Two years on from the UN’s plea to ‘Listen to the Young Voices’, this World Wildlife Day shines a light on ‘Life Below Water – For People and Planet’. The article below explores the link between humanity and our oceans, from our willingness to acknowledge the risks of a changing climate - particularly in relation to our oceans – and our ability to work together to inspire change.
Our oceans are our planet. Covering almost three-quarters of the earth’s surface, they are the lifeblood of every living specimen that ever was: from the first prokaryotes to the arrival of man, every element of life on this planet has relied on what the oceans can give us. They produce more than half of the oxygen in the atmosphere, and absorb carbon from it; they feed our animals, our plants, and all of humankind; and they provide a home for the thousands of marine species, corals and ecosystem which, in turn, help to keep our planet alive. Yet despite this unshakable, intrinsic connection that all life has to the Deep Blue, we are slowly driving it towards an effective death.
It is often said that we know more about space than we do about our deepest oceans, but studies have shown that in the last few decades alone, certain risks such as ocean acidity, rising sea levels and warmer waters have threatened our planet’s survival. The earth has begun to experience greater extremes of weather (such as snow in the middle of summer and record-breaking highs falling in the dead of winter); we have witnessed the degradation of once-vibrant corals as they have faded to deathly, uninhabitable shells of their former selves; and, according to the UN, we may even face a mass-extinction of fish species (estimated by 2050). Given that our oceans provide food for roughly 3 million people worldwide, vanishing fish stocks (largely as a result of unsustainable fishing practices) should be something that, globally, we are more concerned about – but these are the times of apathy and inaction.
This year’s focus for World Wildlife Day (hosted by the UN) revolves around the concept of ‘Life Below Water – For People and Planet’. This is the first time in the event’s history that a spotlight has been given solely to what is arguably the most important habitat on earth. Previous years have focused on wildlife crime, the future of elephants and the protection of big cats, and while these are indeed vital causes in and of themselves, not one of these focuses are as critical to our everyday life as the oceans are. Similarly, there has been little debate about whether the aforementioned animals are threatened (elephants, in particular, enjoy a great deal of empathy and therefore it is easy for the public to care for their cause), though by turning an ear to the media (either televised or social), it’s hardly difficult to pick up on a sense of disbelief when it comes to climate change – an issue with a distinct correlation to our oceans, all life within it, and all life sustained by it. We are living through a time where the most powerful man in the world speaks out against the effects of climate change, believing the very concept to be a myth; we’re also witnessing the emergence of other high-profile climate deniers, people who are using their considerable platforms to diminish the severity of what is a critical point in the earth’s history.
We have arrived at a point where environmental inaction has left us at tipping point. While there is cautious belief that the effects of climate change can be reversed, we have suddenly been faced with the ticking of a clock set at ’12 years to go’ – twelve years to fight back against plastic pollution, overfishing, and an increased level of carbon dioxide choking our atmosphere. For many, this uphill battle appears insurmountable – how can we reverse the damage caused by decades of mass-industry, oil spills and careless dumping of litter into the sea? – and it is this sense of strife which has left many with a feeling of powerlessness. The UN’s tagline of ‘For People and Planet’ could be seen as ‘too little, too late’ but, against all odds, there has arrived a generation who choose to look to the future with hope.
Back in 2017, the UN’s World Wildlife Day focus inspired us to ‘Listen to the Young Voices’. Two years on, in February 2019, we witnessed an international protest held by students around the globe as they gathered to ‘Strike 4 Climate’; a spirited and admirable action inspired by a 15-year-old schoolgirl named Greta Thunberg. Thunberg has been the youthful face of the climate movement since 2018, choosing not to attend school until after the Swedish General Election as a result of heat waves and wildfires throughout the country. Instead of attending school, Thunberg would sit outside the Riksdag every day as to raise awareness for climate change, her one request being that the Swedish government reduces their carbon emissions as per the Paris Agreement. While she insists that she is not ‘the first’ student to strike in protest for a given cause (she credits the Parkland Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students as her own inspiration), Thunberg has indeed inspired thousands of others around the globe in her empathetic act of defiance. From Australia to Japan, the United States to the UK, countless strikes have taken place as these young individuals do what they can to change – and preserve - their own future.
The UK’s own ‘Strike 4 Climate’ was one which drew considerable media attention, as well as its fair share of criticism. Whilst those engaged in the walk-outs had viable demands (to have a stake in their own future, to inspire policy change, and to lower the voting age to 16 years old), government officials and members of the public were quick to push back. Many could not understand the necessity for children to take time out of school in order to strike (disregarding that Saturdays fall over the weekend, and therefore would not be considered a day on which to ‘strike’); others - largely politicians - were quick to call out the students for their truancy. (This latter point would soon become a topic of irony, when fewer than 30 MPs bothered to attend Parliament’s first Climate Change discussion in two years. At times, there were fewer than 10 MPs in the room.) During the strike, grown adults were filmed berating young girls for their impassioned stance on climate change, and at one point a female student found herself surrounded by 7 police officers, apparently ‘under arrest’. The sheer volume of students who chose to strike may represent hope for our planet’s future, but as long as politicians and older generations keep pushing back, their fight for change will continue to be an arduous one indeed.
Herein lies the problem for a concept such as ‘For People and Planet’: not all of those people seem to care about the planet, and fewer are inspired enough to fight for change. As members of the public, we are often fed one of two things. The first is that climate change is not real (or, at least, is not as sincere a threat as scientists would have you to believe); the second is that the effects of climate change have gone too far, and so accepting our own futility is the only thing to do. Somewhere buried within this narrative is that climate change isn’t even all that bad (the recent sunny spells within the UK were met with something of a warm reception, with one outlet referring to the freak climate as ‘glorious’), and with such a lack of constructive rhetoric, it’s easy to see why so many of us remain apathetic. But just as the younger members of our community are rallying against climate change in response to a failing government, there are some nations who have had the foresight to act early on: Germany, for example, has championed green initiatives for many years, with their own Green Party (otherwise known as Alliance 90) pushing for ecological sustainability since at least 1993. Elsewhere, Switzerland has been named ‘the greenest country in the world’ due to its focus on clean air and sustainable energy. Finland, too, is famed for its commitment to sustainability, aiming to achieve (and maintain) a carbon-neutral society by 2020. A quote from the 2016 EPI report reiterates this, stating: ’Finland’s goal of consuming 38 percent of their final energy from renewable sources by 2020 is legally binding, and they already produce nearly two-thirds of their electricity from renewable or nuclear power sources.’
The efforts of certain governments and communities are indeed inspiring, and despite the ticking of the doomsday clock, we are inching ever closer to change, or at least towards a broader sense of awareness. Small steps are being taken towards protecting our oceans (the largest factor in climate change), with more people becoming aware of the implications of plastic, both as emitters of greenhouse gases or as pollutants in our underwater habitats. Social media has been a major driving force for ocean awareness, with videos and pictures emerging every day depicting animals trapped in plastic (or having consumed plastic themselves); elsewhere, a spike in veganism has been noted, often as a response to overfishing and the impact that has on climate change too. It’s easy for older generations to mock today’s youth, putting their lifestyle choices and politics down to what’s trendy and what’s not – but even if a percentage of these youngsters are following the crowd, their acts of supposed righteousness are certainly preferable to the blindness, apathy and carelessness of many before them. At least in the actions of today’s youth (and those who wish to stand beside them), we can hope to bear witness to a real, marked change.
Critically, we have arrived at a point in time where everybody must acknowledge that the link between climate change and our oceans is mutual: the hotter our oceans, the more marine life we stand to lose, from plankton to coral reefs and the species which move between them. Similarly, if our oceans continue to lose such vital species, their ability to absorb carbon dioxide and the heat from climate change becomes hindered: we should see around 40% of carbon dioxide absorbed into the ocean, but this is only possible if the ocean’s temperatures are controlled. As humans burn fossil fuels and as more greenhouse gases are emitted, our global temperatures increase, and so the cycle continues. This cycle is most notable in the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef, though it is thought that around 50% of the world’s corals reefs have already been lost, painting a bleak picture for the future of climate change. One beacon of hope remains in the waters around Raja Ampat, a relatively untouched area in Indonesia. Here, coral reefs have shown remarkable resistance to the effects of climate change, pollution and disease, but as our planet continues to heat up and coral habitats around the world becoming increasingly threatened, the preservation of those which do remain is critical. Over 80% of the world’s coral species can be found in the waters around Raja Ampat, emphasising their ecological importance not only to the immediate area and its marine life, but to all life on a global scale. The government representatives in Raja Ampat are, thankfully, receptive to the needs of conservation – but as is the case in many areas around the world, support and wide-spread understanding is still somewhat lacking. The Great Projects are proud to support conservation efforts in Raja Ampat, which is why this month we are offering volunteer placements at a 10% discount. A volunteer experience in Raja Ampat is an excellent way to aid the conservation of our oceans and to leave a positive impact on the conservationists of tomorrow, but there are of course other ways in which you can help too:
• Consider 'green commuting', i.e take public transit, ride a bike, or car-share wherever possible
• Engage in 'meat-free days', therefore reducing your carbon footprint - even by a little bit!
• Remember to re-use and recycle wherever possible
• Sign petitions related to the environment as to make your voice heard
• Educate yourselves and others on the effects of climate change, either by sharing infographics and articles like this one or making use of subject materials from the UN themselves
• Support 4ocean by buying a bracelet (click here)
How will you make a difference to our oceans and climate? Let us know in the comments below!
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Come face to face with one of the world’s most misunderstood predators whilst aiding great white shark conservation. As a volunteer, not only will you get the incredible opportunity to dive with sharks, but you will also assist the team in raising awareness of the great white as you work alongside tourists and local school children to provide them with knowledge of the local environment and the importance of living in harmony with South Africa’s marine life.
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