NEW YORK FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, 799 UNITED NATIONS PLAZA, 10TH FLOOR
MODERATOR: Hello, and welcome to the Foreign Press Center’s virtual briefing with the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs at the Department of State. Our distinguished briefer today is Assistant Secretary Monica Medina, who serves as the assistant secretary of the bureau. My name is Daphne Stavropoulos and I’ll be your moderator.
Before we get started with the briefing, let’s go over a few logistics. This briefing is on the record. It will be recorded and made available to participants after its conclusion. Participation in this briefing implies your consent to being recorded. We will post a video and the transcript on our website as soon as is possible. If the Zoom session fails or disconnects, please rejoin and dial in using the phone number provided in the registration link.
So let’s begin. I’d like to welcome and introduce our distinguished briefer today, Monica Medina. She serves as the assistant secretary for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, and she was confirmed for this position and came into office on September 28th of 2021.
Previously she was an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. She was also a senior associate at the Stephenson Ocean Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and co-founder and publisher of Our Daily Planet, an e-newsletter on conservation and the environment.
I’m pleased to welcome her. She will make some remarks and provide an update on U.S. environmental priorities and her meetings during the High-Level Week of the UN General Assembly. She will also discuss U.S. objectives in the coming months, including combating plastic pollution and nature crimes, fighting the climate crisis, and reversing biodiversity loss.
After her opening remarks, I’ll return and open the floor for questions. And with that, it’s a pleasure to turn the floor over to her. Thank you for joining us.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY MEDINA: Thank you. Good afternoon, everyone. I am Monica Medina, the Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, and I am pleased to give you an update today on our U.S. environmental and conservation priorities.
Our message is simple: It is time for all countries to step up and show up for nature, for the planet, and for our children and grandchildren and their future. Yesterday, the United States stepped up and we showed up for our planet in a landmark, absolutely historic moment. We are thrilled that the U.S. Senate voted to ratify the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol. We’ve now joined 137 other countries in agreeing to phase down global production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons, super-polluting chemicals that are hundreds of thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Global implementation of this treaty should avoid as much as a half a degree Celsius of warming by the end of this century, which is a tremendous step forward in tackling the climate crisis.
This is an important example of the United States’ return to the global stage as a leader in fighting climate change, reducing pollution, and making strides towards leaving our children and grandchildren a healthier planet than the one we have today. And this monumental decision is not only supported by the U.S. Government but by the entire U.S. business community. It supported the Kigali Amendment because it’s good for U.S. businesses, it’s good for U.S. competitiveness, and it’s good for the environment and the planet.
This week at the 77th UN General Assembly, we have focused on adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change, supporting a global goal of conserving at least 30 percent of the land and waters on the planet by 2030, and uniting the world to reducing rising levels of pollution. We addressed these issues through several different events. A community of North and South Atlantic nations have agreed that challenges to an open and sustainable Atlantic Ocean are best tackled together. I joined Secretary Blinken and several other Atlantic coastal governments to explore cooperation on environmental, economic, and maritime security issues.
I also joined the American Chemistry Council for a discussion on how to achieve ambition and action on ending global plastic pollution, with a focus on the full life cycle of plastics.
And I also participated in the launch of the High Ambition Business Coalition, calling for a successful global agreement to end plastic pollution. I participated in the launch of a plastics disclosure and reporting initiative to help companies understand and share their plastic footprints.
I also joined NGOs, the Alliance of Small Island States, and the governments – the Government of Antigua and Barbuda, and other leaders from all around the world to present policy approaches to combat plastic pollution that can be scaled up as possible solutions. These policy approaches could be considered as part of an international, legally binding instrument to address plastic polution that we’re working on right now.
I spoke at a session with the Green Climate Fund to highlight a new generation of co-investment platforms aiming to blend several sources of public and private finance to scale up climate investments in various sectors.
Earlier this year, the United States joined the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People in support of the goal to conserve or protect at least 30 percent of the global ocean. And this week, I joined many of my fellow ministers at an event to call on all countries to step up and show up for biodiversity at the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Conference of the Parties, which will take place in Montreal in December of this year.
I met with Pacific Island leaders who are part of the Local2030 Islands Network to advance island priorities and leadership. This partnership was first announced last year in Glasgow at COP26 with a $9 million U.S. commitment with a focus on implementation and action on clean energy and climate resilience.
And finally, to achieve success on our most important and urgent priorities, the United States has consistently advocated for strong, multistakeholder engagement, including from civil society organizations and environmental defenders. The threat against environmental defenders working to combat the climate crisis or address pollution are severe and serious. The United States wants to ensure that the space for environmental defenders to act and speak up and lend their voices to these important issues is preserved and expanded.
As you can tell, it’s been an incredibly busy week here in New York, but these next few months will shape the future health of the planet for generations to come. I am so encouraged by the momentum here at home in the U.S. and across the globe to move from ambition to action. We stand at a crossroads when it comes to conserving our planet, to confronting a climate crisis and a pollution crisis and a nature crisis all at once.
We know the climate crisis is a problem and its ripple effects are being felt everywhere, including through more extreme weather such as what we just saw in Japan, Alaska, and of course here in the U.S. in Puerto Rico. It’s causing ocean acidification and loss of land due to sea level rise. It’s causing global food insecurity because of extreme heat or water shortages or floods. And then there’s a resulting loss of nature and wildlife. As we speak, negotiations are underway to manage and protect the ocean, to restore biodiversity, to tackle the plastic pollution crisis and begin in earnest the hard work of implementing the Paris Climate Agreement. It’s a busy time.
Just consider what is to come over the next several months. Next week, President Biden will welcome Pacific Island leaders to Washington for a two-day summit to further strengthen this important bond and advance conservation, sustainable development, regional cooperation, food security, climate resilience, and much more.
In late October, we’ll be in Hobart, Australia, for the meeting of the Convention on the Conservation of Atlantic – I’m sorry – Antarctic Marine Living Resources, also known as CCAMLR, which is considering proposals to establish additional Marine Protected Areas in this very fragile part of the world. If the world is to reach the goal of conserving at least 30 percent of the global ocean, then Arctic Marine Protected Areas are essential.
In early November, of course, the world will come together in Egypt for COP27 as we continue to take the action we need to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius. In late November, negotiations will begin on the first-ever Global Agreement to Combat Plastic Pollution and those negotiations will take place in Montevideo, Uruguay.
And in December, we’ll be in Montreal for the final session of the Convention on Biological Diversity’s negotiation of a Global Biodiversity Framework for the coming decade, including the goal to conserve or protect at least 30 percent of the world’s land and ocean by 2030.
And early next year, we’ll be back in New York to complete the negotiation of an agreement for the conservation and sustainable use of the high seas, a vast expanse of ocean that covers half the planet.
And this isn’t the whole list, but you can see why the coming months represent such a critical moment. If we fail to meet this moment, we know that we will see more pollution, we’ll see rising temperatures and flooding and sea level rise, loss of biodiversity, greater environmental injustice, and greater insecurity and strife all across the planet.
But there is another way – a path ahead that leads to a better future where we live sustainably, in which we have a positive relationship with nature. Under President Biden’s leadership on climate, on nature, biodiversity, and pollution, we are choosing that better path. On his first day in office, President Biden re-entered the United States into the Paris Agreement. And with the recent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act and other efforts planned and underway, we can and we will meet our climate goals. There are solutions to the other challenges all around us too, and the United States Government is working to ensure we act on all of them to galvanize a broad group of stakeholders who will help us.
We joined the High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy and are strengthening our partnerships with Pacific Islands. Along with Canada and the UK, we launched a coalition to combat illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing – a global problem that hurts fishermen and the oceans alike. President Biden signed a National Security Memorandum that further tackles this problem.
Earlier this year, the global community took an important step towards ending subsidies that promote harmful fishing practices all over the world, and at the seventh Our Ocean Conference we generated more than $16 billion in new commitments to create protected areas, promote sustainable fishing, reduce pollution, decarbonizing the shipping industry, and more. A historic resolution at the UN Environment Assembly launched the two-year negotiation process to end the scourge of plastic pollution that chokes our streets, our rivers, our lakes, and our beaches. The list goes on and on.
Across the United States and the world, we see indigenous leaders and communities at the forefront of conservation. Several indigenous-led ocean conservation initiatives are underway from Georgia to California, Alaska to Hawaii, and as far away as the Northern Marianas. This mirrors the growing importance of and respect for indigenous conservation and indigenous knowledge around the globe to conserve and sustainably manage the natural world.
A clean and healthy environment is not a luxury. It is important to the health, well-being, and security of all people. That is why the United States was proud to vote in favor of the United Nations resolution supporting a right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. The question now is: Will we keep this up? Can we continue to meet this moment? Will we move from ambition to action? Will we seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to move down a more sustainable path that values and conserves nature?
I firmly believe that we will, and the United States has stepped up its leadership at this crucial moment. The planet needs us, and we are ready right now and in the future to do our part.
Thank you so very much for being with us today. And with that, I am happy to take your questions.
MODERATOR: Well, thank you so much for those opening remarks. To ask a question, please raise your virtual hand and wait for me to call on you. When called on, unmute yourself and as a courtesy to our briefer, please enable both your video and enable your audio.
And the first question will go to Pearl Matibe. Pearl, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you very much for your availability today. Pearl Matibe, Power FM, South Africa. I’m not able to put my video on; I’m at a different conference – a little bit of conflict here with the whole General Assembly.
So to ask my question, I just want to give some context. Africa is home to the second-largest rainforest, and it is bounded by at least – a number of oceans, bodies of water. And if you take a look at, for example, South Africa, for example, South Africa alone has a coastline of almost 3,000 kilometers. Namibia, almost 1,500. Mozambique, almost 2,400 – actually more than 2,400 kilometers’ worth of coastline. So as you speak about conservation, I want to find out how do you thread in the political-economy element of the conservation policy? Because governments will not be able to effectively reduce what the planet needs alone without the interests of large corporations.
So in the commodity chain of things, where and how are you factoring large corporations’ interests in what ends up hurting the planet? Because they still want to make their profits. You’ve got large exploration right there in Mozambique. And yet, and then how do you bring these African countries along? You can see right now in DRC there is this question, which Secretary Blinken was already addressing when he was out in Africa on his visit, about how the president there is already auctioning off blocks of this rainforest.
So political-economy question; how are you going to achieve what it is you intend to achieve? How are you going to operationalize it? Thanks.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY MEDINA: Thank you so much for that question. It’s an excellent one. I think there are a couple of main points to make here. First, we know that the environment and the economy work well together. And I think the focus that we are hoping to bring to the African continent, to the COP, COP27, is one on adaptation and sustainable, nature-based solutions to climate. We know that these countries want to be solutions countries, and we want to help them.
We also know that they’re somewhat resource-dependent for food. We need – we know we need to help them with water supply and conserving water supplies, with building up storm resilience on their coastlines. We know we need to help them protect their food supply in the ocean from IUU fishing. And we hope to do all of that through a number of different mechanisms – both through the things that we’re doing in the climate context, and we’ll be announcing many of those at the COP and beyond that, and also in the context of some of these new partnerships that we’re creating like the Atlantic partnership that we’re beginning to talk with Atlantic nations about, including several African nations. Namibia, Ghana, Senegal I believe are just a few.
So we are working hard to do that outreach. As you mentioned, the Secretary of State was in Africa recently and that was a very important visit where we announced a new Africa policy for the State Department, for the U.S. Government.
I will also look – I would also have you look at the work we’re doing in the area of plastic pollution, which I know is a huge problem on the African continent and where African nations have stepped up and led – African nations like Rwanda that has been a leader in the plastic negotiations thus far, and Kenya that has had some really groundbreaking domestic law that has helped other countries see a way to getting rid of plastic pollution in their borders.
So in that particular negotiation, we are working closely with business, with governments, with NGOs, with state and local governments, with communities to try to figure out how to bring a holistic solution to the plastic pollution problem, one that’s a life cycle of plastics solution. And we are getting a lot of really good investment by – innovation by these corporations, but as well by just their commitment to sticking with us in the negotiations so that we can create a global agreement that’s the high standard for eliminating plastic pollution. We hope we can get to an agreement where we will eliminate plastic pollution by 2040 all over the world.
So I hope that that’s a path forward that will help us see that we can work across industry, government, and nonprofit organizations, community organizations to bring real solutions to people where they live.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much. It looks like Pearl has a follow-up, if we can turn back to Pearl. Pearl, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you so much, Daphne. So thank you for the – your response on that. If I can just maybe touch on the issue that you mentioned about plastics, are you developing any counternarrative to critics who might criticize Western countries today that – on plastics? Yes, we agree plastics are the issue, but then there may be this colonial thinking from a hundred years ago that a certain thought was brought to the continent that the issue of plastics came from elsewhere and now, obviously, is a problem. I’m just wondering, are you prepared for counternarratives from those naysayers?
And then I just want to ask about the elephant population on the continent. So you know that at the moment – I don’t know what the informal population numbers are, but they’re probably likely well over 400,000 – I don’t know if it’s quite half a million – elephants on the continent, big countries inside of – in southern Africa, or Botswana and Zimbabwe, certainly, who are now – likely got an overpopulation of elephants. What are the conversation, key conversations there now in terms of how – I don’t know – I’m not an environmental ethicist, but on how humans and nonhumans – in other words, animals – can then integrate in your conservation efforts and how you’re addressing those countries? So do you have a concern regarding the elephant populations? Thanks.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY MEDINA: Of course. Okay, so let’s start with plastic. Plastic – I understand that that may be the way that it seems, but plastic pollution is a very recent phenomenon. And in a lot of countries, there’s a need for plastic water bottles in order to get them potable water. We need to fix that; we need to change that by improving water systems in countries all over the world. And we need, everywhere, to improve our recycling rates, and that’s a problem all over the planet. And I do see a lot of progress in countries like Rwanda and Kenya that have taken strong steps, so it’s possible for governments to do that, and we in the U.S. are looking at what they’re doing to see how we can improve our own systems.
So I think this is an issue where the world has to work together. We’re all addicted to plastic, one way or another, and we need to break that cycle of addiction. And I think that we can, given a global agreement around the need to do it. So I’m very optimistic. And I think the innovation will come from all over the world, and so solutions will be found all over the world. There’s no one size fits all here, and we’re going to need the best of all of that, and we’re going to draw on the best of all of that in order to solve this problem.
Now, elephant populations. It’s interesting, I had – I was at an event just yesterday with the minister of environment, in fact, for Gabon. And he remarked that they are seeing elephant populations increasing in Gabon because elephant poaching is actually going down. After China stopped taking poached ivory, elephant ivory, cut off their ivory markets, he saw a dramatic decrease in poaching, which meant an increase in the elephant populations. It’s not for us to tell a country how to manage their populations, but I do think you’ve hit on an important issue, which is managing conflicts or the interactions between humans and the natural environment.
And we see that that could be an increasing problem in our future. Zoonotic spillover is a huge issue, and so we need to make sure that we are deconflicting as much as possible animal populations and human encroachment on those populations. And I think places like the Conservation on – the CBD, the Conservation Biological Diversity, COP is one place where we can have some of these very important conversations about conservation, about animals and humans and how to conserve that 30 percent that we desperately need in order to keep the planet healthy, according to all the scientific experts.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much. Next week President Biden and his administration are hosting the Pacific Island leaders in Washington. What are you hoping to achieve next week, and why is the U.S. relationship with the Pacific Island nations so important?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY MEDINA: Thank you for that question. I’m very excited. I’m very much looking forward to this summit next week in Washington with Pacific Island leaders because, first of all, the U.S. is a Pacific nation itself, and these island countries have long been our good friends and partners in the region. And we look forward to deepening that partnership now. These island nations have been at the forefront of the climate crisis. We know that they’re struggling to overcome the COVID crisis. So it’s a really important time for the U.S. to expand our work in the Pacific and to grow our relationships with these very important nations. Thank you.
MODERATOR: We are out of time. I want to be respectful of your schedule, Assistant Secretary Medina. Thank you for joining us. Thanks to the journalists who logged on and are viewing in the livestream and on our YouTube channel.
Today’s briefing was on the record. We will post a transcript on our website at the conclusion of this briefing as soon as it’s available. Thank you very much and good day.