchers banded together with those from other organizations to present awareness-building events. Many were organized by the Ocean and Climate Platform, a collective of research centers and non-governmental organizations.  Scripps students were panelists in several events, including presentations during the Dec. 3 Ocean and Climate Forum at the COP21 site.

“The momentum built at COP21 by ocean scientists working with high-level officials from many different governments is extremely promising, and I hope to see these fruitful partnerships continue into the future,” said Natalya Gallo, one of those panelists who is working toward a doctorate in biological oceanography. “A lot of work remains to be done, but for today, we can celebrate a victory.”

The inclusion of the oceans in the preamble of the negotiation text does not carry the legal heft it would have had if it had appeared in the articles of the agreement, in which are spelled out resolutions to carry out specific actions. For instance, provisions for the sustainable management of forests are included in the agreement. If ocean protection is similarly identified as a specific goal of climate action in the future, its elevated status as a global priority would give a firmer legal footing for enactment of specific protection measures such as the installation of observation networks or the placing of limits on the extraction of resources from the deep ocean.

For now, the mention of the oceans anywhere in the text is unprecedented, an acknowledgement that the world’s main regulator of climate cannot be ignored, said Niles and other COP21 participants. UC San Diego participants are already preparing to raise the profile of the oceans still further at next year’s COP, to be held in Marrakech, Morocco.

“Although two-thirds of the ocean falls outside national jurisdiction and thus doesn’t have its own negotiator within the UNFCCC, there were unified voices reminding us that the ocean is a great and essential climate mitigator whose ecosystems we depend on for food, protection, livelihoods, and climate adaptation, and that it is vulnerable to the impacts of our CO2 emissions,” said Scripps biological oceanographer Lisa Levin, who delivered several talks highlighting ocean stresses at COP21. “The Paris Agreement holds the first mention of the ocean in the official climate negotiation text since 1992, and symbolizes what I think will be a coming era of ocean awareness and stewardship”

– Robert Monroe


Related Image Gallery: Scripps at COP21 Photo Gallery

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