Statement at International WCRP/IOC Conference on Regional Sea Level Changes and Coastal Impacts

As delivered

Statement by H.E. Peter Thomson, President of the 71st Session of the General Assembly, at International WCRP/IOC Conference on Regional Sea Level Changes and Coastal Impacts

10 July 2017, New York

10 July 2017Good morning everyone,

It is a great pleasure to be here this morning to participate in the opening of this important conference. Thank you for the kind invitation to address you.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Last week I was in Rome to make an address on preserving the health of the Ocean at an event organized by the Holy See. If you take a look at my twitter account @ThomsonFiji, you’ll find a picture I took at 5 am in the Campo de’ Fiori on the morning of the event.

Looking down at me in the picture is the brooding statue of Giordano Bruno, who on that spot in the year 1600, was burned at the stake after the Inquisition found him guilty of heresy. Amongst many other free-thinking ideas, Bruno had the temerity to hold that the universe was infinite and that the Earth was not at its center. Today his fiery execution is regarded as a milestone in the march of science, a march that has taken us to the Moon and back.

Looking up at that demanding image in the Campo de’ Fiori, I was struck by the challenges that climate science faces today. As global temperatures inexorably rise, desertification spreads, the Arctic melts, and islands submerge, we are confronted by powerful forces who deny that any of this is actually happening, or that if it is happening it is not for the anthropogenic reasons identified by scientific consensus.

Reason suggests a range of motivations for this opposition: wishful thinking, protection of economic interests, anti-scientific mindsets, or hopefully, reliable evidence to the contrary. If the latter exists, we’d like to see it soon, because when you’re living on a Pacific island and the Ocean is threatening your only home, an alternate reality sometime soon would be most welcome.

Ladies and gentlemen,

You will have seen by now that last weekend the leaders of the G20, with one notable exception, affirmed the Paris Climate Agreement as being irreversible. The G20’s unequivocal message on the imperative of Climate action conforms with a clear pattern manifested at meeting after meeting of the United Nations and its agencies around the world. The pattern to which I refer is that the great mass of humanity, and the governments that lead us, regard the implementation of the Paris Climate Agreement as absolutely essential to human security on this planet.

The same can be said for the other critical international agreement of our times. I refer of course to the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals guiding the world towards equity, prosperity, sustainable development and restored balance with Nature.

Taken together, these two agreements, consensually adopted by world leaders in the last quarter of 2015, provide us with the right track to a better way of life for people and planet. Faithfully implemented, they take us towards a sustainable future for our species on this planet.

In the formulation of these agreements, the international community has been guided by the logic of science; the drawn-out approach to both agreements having been conducted under conditions of rigorous debate, empirical analysis, statistics-based evidence and peer review, all subject to transparent and inclusive proceedings.

And now as we implement the agreements, the fundamental role of science continues. This was exemplified last week by the General Assembly unanimously adopting the Global Indicator Framework through which the progress of the Sustainable Development Goals will be monitored over the years ahead. The framework has been painstakingly created over a number of years by the assembled statisticians of our world.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The best scientific information available to those of us concerned to do the right thing for the inhabitants of Planet Earth, has for some time now been informing us that sea levels are rising and that they will continue to do so for the rest of this century. Again, for those of us concerned to do the right thing for our grandchildren, and I presume that means most of us, this has caused us to commence thought and action as to how we should respond to this scientific information.

In low-lying island countries such as the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu or Kiribati, projected sea level rise threatens the very existence of sovereign states. In the food-basket river-deltas of Asia alone, many population displacement projections show over 100 million people being flooded off their lands. Meanwhile, depending on which maps you accept, many of the world’s great cities will go the way of Atlantis. The implications for global migration, food security and vital coastal infrastructure are, to say the least, challenging.

It is thus that meetings such as today’s are vital to our times. If we are to plan for sustainable development and security, with reason and truth as our lodestones, we must continue to be guided by the best of scientific consensus.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I have been asked to touch on the outcomes of The Ocean Conference, held last month at the United Nations in New York. The first of its kind, with around 6000 participants representing the scientific community, the private sector, civil society, multinational agencies and governments, the conference has been judged to have been a massive success. Many now hope it will prove to be the moment the tide turned on the unrestrained damage accumulated human activity has been doing to Ocean’s health.

To understand the success of the conference, one must appreciate that it was mandated by the United Nations to support the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14. The latter is the Ocean Goal, dedicated to the conservation and sustainable utilization of the Ocean’s resources. Like all the SDGs, SDG14 applies to us all, having been universally adopted by the leaders of all 193 Member States of the United Nations.

SDG14 contains targets related to marine and coastal ecosystems, to marine pollution, Ocean acidification, fish stocks, fisheries subsidies, conservation, sustainable economic benefits and Ocean governance. Crucially, the role of science is emphasized repeatedly throughout SDG14, with specific reference made to the IOC’s Guidelines on the Transfer of Marine Technology.

Last month’s Ocean Conference robustly covered all of these targets, through a series of partnership dialogues at which world authorities presented the problems inherent in achieving SDG14’s targets and then elicited from participants comprehensive collections of solutions to the identified problems.

These solutions have been captured, along with the nearly 1400 voluntary commitments on SDG14 targets made virtually from around the world by governments and organizations. In all, we now have a huge communal work plan with which to go forward.

In addition, the conference adopted an ambitious Call for Action outcome document, that had been carefully negotiated by UN Member States in the months preceding the conference. The Call for Action expresses the determination of Member States to act decisively and urgently in support of SDG14. I am pleased to report that last Friday, the General Assembly consensually adopted a resolution endorsing the provisions of the Call for Action.

The Ocean Conference received strong support throughout from the world’s creative community and the Media, with many indicators demonstrating that global consciousness of Ocean issues has reached an all-time high. Few policy makers can now plausibly claim to be unaware of the woes that humanity has put upon the Ocean, with plastic pollution at the fore.

The ultimate success of the conference will be the implementation of the huge cross-disciplined work plan that has emanated from it. In this regard, rest assured that work is now underway analyzing outcomes and shaping the working models and programs for the ahead.

In all of this work we understand that Climate action and Ocean action are two sides of the same coin. There is no better example of that assertion than the cause and effect of Ocean acidification and Ocean warming, and of course the same can be said for terrestrial ecosystems and biodiversity.

Thus our next station on the environmental action track is November’s COP 23 in Bonn, to be held under the chairmanship of Fiji. Other stations ahead include the IPCC special report on the Ocean in 2018, and onwards to COP 26 when governments will take stock of progress on the implementation of the Paris Agreement. Crucially, COP26 will dovetail with a second UN Ocean Conference expected to be held in 2020 to assess and adjust our SDG14 progress.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In all of this work we must stand with our feet firmly fixed in the best science available to us. SDG14 calls for an increase in scientific knowledge and the development of research capacity; and it was thus that I was pleased to have the opportunity to speak two weeks ago in Paris at the IOC Assembly in strong support of the proposed Science Decade for the Ocean for Sustainable Development.

I applaud the IOC and indeed the entire Ocean-related scientific community for its principled tenacity and patient determination in charting the trends, the forecasts and the scientific facts that will guide us through the turbulent times ahead. I look forward to reading your conference statement. We count on you to provide the true charts upon which our navigation will be applied, the true charts that will lead us to a sustainable world in which humanity’s relationship with the Ocean and Mother Nature has been restored to one of balance and respect.

I thank you for your attention.

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