Goodbyes are always hard. Soon I will be stepping down as the Assistant Secretary for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, or OES, to lead the Wildlife Conservation Society, based in New York City. Serving the people of the United States as part of the Biden Administration has been the opportunity of a lifetime. I have loved this job with all my heart and soul. And I am eternally grateful to President Biden and Secretary Blinken for giving me the opportunity to serve, and to the senators of both parties who supported my confirmation.
Looking back on the hard work by the dedicated team at OES, we have put environmental diplomacy at the center of American foreign policy. Whether it is preventing pandemics caused by spillover of diseases from animals to people, ending the scourges of air, water and plastic pollution, taking on the climate crisis, exploring space, conserving areas of the ocean that lie beyond national jurisdictions, protecting biodiversity from extinction and battling global trafficking in wildlife, timber and minerals, confronting the challenge of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing and food insecurity, or working to ensure cooperation in the Arctic and Antarctic regions, we worked every day with the goal of restoring America’s leadership and engagement on these vital issues. It’s not just WHAT we did – it is also HOW we did it — by including and elevating the voices of indigenous leaders, frontline communities, youth, and women.
In leading OES, I have been guided by the Administration’s strong belief in multilateral cooperation. Secretary Blinken explained our rationale when he said “the simple fact [is] that none of us can meet these challenges alone. We have to face them together….we must defend and reform the rules-based international order – the system of laws, agreements, principles and institutions that the world came together to build after two world wars to manage relations between (nation) states, to prevent conflict, to uphold the rights of all people.” And that is just what we have done.
This includes a most basic principle of human dignity: a clean and healthy environment. Indeed, this year for Earth Day, President Biden and Vice President Harris reaffirmed our view that “every person has a right to breathe clean air, drink clean water, and live in a healthy community – now and into the future.”
Our environmental challenges are often characterized as crises, with doomsday predictions about a bleak future that we are powerless to avoid. There is the climate crisis, the water crisis, the ocean crisis, the plastic pollution crisis, the biodiversity crisis – all of which, if we don’t deal with them right now, will have catastrophic consequences for the earth and those who live on it. The global scale of these problems can feel overwhelming.
In spite of the scope of these challenges, it is important to remember that we actually are making progress. We can and should be empowered by optimism to commit to a better future. Our commitment to addressing these issues starts at the top with President Biden. He declared these issues a national priority from day one, and immediately other countries again began to look to the United States for leadership.
Here are just a few examples of what we have accomplished in the last two years:
First, Protecting Biodiversity Worldwide: At the end of last year, parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity reached agreement on a new “Global Biodiversity Framework” with the goal of conserving, protecting and restoring at least 30 percent of the world’s lands, waters, and oceans by 2030, known as “30×30.” President Biden had long pledged that the U.S. would meet this goal. After his recent designations of over half a million acres in Nevada and Texas as national monuments and directing the Commerce Department to expand a huge marine sanctuary in the remote Pacific to protect 770 thousand square miles of ocean and “make it the largest ocean area on the planet with the highest level of protection,” we are much closer to achieving our national goals. And through our Ocean Conservation Pledge, we are working with other countries to conserve or protect at least 30 percent of ocean waters under our respective national jurisdictions, which will ultimately help us reach the global ocean 30×30 target.
Second, Ending Plastic Pollution: Plastic pollution is literally everywhere – microplastics can be found from the top of the Himalayas to the depths of the Marianas Trench in the Pacific Ocean, and even in us. So, we have begun negotiation of a global agreement on plastic pollution. We are championing the ambitious goal of ending the release of plastic pollution into the environment by 2040, and we plan to conclude this negotiation by the end of 2024.
To succeed, we will need action from the private sector, NGOs, governments, and local and indigenous communities. To bring all of us together, the United States in the final stages of planning to establish a new type of public-private partnership to pilot innovative technologies and convene stakeholders to work together to redesign our world to reduce, re-use, and recycle plastic and keep it out of oceans, rivers, the air, and our food web.
Third, Protecting the High Seas: Last month at the United Nations, the United States and other nations completed the text of an unprecedented global agreement by which countries can take a coordinated approach to protect huge swaths of the high seas. This is an essential tool to achieve the “30×30” goal, conserve marine biodiversity, and protect all that the ocean provides to sustain life on our planet.
Fourth, Re-engaging on Scientific Cooperation: We recently revived our U.S. Science Envoy program. Envoys are American experts from outside government who, in addition to their day jobs, travel around the world working with scientists, researchers, and an interested public to advance the role of science and technology. The new cohort includes the first Science Envoy to focus on the nexus of the environment and Indigenous knowledge. He is helping to share Native American voices which have been underappreciated and overlooked. Indigenous Peoples globally have always cared for Earth – they continue to care for our planet and we have much to learn from them.
When I started in this role, the United States stood at a crossroads where we could choose a path to a better future or one of continued neglect and destruction of nature. Thanks to our many achievements over the past two years, I can say we chose that better path to a more sustainable world – for us, our children, and our grandchildren.
And I believe this is only the beginning. I believe we can turn the tide on the extinction crisis. I believe we can find innovative new solutions to reduce, re-use and replace plastic and in doing so create a circular economy with less waste without sacrificing convenience or safety. I believe we will harness technology and use the power of science to bring innovative solutions to global markets and scale them. I believe we will create giant protected areas on the high seas so that our ocean can remain healthy and full of life.
I know we can do it, because we are doing it. Since day one in this position, I have kept in mind that plucky sign that hangs over Ted Lasso’s office door that simply says BELIEVE. I believe in the power of nature to be resilient and to sustain us. I believe that people will continue to do the right thing and conserve it. And I believe in the mission of OES to be diplomats for nature and a healthy environment globally. I believe in the dedicated public servants that work here every day to make the planet a better place for people and nature. And I am proud of the work that we—all of us in OES —have done together. OES has made, and will continue to make, a difference.
About the Author: Monica P. Medina was confirmed as Assistant Secretary for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs on September 28, 2021.