Oceans Apart

Oceans Apart


The IPCC and the UNFCCC are the world’s preeminent bodies on the science and policy of climate change. The organizations have respectively built unprecedented consensus on climate change science (see the IPCC’s assessment and special reports) and policy (see the UNFCCC, the Kyoto Protocol, and the Paris Agreement).


However, the scientific urgency reported by the IPCC has not always translated into action by the UNFCCC. On oceans in particular, the two organizations have been polar opposites in terms of ambition.


Background: IPCC, Oceans, and Climate Change


The IPCC is a transparent and comprehensive international scientific partnership representing 195 member nations. Its assessment reports are authoritative compendia of the most current research on the causes, impacts, and solutions to climate change. (As an aside, it’s not just the IPCC that draws these conclusions, but also 17 national academies of science from around the world). The IPCC special reports are requested by the UNFCCC and help the global community of climate policymakers understand complex questions, including the difference in impacts between 1.5 ºC and 2 ºC warming and the role of land use in driving climate change.


Most recently, the IPCC reported its assessment of the between climate change, oceans, and the cryosphere.  The IPCC’s recent Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC) paints a dark picture about the depth of impacts on the world’s largest ecosystem. There are summaries of the SROCC report here.


Background: UNFCCC, Oceans, and Climate Change


The UNFCCC is a beacon of consensus-building and cooperation on international policy. UNFCCC requests IPCC reports to inform policy conversations, and based on the reports, negotiators from every country have been meeting year in and year out since 1992 on how to address the “super-wicked problem” of climate change. The UNFCCC has made more consensus decisions than any other UN body since its inception. While the UNFCCC and Paris Agreement processes are slow, methodical, and systematic, they are beautiful models for long-term human cooperation.


A Blue Path Forward


The threats facing the oceans, coastal ecosystems, and the communities that depend on them are clear. The wide range of climate change impacts on the oceans demands urgent action and investment to protect marine environments, coastal zones, biodiversity, people and economies. These issues and their solutions should be addressed through the highest levels of policymaking at the UNFCCC. What, then, has the UNFCCC done to keep pace with the urgency of ocean stewardship?


Until recently, very little. While the ambition to act swiftly and systematically on oceans continues to increase within civil society and the scientific community, the five formal provisional agendas for the next round of climate change talks do not include any reference to oceans. This disconnect between science and policy is emblematic of the non-role oceans have formally played in the UNFCCC global policymaking process.


Our next blog will explain why the UNFCCC has not historically addressed oceans comprehensively and include some promising (and some worrying) observations about how this may change with COP25.