World Ocean Weekly

Are We Changing Our Collective Attitude on Climate Change?

The World Ocean Observatory advocates through communications, using every tool available to reach a growing international audience of Citizens of the Ocean to inform, unite, focus, and enable public engagement and response to global challenges to the sustainable ocean. Who do we reach? How many? What are the available means to measure the effect of such an endeavor?

Our team looks at web stats, program links, subscriber numbers and reactions to relentless messaging on social media. On Facebook alone, the World Ocean Observatory has more than 784,000 followers worldwide, a continuous measure of reach, growth, and reaction. Our weekly podcast, World Ocean Radio, is syndicated through 44 stations in the United States, additionally selected through the Public Radio Exchange and the Pacifica Network, delivered weekly to podcast subscribers, re-posted and shared through internet sites such as our own World Ocean Forum, Medium and via this platform. It is heard abroad in Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and along both costs of Africa through internet stream. A reasonable calculation of the interconnected size of this audience potential could legitimately claim connection to hundreds of thousands of listeners, possibly millions.

But even so, does it make any difference?

I was heartened recently by a report from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communications, the result of an annual survey taken in the United States, measuring the state of public awareness and political views on issues relating to climate reality, global warming, political bias, and the implication of measured opinion for the future. The Yale Program, directed by Dr. Anthony Leiserowitz, has its own excellent website that features Yale E360, a daily distribution of climate news, plus other excellent features, analyses, and publications; I urge you to read and to subscribe.

Surveying results from 2008 though 2018, the Yale report (Climate Change in the American Mind, March 2018) notes in the last year a significant upward shift of 5 to 7 to 9% by registered voters in terms of understanding and concern over the existence and human causing of climate change, registered voters who are “somewhat” or “very” worried about global warming and the need take reactive measures. While the increases vary according to political party orientation, the numbers in support are at an all-time high.

The survey also addresses four different types of proposed national policies for the United States to reduce carbon pollution, decrease dependence on fossil fuels, and promote clean energy. Specifically, it sought opinion on 1) The Green New Deal, a ten-year plan to invest in green technology, energy efficiency, and infrastructure to make the nation 100% reliant on clean renewable resources; 2) The Clean Power Plan, the setting of strict carbon dioxide emission limits on coal-fired plants to reduce global warming and improve public health; 3) A Revenue-Neutral Carbon Tax, requiring fossil fuel companies to pay a carbon tax that would be directed to reduce other taxes, such as income, in equal amount; and 4) A Fee and Dividend Proposal, requiring fossil fuel companies to pay a fee on carbon pollution, the funds to be distributed as dividend to United States citizens in equal amounts.

These would seem controversial and unlikely given the survey just a year ago. But here are the 2018 results for support of the Green New Deal: 81% positive for all registered voters; 92 % of Democrats; 88% of Independents; and 64% of Republicans. Or how about these results for Fee and Dividend? 63% of registered voters; 78% of Democrats; 66% of Independents; and 39% of Republicans. The results for the other plans were similar.

Frankly, I found these numbers astonishing. Yes, you can quibble about methodology and all the rest when challenging the accuracy of such surveys, but consider the relative shift in favor of ideas that just a few years ago would have not even been considered by the public. I take heart from this response. It signals a serious shift in awareness and understanding of the need for new values, structures, and behaviors if we are to meet the critical challenge of changing climate, made more evident to us all everyday.

Let’s credit communications. Credit the press that has reported the climate-related consequences affecting people all over the world. Credit the scientists who have steadfastly promoted the data and the evidence in the face of irrational denial. Credit the authors of a library of important books on the environment predicting the impacts to come, even if not then yet apparent to us all. Credit the few, dedicated politicians who have spoken constantly to the legislature and the leadership, even if persistently ignored. Credit the citizens themselves who have seen the evidence, taken stock, and now intend to apply that understanding as political will.

It would appear we are not a minority to be dismissed after all. It would appear that we are substantial majority prepared to act. Through communications, we are now measurable numbers of informed citizens prepared to take control of our lives, our environment, our politics, and our future. There is hope after all.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.

What Does It Mean To Be Indigenous?

"Nature is native to our collective existence"


What does indigenous mean? The definition is deceptively simple:

indigenous - originating or occurring naturally in a particular place; native

The term is used frequently these days referring to territorial rights to land by native people and also to plants within an ecological region that are non-invasive. The word has got me thinking, a dangerous provocation, primarily about the interaction between Nature and rights, human or otherwise.

Often the issue is enjoined by the question: who was first to inhabit a place over time? In the Arctic, in the United States, and many other areas around the world the issue is real and contentious, usually the imposition of new inhabitants, call them immigrants or imperialists, who arrive and impose a new culture over an older one. With flora and fauna, there is a similar question of time of arrival and how the species was delivered, often on the hulls or in the bilges of ships as the world has been compressed by ocean connection through trade or conquest. A most contemporary example is the arrival of invasive corrupt plastic in marine and coastal environments, with consequences that alter the local ecology, invade the food chain, and change the balance of health within an ocean system that covers 71 % of the Earth’s surface.

Nature at its origin is indigenous — and yet it too has changed by natural evolutionary process, presumably for the best, until challenged by the greatest invasive species of them all — us, the human species that in its quest for survival, indeed self-improvement and growth, that has imposed values, structures, and behaviors that are contradictory, often compromising, and evermore often toxic, by which all that is native is affected sometimes for better, mostly for worse.

To combat this long historical process, advocates have turned to order, or law, as a means to protect Nature from such consequence, through legislation to counter abuse, or through the assertion of rights of protection that attempt to stall or stop or reverse the process and fix it in a definitive place in time. Treaties with Native-Americans, for example, represent such guarantees, just as the endlessly ongoing attempt by the United Nations to define and enact an agreement for the rights of indigenous peoples worldwide represents such an aspiration on a global scale.

In fact, some of these legal interventions have had remarkable successes: judicial precedents addressing the rights of species and ecosystems; the rights of certain endangered birds and animals to survive; or the rights of rivers to flow clear and unimpeded by environmentally compromising dams and discharges. In Bolivia, the national constitution has been amended to declare The Rights of Mother Earth, the first Article of which may be partially paraphrased as follows:

"Earth is a living being, a unique, indivisible, self-regulating community of interrelated beings that sustains, contains, and reproduces all beings, each defined by its relationships as an integral part of the whole, the inherent rights of which are inalienable."

One could easily use the ocean as a powerful symbol and reality for such an equally applicable declaration and as a fundamental premise on which protections desired on land could be equally applicable to the sea.

All of Nature is native and indigenous, a compendium of resources in natural flux that operates and sustains itself as a continuous regenerating system. That system, from my particular perspective, is maintained by the movement of water in a cycle from the mountaintop to the abyssal plain and around again. It is not our human right to disrupt, deplete or destroy this system; nor is it intelligent or justified in the narrow, albeit essential context of our own survival. Why is it so hard to understand this fact? That Nature is native to our collective existence, and that to preempt, poison, or dissolve that value is to self-destruct. To deny this fact is a conscious, malicious, egotistical abrogation of the right to life.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.

An Antarctic Prospect: Exploring the World's Last Wilderness

credit: John 'EJ' Gurley for Borton Overseas

In early March I'll be in Antarctica, far offline and away, visiting what is the earth's last wilderness. I will be discussing ocean issues with citizen scientists aboard MS Island Sky, a small cruise ship operated by Polar Latitudes and Borton Overseas, and accompanied by the award-winning Big Blue Live film crew from BBC-ONE and researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, tagging whales and studying krill patterns and conditions in southern ocean.

Let me say first what a privilege this is, an experience that is available to only a few and I am grateful to be a part. Since I can remember, Antarctica has been a place distant and wild, terra nullius - nobody's land, inhabited only by hearty flora and fauna able to thrive and endure in what are most challenging conditions for life on earth. Endurance is the operative word for such survival: a term made so vivid by the exploration and reports of the first Europeans to visit there, the expeditions to reach the South Pole, to study the unique ecosystem, and to survive on the ice, in the mountains, moving among the dangerously shifting surfaces, and risking a failure so cold, so dire, so lonely, so lost. The journals and photographs of these explorations, on ship, by sledge, on foot, captured my imagination: the durability and resourcefulness, the intensity of human interaction with Nature and human nature, optimism derived from successful passage and discovery of the unknown, and pessimism derived from dangerous circumstance, sudden condition shifts, and the power and taking of human life vulnerable to natural events beyond human control.

Ernest Shackelton British Antarctic Expedition, 1907–09. Credit: Public Domain Review

Nothing evokes those contradictory facts and feelings than the story of Ernest Shackleton, his serial attempts to best Antarctica, the loss of his ship to the crushing ice, the absence of any sense of survival other than by a superhuman attempt to cross a seemingly impenetrable mountain range to reach a place by which to mount a rescue so improbable as to defy imagination. I have been reading Shackleton's publications and letters and am amazed by the matter-of-factness of his accounts, the spirit that he and his men kept alive through poetry, song, dance, games, and theatrics as distraction from the boredom, the daily routine, the demanding resourcefulness, the constant danger. Imagine the feelings of those men left behind as their leader departed in search of rescue, and then the exhilaration in the sighting a small boat returned to bring the survivors home.

Ernest Shackelton British Antarctic Expedition, 1907–09. Credit: Public Domain Review

Antarctica presents to my mind an ultimate place where civilization has not yet intruded or corrupted, one realization of Earth at is origin. Its preservation and protection as such a place has been achieved as a result of its inhospitable conditions and its distance from everywhere else. Thus, even today, it can be protected by international agreement from the many egregious intrusions of the modern world, as a place for science and research, some perimeter tourism, and various highly marketed expeditions, such as the recent "race" across Antarctica by two hearty record-seekers.

What are the real threats to the Antarctic? The most obvious is the consequence of human activities far away: CO2 and other emissions affecting air quality, acid rain, ozone concentration, temperature rise, ocean warming, glacial melt, sea ice disruption, increased pollutants, and other anthropogenic conditions that upset the natural history and processes of the place. With these also come the creeping negatives that have threatened other ocean resources worldwide: the aspirations of the extraction industries - oil, gas, deep ocean mining - and the industrial fishing industry that is looking for new product to replace what has already been decimated by unsustainable, frequently illegal harvest throughout the rest of the ocean. The results emerge in the form of decline and dissolution toward accelerating, irreversible change, more and more evident in the last wilderness. I fear for the place as a free and empty space, a possibility, an instruction, a vestige of the un-compromised natural world.

So I depart on this voyage with mixed emotions. I approach the place as reality and symbol of unfettered Nature, but that is undercut by awareness of the context of my experience to come, my intrusion upon the clarity of an idea that may be foolish, certainly naïve. Am I just another part of the problem, brought home most vividly by bearing witness? I will report back.

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.

The Cultural Edge: Part Seven of a Seven-Part Series on the Ocean Edge

Claude Piché on Unsplash


Part seven of a seven-part series on what happens at the ocean edge: from the real to the symbolic

Walking the beach, you can see the parallel ridges of sand, shaped by the wind and waves - edges - critical lines of meaning that we have been addressing during the last seven weeks. Hard Edge. Soft Edge. Working Edge. Leisure Edge. Security Edge. Political Edge. We come finally to the edge wherein all these themes come together - the Cultural Edge: that length of significance that extends coastwise worldwide and unites all things human and oceanic for all time.

In culture, we aggregate every aspect of interaction with Nature and each other - through music, art, religion, psychology, and celebration. We acculturate through the exchange of goods, peoples, and ideas, and every nation, every coast has its multiple examples of how this unfolds as discovery and practice through history. Today, there are myriad modern festivals by the sea - rendezvous of tall ships and heritage vessels, festivals of nautical dance, music, and craft. There are vibrant religious events associated with the sea.

The most astonishing religious event I ever witnessed was a celebration of Mazu, a young girl from the south coast of China, who became an icon of fishing, survival, and renewal that is worshiped to this day. In central Taiwan, I was immersed in a pilgrimage of Mazu followers who converged by the thousands at a Confucian Temple to parade replicas of Mazu in palanquins, burn sacrificial money in a fire that roared from the donation furnace, flagellate themselves in atonement for past sins, and explode so many rounds of fireworks that the streets were without light and the post-explosion paper remnants were knee deep throughout the town. This is just one example of many: water temples on the beaches in India, relief carvings of ocean monsters in Australia, the abandoned wrecks of ships, bones suddenly revealed by some extreme weather event, freeing the history there to new awareness and understanding.

Mazu, Chinese sea goddess, a tutelary deity of seafarers including fishermen and sailors. Worship of Mazu has spread throughout coastal Chinese regions and throughout Southeast Asia. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

We read poetry of the sea; we build sand castles that are the evocation of our dreams, young and not so young; we tell of adventures aboard ships and in foreign places wherein we frame questions of survival and good versus evil. There is no question that the dynamism of the sea resonates with the water we are composed of - those waves and oscillations finding some harmonic coincidence in our bodies and, yes, our souls.

There is a physics there, and a chemistry, that augments the biology and physiology to make a whole persona, a psyche, that has the fluidity and resilience and openness to change that is the essence of water. We treat water with water. We hydrate and irrigate our bodies, just as we do the most complex plants we know. We are water gardens, like coral reefs, assemblages of living things, bizarre and wonderful, microscopic and invisible, that taken together comprise who we are as individuals, families, communities, and nations. Rank after rank of ocean people, cleaving to the water's edge. We are peaceful lakes, running streams, angry storms that are circulating like weather highs and lows, generation to generation, parent to child, lover to lover, longing to be cleansed and to be free.

It's all one great mixing. We should no longer accept the edge between land and sea as a line exclusive, but rather as a line inclusive, bringing us all together in one wondrous seven billion-plus global population of Citizens of the Ocean who won't allow the autocrats, hoarders, manic consumers, and agents of fear to degrade our marine world, our fresh water, our watersheds, or our water selves, to pollute the collective essence of our humanity and civilization. Come over the cultural edge; become an ocean person who knows that one drop augments another, that solution protects from dissolution, and that commitment to solve and dissolve our problems into healthy, harmonious waves of reaction and action will accrue to the benefit of all kinds. The sea connects all things.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.

The Political Edge: Part Six of a Seven-Part Series on the Ocean Edge

This week we continue our 7-part thematic overview of the ocean edge with a conversation centered around coastal and offshore zones and the politics that define them. The Political Edge is part 6 of a 7-part series dedicated to the ocean edge, exploring what takes place there, from the real to the symbolic.

As we continue our thematic overview of the edge between land and sea, let’s examine that defining line as a running continuum of political interests, defined by national borders, 12 mile offshore limits, and exclusive economic zones. We have seen that prior focus on the edge — prismatic views of this exclusive place as soft and hard, working, leisure, and security manifestations of our global relations with the ocean — have expanded our understanding of what that place means.

What about the political edge? The CIA World Fact Book estimates the total length of the world’s coasts combined equals 1,162,306 kilometers (or 722,223 miles). The World Resource Institute suggest a longer total — 1,634,701 kilometers — primarily as a result of a calculation based on a smaller scale that reveals and measures the coastal variations not included in the estimate at a larger scale. The closer we look at the myriad inroads, inundations, and openings that comprise the coast, the more extended and convoluted and complicated it becomes.

The overlay of national political interests that line become even more truncated and conflicted by goals and objectives that may have nothing specifically to do with ocean interests albeit influencing those interests in often confrontational ways. Let’s take for example the Benguela Current that runs along the southwest coast of Africa off shore from Angola, Namibia, and South Africa — a large marine ecosystem (or LGE) encompassing coastal river basins and estuaries with offshore ocean, over 200,000 square kilometers in area, defined by undersea topography, the productivity of their fisheries, and the make-up of their natural food chain. Across the globe, 80 percent of the global marine fisheries catch comes from such ecosystems.

Each of the three nations has very clear political boundaries and territorial claims that overlap within the natural area. Political relations between the three have been troubled and collaborative interests not necessarily shared. How then do you manage such coherent natural phenomenon within the context of political uncertainty? In 1994, the Global Environment Facility (GEF), an international funding agency, supported a series of research and planning studies to explore and understand the deteriorating situation for fisheries and the need for coordinated management. In 2007, the three nations created a new, ecosystem-based, Benguela Current Commission, the first of 64 Large Marine Ecosystems designated around the world, that has put in place managers, scientists, and administrators, to oversee the study protection, and renewal of the integrated ocean space independent of politics, blurring the political edge for the benefit of the contiguous natural resource.

Another example of political lines drawn in the ocean are the conflicts in the South China Sea. These involve disputes over territorial claims between China and Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Japan over the right of free navigational passage for more than $5 trillion in global annual trade, as well as blatant extension of national control into traditional international waters. What once were simply geographical hazards to be avoided are filled with imported sand and rock to become a makeshift harbor for security vessels or a runway for military craft. The United States objects to these claims in that it upsets and narrows the corridors of power; suddenly ships presumably operating in the open ocean find themselves caught in a mesh of changing boundaries along a shifting political edge and there are geopolitical declarations that call for strategic response against constriction of influence.

It must be remembered that these lines are not just drawn on the surface of the sea, but descend down to become delimitation also on the ocean floor. Submerged areas have vast and unknown value for fish, oil, gas, minerals, and other submarine resources that are now to be recovered by improved technology and market demand. The political edge defines what can be newly exploited, one major calculation in the definition of power and a challenge to any program of international protection.

And finally there is the application and enforcement of international agreements and treaties such as the Law of the Sea that pertain to areas beyond national jurisdiction. What is inside an arbitrary political line is one thing, what is outside is another, and, if we are to protect and conserve the ocean into the future, we must focus even more on that area on the other side of these invisible boundaries, by far the vast majority of the vast area of the ocean over which we have no specific control, that dynamic inter-soluble, ever-circulating volume of water that in fact, in its harsh reality, cares not a wit for our marks of possession and national pride, not a bit for what we call a political edge. The ocean knows no line it cannot cross; no edge it cannot challenge by its natural power and indifference to the land, and to the petty aspirations who those who live there.

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.