Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Catherine Novelli and Special Envoy for Climate Change Dr. Jonathan Pershing Previewing the 2016 Our Ocean Conference

Special Briefing
Catherine A. Novelli
   Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment 
Jonathan Pershing
   Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Change 
Via Teleconference
September 14, 2016


MS THOMPSON: Good afternoon. I just want to thank everyone for joining us for today’s conference call. Today we’re going to preview the 2016 Our Ocean conference, excuse me, which is going to begin tomorrow on September 15th and run through the 16th here at the State Department in Washington, D.C.

We are very excited to bring to you two of our State Department officials who are very closely involved in the – in hosting and running and managing this call, and they’re going to share a lot of the great information with you.

We’ve got our Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Catherine Novelli, and we also have joining us today our Special Envoy for Climate Change Dr. Jonathan Pershing. Today’s call is on the record and we’ll start with brief comments from our two officials and then we’ll turn it over for questions from you.

Dr. Novelli – I mean, I’m sorry, Under Secretary Novelli.

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: All right. Thanks so much, and thanks to all of you on the call. It is hard to imagine that something as vast as the ocean that covers 71 percent of the Earth’s surface could be so threatened, but it actually is. It’s threatened by overfishing, by pollution, by acidification.

And so we, recognizing this, convened the first ever Ocean conference at the State Department in 2014, and we brought together all layers of society, from policymakers and government officials to scientists to thought leaders, entrepreneurs, environmentalists, philanthropists, to talk about what we – not just talk about what we could do but actually commit to doing things to change the situation. And Chile then followed up hosting the Our Ocean conference last year, and the result of those first two conferences is that we ended up with $4 billion of ocean conservation activities, and we ended up with marine protected areas, which are kind of like national parks in the ocean, about the size of the continent of Australia.

And so we’re kicking off tomorrow the third Our Ocean conference, and I am happy to say that we have accomplished what we wanted to do in one respect, and that is we have really elevated this issue to be a foreign policy and national security issue. And we now have over 60 foreign and environmental ministers who are coming, heads of state, in addition to the whole layers of society – scientists, heads of civil society, organization, et cetera – and we are going to push the envelope further in coming up with very concrete solutions for these issues. And we’ve got 90 countries representative, a hundred new initiatives that are going to be in the billions of dollars.

Last December, you may wonder about what’s the nexus between climate, which we all, I think everybody has now recognized globally is something we have to tackle, and ocean. And just a couple of facts, and then I’ll turn it over to Jonathan, but the ocean has absorbed about 30 percent of the carbon dioxide released in the atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. And so while that’s a good thing from a climate change perspective, it’s not such a good thing for the ocean. And what it has meant is the ocean is 26 percent more acidic than it was before the Industrial Revolution, and that is important because it adversely affects coral, shellfish, and other life in the ocean. And the ocean has also absorbed 90 percent of the additional heat in the Earth’s system since the 1970s, and so these warmer waters have led to things like bleaching of coral, stressing the health of marine ecosystems, and sea level rise. And so we know that we need to address these things. We want the ocean to continue to be an integral part of the solution on climate, but it can’t do that unless it’s healthy, and so that – these are all the things that we’re going to be addressing at the Our Ocean conference.

And so I’ll turn it over now to our Special Envoy for Climate Change Jonathan Pershing.

MR PERSHING: Thanks very much, Cathy. And I mostly just want to underscore a few things the under secretary has said around the importance of the climate change issue and the oceans question. She has noted some of the really big statistics around CO2 absorption, around acidification, which we recognize are real problems, and I certainly want to hasten to add that while climate change is a huge issue, in many ways we should think about it as an exacerbating factor on things that are already problematic. In fact, part of the oceans discussions that we’ve been having now for quite some time and which the Ocean conference itself elevates are the risks to which the ocean is subject, and climate change really makes those risks worse.

So let me just tell you a short story. I was recently, in fact, last week, traveling through Africa, and I spent some time in Senegal meeting with the minister of fisheries. Ninety percent of the protein, he said – 90 percent of the protein that is eaten by the residents, by the citizens, the people who live in Senegal, is fish. And the fish stock is rapidly declining because it turns out that the oceans themselves are warming in the area around the Senegalese coast and the fish stock is moving away. And it’s not being replaced by alternatives and it’s only partly a function of overfishing, which has been a long-term issue there. It’s not insignificantly a function of the changing ocean temperatures. And if you start to think about that magnified by the extent of those coastal nations, which, in many poor countries rely on their fishing capacity to provide a substantial share of their people’s food supply, you get one window into the extent of the damages.

Cathy has also indicated a number of other pieces. Certainly, she talked about the sea level rise. Just again to give you some sense of scale here, the current conservative estimate is that by the end of this century, we may have sea level rise that is anywhere up to four feet. In fact, some recent reports that have come out suggest it might be as high as six feet. If you think about the numbers in a place like New York City, as a consequence of Superstorm Sandy, it looks like less than one foot of sea level rise, which the New York region had experienced, was enough to wash over barriers that flooded the subway system. If you think about the consequences of coastal zones in Florida, it looks like we’re now having saltwater incursion into the regions around the shorelines, essentially moving away freshwater, which has been supplying coastal crops and irrigation. So this is not a matter that we can lightly treat as saying, “Don’t worry, the oceans are far away.” They affect people at a very local and immediate level on shore in coastal regions and national economies.

And one last comment here before we open it up to questions and discussion. At the end of the day, there are things that we can do, and we are doing those things. So you’re all – probably all aware about the kinds of profile that’s been assigned to the climate change question. So the United States has taken an enormous effort in focusing on this. Most recently, just about two weeks ago, President Obama and Chinese President Xi jointly submitted our instruments to join the agreement in Paris, sending a very strong political signal of our intent to move forward on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and pushing the rest of the world in the same direction. And at the moment, it looks like we’re really on course to see a lot of countries making the same kind of movement.

And this is not only a function of joining an agreement; this is a function of real action on the ground. These are commitments to reduce emissions. These are commitments in every sector. It’s land use, it’s energy, it’s transportation, it’s industry – things that we believe will be necessities as we drive forward to the economic growth and development that we want, but at the same time limit damages, not least on the oceans.

So while these are two separate pieces – they clearly intersect – the oceans question is the focus here. Climate is an exacerbating factor in this dynamic, and it’s one that we will then take up in the conference with people thinking about the impacts and how we can matter to them going forward.

So thanks very much and I think we’re happy to take questions and comments from you guys.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, press * then 1 on your touchtone phone. You will hear a tone indicating you have been placed in queue and you may remove yourself from queue at any time by pressing the pound key. Once again, if you wish to ask a question, press * then 1 at this time. Just one moment for the first question.

We’ll go to the line of Catherine Cheney with Devex.

QUESTION: Thank you so much. Apologies for the background noise. So my question has to do with responses to the many problems we’ve outlined facing our oceans. And a lot of the response is on a grassroots community development level and a lot of the responses are more on the high seas or even from space leveraging new technologies for ocean conservation. Those groups don’t often come together. And what I’m wondering is how our oceans in the past, or perhaps this time around, will bring the groups that are working kind of in silos on some solutions together and identify some opportunities for collaboration.

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: Well, that’s a great question and you’ve identified a real need. We are trying to actually help pull all these groups together as part of the Our Ocean conference when we first started as well as now in this third one.

And so we have all these different groups who are going to be there at the Our Ocean conference, but even more importantly, with regard to, for example, illegal fishing, the Secretary launched in Chile the Safe Ocean Network, which was an actual – it’s an initiative to pull together all the different technology solutions to illegal fishing and couple that with traditional means that we’ve been using to deal with illegal fishing. And we have 40 partners and the partners are governments, but they’re also from the NGO community and funded by philanthropy so that we can pool our resources, if you will, pool our technology and make sure that the information about illegal fishing is getting to the right place. And we’re going to have – launching 40 pilot programs with these 40 partners, and we are – I know they’re sort of all over the world.

And part of this is also launching assistance to countries and to implement the Port State Measures Agreement, which is an international treaty that when we started this only had 10 countries adhering to it. Now we have about 68 countries. And this treaty essentially, if you boil it down, says that if you sign it – and the U.S. is a member – you will not allow illegally caught fish to enter your commerce, and you won’t allow boats who have illegally fished to dock in your ports.

And so a lot of countries are very enthusiastic about this, for some of the reasons Jonathan outlined, because they want to preserve the fish stocks. And so there is a whole wave of technical assistance that’s going to occur. Some of that’s funded by government, and some of that is actually funded by the NGO and the philanthropy community.

So there really is a pulling together of all these different layers and actors, and that is what we need to do to really move the needle on this.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll go to the line of Dean Scott with Bloomberg BNA. Mr. Scott, you may be on mute. No response, sir. We’ll move to the line of Seth Borenstein with the Associated Press.

QUESTION: Yes, thank you. Just to follow up a little bit on the last question, some new still-embargoed science studies are showing that larger marine species are far more at risk than smaller species. We’re talking whales, sharks, stuff like that. Is there any efforts to sort of target larger species for more protection than the smaller ones?

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: So interestingly, one of the signs that a place in the ocean is healthy is the amount of large fish that are there. And so one of the things that we’re doing is this whole move towards doing marine protected areas. And that then allows the whole ecosystem to function, because obviously larger fish have to eat smaller fish and plants, and so they aren’t going to be able to do that unless those are present as well. And what we’ve seen is where we have these no-take marine protected areas, larger fish do come back. And so the fact that we’ve been able to create so far these marine protected areas around the world that when you add them up they’re about the size of the continent of Australia is very important in looking at this. And we’re going to have many more that are going to be announced at this conference. And you know, the President in Hawaii just announced the Papahanaumokokuakea – and I may have forgotten a syllable in pronouncing that – marine protected area, which is now the largest in the world. It’s off the coast of Hawaii.

And so we’re trying to lead by example in doing that, but that is one of the things that is – that we are looking at. But you’re right about the larger fish and they’re very important, but you won’t have a larger fish if you don’t have smaller fish.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Once again, if you wish to ask a question, press * then 1. We’ll go back to the line of Dean Scott with Bloomberg BNA. Mr. Scott, your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me? I’m having difficulty hearing you. If you can hear me, my question has to do with deliverables from this Oceans Conference – I guess for Jonathan. I know climate is definitely a theme here in terms of exacerbation; if we’ll see some different deliverables from this one from past conferences.

MR PERSHING: Just – and Cathy may want to add some things to this. The answer is to a certain extent the – the focus a little bit is on elevating the intersection and making sure that people are aware that the oceans discussions is – has got these links. Historically, people have thought about ocean pollution, people have thought about land-based sources, people have thought about overfishing, and too often we’ve missed some of the systemic links that I think are between climate change and the oceans. And if we can elevate that discussion, I think it lends urgency to some of the actions that we can be taking. And that includes, for example, the marine protected area discussions. That includes, frankly, the urgency around management of fish catch and bycatch, which certainly plays out because as we look at stresses from climate change and ocean temperatures, these are exacerbated. That plays out in some of the coastal issues that are kind of connected back in. The elevation of all these and the people who are coming to speak at these events and will be able to highlight these kinds of impacts is, in itself, a framework.

In turn, in my view, one of the biggest things this will do is I think it will play out in the context of our upcoming meeting in Morocco. Morocco has been an active player in this. They are sending a high-level representation here to the meeting. They are, of course, themselves a coastal nation, and they’re hosts of the next round of negotiations in the climate convention. And they have made a really significant link between these two, so I think that link itself will be a way that we can elevate the discussion.

And Cathy may have something she wants to add.

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: Right. So we’re – in addition to elevating the discussion, we’re actually going to do things, which is the whole point of this oceans conference – is not just to talk, but to do. And so we know that for example the ocean – that mangroves, for example, are an incredible carbon sink. This is a good thing. They, like, actually absorb this carbon. And that really, as folks are developing their coast, they don’t always take that into account and the importance of that. So this is one of the things that we are looking at actually having a lot of work being done around. And looking at that, looking at seagrass and how we can preserve those things, how we can look at the blue economy, which is the intersection of commercial use of the ocean and its resources and environment, and how we can develop the blue economy in a way that actually allows us to have not an either/or but an and – that we can develop economically and preserve the environment. And the World Bank is going to be launching a whole process for looking at that from the financial sector as well.

So there’s a whole lot of very concrete things that are going to be done here in that sphere to strengthen the health of the oceans.

MR PERSHING: Let me just put one more finer point on this about scale because I think it may help you to think about the size of this. So Cathy has mentioned the notion of looking at some of the coastal options that we’ve got. Just take salt marshes narrowly: Every acre of salt marsh converts and captures about three and a half tons of carbon dioxide. That’s the equivalent of the greenhouse gas emissions of driving about 7,000 miles. That’s per acre. Here’s another statistic for you: Mangroves, which Cathy mentioned, and coastal wetlands, those absorb three to five times more carbon than tropical forests. So you get some sense of the scale of what we can do by these kinds of commitments that are being made. They’re enormous in the climate context, but also these are places that are breeding grounds for fish. These are economic wins. These are wins for social development along the coast.

So this confluence is one that I think we’re really trying to pay attention to.

OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll move to the line of Lucia Leal with EFE.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you for doing this. I was just wondering if you can provide more information on the announcements. Is the U.S. expected to make an announcement? Are other countries? Because I’ve seen the announcements are scattered through the agenda. I just wanted to know how that’s going to work out.

And Chile had a big role at the conference of the past year. I was wondering what role they were going to have this year, or any other countries from Latin America. Thank you.

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: Sure. So yes, we are going to make a lot of announcements, and we are expecting, as I said, the – when we add those announcements up, to be in the multiple billions of dollars. But there’s also going to be some other very significant things that aren’t really quantifiable in dollars, like new marine protected areas, like bans on plastic bags and whole – one-single-use plastic bags. So there’s many things that are going to be announced. And the reason why we decided to have them announced sort of throughout the conference is, frankly, there are so many things that are going to be happening that we thought we just couldn’t recite them all at once because it’s just so huge. You will be able to get access to the entire list of all of these things in detail at our – www.ourocean2016, ourocean2016.org. Ourocean2016.org – get it? And it’s ocean because there is only one ocean. Everything is actually connected, despite what we learned in our grade school. (Laughter.)

So yes, there will be a lot of deliverables. And you asked about the role of Chile. Chile is an ocean champion. We’re highlighting several countries that have actually stepped up to be champions of the ocean, and Chilean Foreign Minister Munoz will be speaking about that. We also have countries from Latin America who will be represented by senior delegations, and we’re very excited about that.

We have a parallel youth oceans summit that is going on with Georgetown University, because it is so important that the next generation come up through that. And the minister from Argentina is going to be participating in that and rolling up sleeves with these youth who are coming from all over the world and have come with proposals for solutions.

So we’re really – Latin America is well-represented and so is everybody else in the world.

MS THOMPSON: Okay, ladies and gentlemen. I think we have time for maybe one more question.

QUESTION: Thank you, we’ll go to the line of Lori Winkler (ph) with My Blog.

QUESTION: (Laughter.) Hi, thank you, it’s actually not my blog. I’m a freelance writer. Thank you very much, I have two questions. I’ll try to be quick.

What impact will a non-binding Paris agreement have or not have on the real-life positives coming out of this conference? And how fearful are you that should a president who doesn’t believe in climate change become elected that the good work being done at the conference will be undone?

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: Well can I just start with – I’d like to start with that second question, because what’s really so exciting about this is that because this has now been elevated and there’s so many countries involved, the EU had already announced publicly that they are going to host the next conference in Malta in 2017 for Our Ocean. But what is not known and I will tell you is that we have countries lined up to host this conference for the next three years, actually.

QUESTION: Oh.

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: So – and that will be announced at the conference, which countries are hosting and which years. But we know that this going to continue and we are very, very excited about that. And this is something we started as a leader but now we’re all working on this together, and the fact that these other countries have stepped forward, really, I think really, absolutely shows that.

MR PERSHING: So let me just add a little bit of color there on the Paris side, but because I think that the frame and the (inaudible) provided for the ocean is completely consistent with what people are saying on the climate negotiations.

The first one is that the meetings in Paris were meant to be the start of a process, not the end of it. What I’ve been struck by – and I have traveled quite widely in my portfolio and been talking to people – they’re now implementing. It’s no longer a question of will they take on a commitment. It’s a question that they have taken on the commitment. They are now moving forward to become formal parties to the agreement in many cases that is required an internal process which has engaged their legislatures, their executive communities, and their civil societies. And what’s startling is it’s not just been a legal exercise, it’s been a political exercise, and it’s owned at a remarkably deep level inside of countries.

A number of things to me lend enormous optimism to our interpretation of the implications of Paris. The first is that there’s been a very sharp decline in the price of some of the alternatives instead of high greenhouse gas-emitting the sources of energy, moving away to things like renewables.

Over the course of the last eight years since we’ve been in office, and it’s partly a function of what the U.S. has done and partly a function of what other countries have done, the price of solar has come down by a factor of ten. The price of renewables broadly has come down by a factor of five if I include wind, if I include geothermal. It’s not going back up. It’s now competitive, which means we’re not going to reverse course.

We’re finding enormous gains in efficiency. If you’re a country that has an option of putting in a dirty and high-consuming appliance but the new one costs less, you’re not going to put the old one in. You’re going to put the new one in. And as development proceeds, that’s where countries are headed.

And I am struck at the same vein by the adaptation programs that people are taking on. And this to a certain extent is where perhaps some of the biggest links between climate and oceans come in. It’s this coastal community. And they are so clearly invested in how to manage and minimize impacts, how to address risks. If we take, for example, the expectation around the change because of ocean warming in the intensity of hurricanes, of tempests, of storms that affect coastal zones, these are increasingly problematic.

Science has recently suggested the likelihood of the event that we had in Louisiana with the flooding was 40 percent higher because of climate change, and the reason it was 40 percent higher is the oceans have warmed. That kind of risk is now pervasive and is changing people’s thinking. And it’s independent, quite frankly, of whether we are able in the next administration to take a president who likes it or doesn’t like it; the reality is that it’s happening, and people react to reality. They address change from reality. They make investments, which are seeing aggressively moving forward in pretty much every country in the world, and I’m not seeing any backing down from that independent of what happens here in the United States.

So my sense is it’s going to keep going, it’s going to become more and more aggressive, and the climate links to the oceans, unfortunately, are very real and it’s one would have to address even more aggressively going forward.

OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll go to the line of Seth Borenstein with Associated Press.

QUESTION: Yes, thank you. Catherine mentioned bans on single-use plastic bags. Can you tell us a little bit more? When will those be announced? Who’s going to ban the single-use plastic bag? Are we talking worldwide, just a couple places, and are we talking U.S.?

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: No, it’s not worldwide, but there will be certain countries that are going to do it. And again, I don’t want to steal the thunder of the conference, so it’s going to be announced over the course of the next two days. And you will be able to get access to it at the ourocean2016.org site.

QUESTION: Is it including the U.S.? Because I’m on that site. I don’t see that there. Am I – I’m – somehow I’m missing that.

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: Well, because it hasn’t – we’re not – we haven’t put up all the announcements yet. We’re waiting until they’re announced over the next two days.

QUESTION: Which day will it be?

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: I believe it’s probably on Friday, but I honestly don’t have the agenda right in front of me here. Yeah --

QUESTION: Does it involve the U.S.?

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: Yeah, you can follow the conference live. It’s going to be livestreamed actually on ourocean2016.org, so --

QUESTION: And will it include the U.S.? Is the U.S. one of ban – banning countries?

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: Just if you follow the conference, you’ll see what happens. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: All right.

MS THOMPSON: Okay, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you so much for joining us today. Everybody, have a great afternoon.