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  • In the run up to the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference or Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC (COP28), which will be held from November 30 until December 12, 2023, in Dubai, this briefing explores the role of the ocean in combatting climate change. The briefer, Julie Packard, is a leading activist and since its founding in 1984 has served as the executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium in.She outlines where we need to see progress at COP 28, why the ocean needs to be center stage when we talk about climate, the role of a healthy ocean as one of the best defenses against climate change, hopeful progress at the UN Global Plastic Treaty negotiations (November 13-19 in Nairobi), and the need to protect ocean habitats from the risks of seabed mining. 


MODERATOR:  Good morning, everyone.  Welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center’s briefing on the role of oceans in combatting climate change in the run-up to COP28, which begins later this month.  My name is Jake Goshert; I’m the moderator of today’s briefing.

As a reminder, the briefing is on the record, and we will post a transcript and a video of this briefing on our website,  For those of you joining us on Zoom, please take a moment now to rename yourself with your name and outlet.  Our distinguished briefer today is Julie Packard, the executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.  Before Ms. Packard’s opening remarks, one quick reminder:  She is an independent subject matter expert, and the views expressed by our briefers who are not affiliated with the Department of State are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the department or the U.S. Government.  Their participation in the Foreign Press Center programming does not imply endorsement, approval, or recommendation of their views; they are here as experts.

With that, I am going to turn it over to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Executive Director Julie Packard.

MS PACKARD:  Thank you.  Thanks so much for taking time to be with us here this morning.  Really appreciate it.  So just a few weeks ago, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres opened the Climate Ambition Summit with a warning that by failing to act on the climate crisis, he said “humanity has opened the gates of hell.”  Could not say it more strongly.  And he also said, as you may recall, we’re moving “toward a dangerous and unstable world.”

So with COP28 negotiations starting at the end of the month, I wanted to share some thoughts about why it’s absolutely essential to place the ocean front and center in the climate conversation because healthy ocean can be one of our best defenses against climate change, and too often it’s not even part of the conversation.  It can help us avert catastrophe and shape-adjust a sustainable world where both people and nature thrive.

So the ocean’s the largest ecosystem on the planet, and really our first line of defense against the impacts of climate change.  It’s absorbed 25 percent of the carbon dioxide that gets emitted, and also it’s absorbed 90 percent of the excess heat we’ve put into the atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.  So that is a huge service that it’s providing for us.

The good news is it’s resilient.  It’s resilient.  And when we act to restore the health of the ocean where it’s been damaged, it responds.  And then it can, once again, begin to deliver the vital ocean services that enables life to exist here on the planet.  But unfortunately, it’s not, quote/unquote, “too big to fail.”  As land creatures, of course, we are probably not wired much to think about the ocean.  We live here on land, we breath air, and we really don’t think much about how its cycles are tied to our lives and the ability for life to exist here on the planet, and most importantly, how our choices affect it.  And selfishly, we really need to start doing that.

So ocean marine life provides a fifth of the animal protein we eat, and that may be a low estimate.  But it is a major piece of food security on the planet.  Its waters carry more than 90 percent of the world’s trade, moving goods and raw materials more cost-effectively than by any other means.  And its shores are home to nearly half the people on Earth.

The ocean is truly, as we think about it, the blue heart of the planet.  It’s the heart of our planet system most importantly; its currents and winds circulate heat and moisture around the planet, and the weather patterns that we associate it with all the different places where we live are all due to ocean and the stability that we’ve had in our climate over all this time, which is now being disrupted, as we’ve been so reminded, especially as the years go by.  And of course, climate change is now fundamentally disrupting these ocean processes that sustain life on Earth.

Of course, sea level rise is putting at risk tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of coastal people, and often in the most vulnerable communities where there’s no protection, no building zoning to enable people to survive severe weather.  And of course, intensifying harms as we’ve seen every day are costing billions of dollars, not to mention endangering lives, including here in the U.S. and everywhere.  So it’s really – it’s time to recognize that human health is directly tied ocean health.

Really, when you think about it, when we protect the blue heart of the planet, we are protecting home to the greatest diversity of life on our planet, and in so doing we’re safeguarding ourselves.

Well, so what does protecting the ocean look like?  For starters, it means reversing destruction of the coastal habitats, where of course people love to live; creating more global marine protected areas where ecosystems can be intact and have a better chance of surviving and enduring through all the changes happening; and something the Monterey Bay Aquarium has been spending a lot of time and energy on in the past 25 years has been ending unsustainable fishing and aquaculture practices because fishing and our extraction of biomass and marine life from the ocean is kind of our most basic relationship with the ocean that is damaging its ecosystems, and it’s something we know how to fix; that’s the thing about it.

So along with sustainability of fisheries and aquaculture, I mean, we need to start helping coastal communities prepare for the changes that are already underway and adapt to these impacts of extreme weather and sea level rise.  Of course, we need to invest in science, the bedrock of good decision-making, and this has been such an essential piece of moving toward effective fisheries management; when you don’t have data, you can’t make plans to get things on a good track, and the same is absolutely true for really most of the ocean, especially the deep sea, where we’ve had very, very little information.

And of course, we need to use the science along – that we’ve invested with to inform any future plans.  Of course, front and center of late is the discussion of mining the sea floor, which is really a case where we just are flying blind.  We have so little information about what’s there and what disruption we would cause, and we need to hit a big pause, hit the pause button on that, on that front, so we don’t rush headlong into the mistakes we’ve made on resource extraction on land without understanding the consequences.

And of course, something else that the aquarium’s been very involved with that’s been in the news is the UN global plastic treaty.  This has arisen in recent years and has a very fast timeline, and it is absolutely connected to solving the climate crisis.  And it’s an important thing to do for many other reasons, and right now, as we speak, it’s being negotiated in Nairobi because plastic throughout its life cycle, it’s a significant contributor to the climate crisis.  At least 4 percent, probably more, of global oil production goes to producing plastic.  So it is significant.  It may be a bigger number than that, even.  And also, of course, plastic throughout its life cycle, it’s damaging to ocean health and ocean’s – the ocean’s ability to be resilient in the face of all these other changes.

Then of course, most dramatically, most importantly, we need to reduce our commitment – need to execute on our commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and meet those – meet the ambitions that we have set for COP28.

Also, I couldn’t be prouder of the leadership in my home state of California.  We are advancing some very ambitious climate solutions and climate policies, moving toward a zero – net zero emission economy and going well.  We have the science.  We have the political support to be very aggressive on that.  And coastal cities everywhere now, as you know, they’re starting to factor climate change into their land use planning, which is absolutely essential, and building resilience into where development’s happening.  And in California, we also created the nation’s first statewide integrated network of marine protected areas to protect ecosystem health in state waters.

And then, of course, also innovators in the private sector turning their creativity towards solutions like batteries that don’t require continued mining of rare earths on land and on the sea bed.  So that’s obviously a huge part of the solution, is that innovation.  And then, of course, philanthropies are investing in the science and policy work.

So before taking your questions, just a few big picture parting thoughts about the whole idea of nature-based climate solutions; and to really solve the climate change crisis, we’ve got to turn toward nature-based and community-driven solutions like restoring and protecting animals and habitats that make up healthy ocean ecosystems.  The thing is that safeguarding and strengthening these systems is going to help the ocean continue to buffer and protect us from all the damaging impacts of fossil fuel pollution that’s happening, and really protect us from the worst impacts.  Blue carbon habitats, mangroves, marshes, sea grass meadows, along with other ecosystems like kelp forests – they act as natural carbon sinks.  And this is, again, something we’ve published research on the California coast showing how healthy ecosystem restoration improves the carbon sequestering abilities of these coastal habitats.

And along with it, you’re also improving water quality.  We’re supporting sustainable small-scale fisheries.  We’re protecting marine biodiversity all around.  It’s a win-win-win.

And so to maintain the ocean’s lifegiving function and to strengthen its ability to bounce back from climate impacts, we need commitments from our leaders, too, and we need to end unsustainable seafood production, treat plastic pollution as the global crisis that it is.  And when that’s part of the climate crisis and a grave threat to human health in terms of toxins in plastic along with the other issues around plastic that I mentioned, and in all of these arenas, the ocean is truly at the heart of solutions, and ocean action is critical to finding a path forward.

So as a global society, we know what we need to do to get on a sustainable course and build a clean energy future.  And we’re making progress faster than ever, and we have more tools to do the job than ever.  So many of these tools were created in Silicon Valley.  And, of course, with my background, I’m an optimist around human ingenuity to solve problems, but also we need to be realistic and really bear down on making sure those solutions are well thought out.

So I think others share my optimism.  Costa Rican diplomat Christiana Figueres, who directed the UN Climate Change efforts that culminated in the Paris Agreement – in her words, the world is “already on a journey of exponential transformation,” and so am I.  We’ve got to bear down and work on positive results that demonstrate success.  So for nearly 40 years now – we’re celebrating our 40th Anniversary at the Monterey Bay Aquarium next year.  We have been a voice for the ocean, and we’ve been taking action to improve ocean health, mobilizing the public’s awareness around its role and what we need to do.  We’ve been preparing the next generation of ocean conservation leaders who are ocean literate, diverse, ready to act on its behalf.

And working with governments, businesses, and NGOs, we’re forging solutions to the biggest threats to the ocean and pursuing a vision of sustainable seafood supply, a plastic free ocean, and ocean policies that are based on the best available science and technology.  So together, working across sectors and borders, I’m confident that we can realize our most ambitious vision which is a zero-emission global economy, and the fate and future of 7.5 billion people depend on it.

So thanks for the opportunity to share remarks, and appreciate your questions, and you’re doing all you can to expand our world view to what – to our blue ocean planet that we all share.  Thank you.

MODERATOR:  Thank you for those remarks.  We are now going to open up for questions.  If you’re online, please raise your virtual hand.  If you’re here in the room, just raise your hand and I’ll call on you.  A reminder:  We no longer use handheld mikes.  Do we have any questions in the room?  If not, we’ll go online to Pearl Matibe.  Pearl, if you could introduce yourself – unmute yourself and introduce yourself, please?

QUESTION:  Thank you so much for taking my question today.  So my question is on South Africa.  Director Packard, can you hear me?

MS PACKARD:  Yes, we can hear.

QUESTION:  Okay.  I was hoping you could see me; I was trying to get my video on.  But thank you so much to the State Department for holding this briefing, and I appreciate the remarks that you made a few minutes ago.  So here’s my question with the context.

South Africa lies at the interface of three oceans – the Southern Ocean, the Indian Ocean, and the Atlantic Ocean – and climate change could potentially have devasting effects on its coastal residents in the cities like Cape Town.  On its infrastructure and ecosystems, millions of people could be exposed.  Could you talk about what role these three oceans – the Southern Ocean, the Indian Ocean, and the Atlantic Ocean – could have on climate change and South Africa?

MS PACKARD:  Thank you.  I love that question because, being an ocean person, it is an amazing confluence that you have there in South Africa and such a rich and biodiverse habitat.  I mean, as I said, what we need to do there is the same things I spoke of.  There are shifts happening, as with everywhere, in terms of animals moving north and changing their patterns in terms of wildlife there, which, of course, is more on the animal side.  The Southern Ocean is kind of ground zero in terms of climate, just like the Artic, in terms of climate impacts, but we have no science down there.

And one thing – I know this maybe doesn’t sound very action-oriented – but one thing actually about the research community is doing is deploying a whole new suite of ocean monitoring buoys.  Actually, our research institute in Monterey has contributed the technology on those to understand what’s happening in the Southern Ocean.  It is considered to be a place where a lot of carbon is taken up from the atmosphere, and it’s a key area of ocean circulation.

I think, certainly in South Africa, there’s a lot of fairly progressive or at least interest in action towards sustainable fishing and awareness about that.  So proper fisheries laws that reduce catch for human use so ecosystems can recover – so important.  And all the animals and the ecosystem services in those oceans – it’s all one ocean.  The aquarium’s mission is inspire conservation of the ocean.  It’s all connected, so you’re absolutely right – it’s all connected, and we need more science.

We need action on the part of the global community in terms of – and I would say the fishing, the seafood – reducing over-fishing is a really critical issue for ecosystem health.  And because a lot of the fish caught in your area get sold on a global market and it effects the ecosystem health there, that’s something that our global seafood program at the aquarium is working on in terms of reducing the U.S. market demand for unsustainable seafood, because 90 percent of the seafood we eat in the U.S. is imported from other oceans and affecting other countries and other people and other ecosystems.  And there’s a lot of progress, positive progress, being made on that, which makes for some interesting stories, but we need to do more.

MODERATOR:  Any other questions?  Again, if you’re online, raise your virtual hand.  If you’re in person, just raise your hand.

Okay.  We do have a submitted question, if I can ask.  They wanted to know:  “What is the role of private sector individuals and organizations in fighting climate change?  Private sector funding is an important part of the COP process, and what are your thoughts on that?”

MS PACKARD:  Well, absolutely.  We need more funding.  We need more government funding.  We need more private sector funding, which, of course, can come in two versions.  It can come from philanthropies, which has already been an important part of the picture, and then of course there’s a lot of investment opportunities that are happening.  I’m a little more familiar with the philanthropic investments, which have been significant.  I know the U.S. funding foundations have contributed many hundreds of millions of dollars toward climate solution analyses, toward developing policy options, model policies – for example, when countries like China are developing their policies for appliance standards, as people move into the middle class, that can have a huge impact.

And so that’s just one example of things private philanthropies are doing.  One of the things our foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, is doing is investing in just individual innovators with great ideas about climate solutions and giving them an – sort of open-ended – here’s a grant, do whatever you want with it with your great idea – invest in innovators.  And I would say there is more and more private philanthropy interest.  But – and it’s where a lot of risk taking and kind of development of model ideas, mainly around the policy space, can happen.

In terms of opportunities for innovation, I mentioned I think already a huge need for developing batteries that don’t rely on so much resource extraction.  That’s clearly a business opportunity, and a lot of that science – a lot of the basic science happens funded by the government, which is fine.  That’s how the internet began.  I mean, in the U.S., a lot of the basic science innovation has begun at government labs and universities, but there’s a lot of tech innovation opportunity and a lot of need a lot of need for more solutions as we move toward needing technologies like offshore wind to be viable and affordable and buildable and low impact.  All of those green energy solutions need innovation, and there’s business opportunities there, of course.

MODERATOR:  Okay.  And seeing no more questions, we’ll go ahead and we’ll end the Q&A session there.  And I’ll turn it over to you, Ms. Packard, for any last thoughts you might have.

MS PACKARD:  Well, I think one of the – I think I made my point about let’s focus on the ocean in terms of talking about climate solutions and these nature-based solutions.  There’s a lot of interesting stories there, a lot of experimentation, but just raising – raising the visibility about that connection.  When you’re doing something like protecting mangrove forests by limiting development on them or restoring them, you’re protecting a coastal city from damaging severe weather, you’re also sequestering carbon, you’re also providing fish habitat for food security.

So these nature-based solutions – that’s an example of what would be called a nature-based solution, and those are such a win all around.  And we’ve lost so much of our coastal habitat to land conversion.  Certainly mangroves are a big example of that, that we need to slow down, protect what we have, and restore what’s been damaged, because there’s benefits all around.

The other thing, just drawing everyone’s attention to this UN plastic treaty, which has a very fast timeline that came – kind of came out of nowhere.  Five years ago, it was not really on the screen.  And what needs to come out of that is a global – what we’re hoping will come out of that is a global cap on plastic production and – number one, which is going to be a heavy lift, but there are a lot of countries that are showing a lot of support toward it.  We need to invest in waste management and recycling, which of course – plastic recycling, at least in the U.S., is pretty much nonexistent now.  People thought it was happening, but it’s not.  And so – and there’s really not – that’s not a solution.  I mean, we need to reduce production and reduce it at the source.

In California, we just passed a very progressive law about that that’ll – we’re really excited to see implemented, which does – it’s a real extended producer responsibility approach where the idea is just to limit the new single-use plastic coming into the environment, and having the producers have to pay for that impact, which hopefully will be an incentive to come up with other solutions.  So the global treaty is an exciting development.

And one new piece of the plastic story that is emerging now that is a big story is the human health impact.  And there’s a very important study that came out, funded by some foundations, called the (Minderoo-Monaco Commission on Plastics and Human Health) report about plastics and human health, and there – no regulation of anything to do – I mean, maybe a couple of constituents, but plastics have literally thousands of additives that are unregulated.  And that is something that absolutely needs to be raised up and needs – needs attention, needs to be regulated.  We don’t know the human health impacts.

And then, of course, you have the human health impacts of, I mean, the microplastics.  There’s – you’ve got toxins in plastic.  We’re consuming things in plastic all the time.  And then of course, microplastic gets in the food we eat.  It’s everywhere.  There’s microplastic in the deepest part of the ocean.  I mean, every – the deep sea in Monterey Bay, which is a marine protected area, should be very clean water – it’s a very robust, healthy ecosystem, but there’s microplastic there all the way down to the deep sea.  So it’s everywhere.  It’s affecting all life on Earth, including ours.

So that’s another thing to bring visibility to, and hopefully it will be regulated in some fashion and we can reduce production.  Sadly, what is already in the environment is going to be there for hundreds of years.  So that’s the bad news.  The good news:  We can do the right thing and regulate it and reduce it.

MODERATOR:  Thank you so much, Julie Packard, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s executive director.  I want to thank you for giving your time today.  And to the journalists joining us in person and online, that ends today’s briefing.  Thank you so much.

MS PACKARD:  Thank you.

U.S. Department of State

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