Could the ocean get a seat at the negotiating table at future climate summits? That’s what Peter Thomson, the United Nations special envoy for the ocean, told us he would like to see.
It certainly warrants a place. The ocean has absorbed more than 90% of the excess heat and almost 30% of the excess carbon dioxide caused by human activity. Billions of people—mostly in the Global South—depend on the ocean for food and livelihoods. If it were a country, it would be the seventh-biggest economy. But its ability to act as a protector from the worst extreme weather and humanity’s carbon sink is being jeopardized as climate change causes unprecedented levels of warming. Increased acidification, dead zones, rising sea levels, and habitat and species loss are just some of the symptoms we’re seeing.
Ocean issues had long been seen as separate from climate negotiations, until COP26 in 2021, when the role of marine ecosystems in mitigating climate change was recognized in the Glasgow Climate Pact. An annual dialogue was created to assess progress on ocean-based actions and report back ahead of each COP. Thomson’s idea is that the two co-facilitators of these talks be elevated to ministerial level so that the ocean is properly represented.
So, if the ocean were a delegation, it would probably report mixed success in Dubai.
For the second year running, the ocean had its own space—even if this was a pavilion at the end of a cul-de-sac at possibly the furthest point from the main entrance. With panels and events on topics from the economics of fisheries to cultural heritage, the pavilion provided a focal point for meeting and debate—and unexpected music.
Ahead of the summit, the pavilion released the Dubai Ocean Declaration, which called on world leaders to recognize the importance of the ocean and support efforts to expand and improve observations. An analysis showed that more than 70% of new or updated Nationally Determined Contributions—national climate plans—included at least one ocean-based target, policy, or measure.
In the end, the ocean got a “robust inclusion” in the first-ever global stocktake (GST), the main document produced in Dubai. The final text of the GST, which assesses whether the world is on track to meet the goal of the 2015 Paris Agreement, makes several references to the importance of protecting and preserving the marine and coastal ecosystems, and calls for “further strengthening of ocean-based action.”
But, campaigners cautioned, there are no firm targets or timelines here. And there is a concern that too much emphasis is placed on “scaling up ocean-based mitigation action,” which could include controversial marine geoengineering techniques that haven’t been tested at scale.
An early funding announcement that captured much attention was the $225 million for the sustainable management of Pacific Island nations’ marine resources, with $125 million coming from the Global Environment Facility and the rest from the Bezos Earth Fund.
There were key announcements on coral, mangroves, and shipping, which accounts for almost 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Industry leaders issued a joint declaration setting out the four “cornerstones” that would drive maritime decarbonization and urged the International Maritime Organization to create a regulatory environment that would speed up the transition to green fuels.
One example of these green fuels was anchored among the glitzy megayachts at Dubai Marina: Andrew Forrest’s Green Pioneer, a repurposed mining vessel that runs only on ammonia. Moored across the quay was Ocean Xplorer, the research vessel of another billionaire, Ray Dalio, which boasts an impressive range of submarines, remote-operated vehicles, diving gear, on-board labs, and testing facilities. It aims to make ocean science accessible to all with Hollywood-level filming and production.
Pulitzer Center participation
The Pulitzer Center hosted a panel discussion at the Ocean Pavilion on December 11: “The Ocean and Climate: What Makes Good Storytelling?”
I felt very privileged that we were the only session that focused on reporting and journalism. Our panel included two Pulitzer Center Ocean Reporting Network Fellows: Aryn Baker from TIME, who is spending a year delving into invisible plastic pollutants, and Eman Mounir, a freelancer who is covering pollution and desalination in the Arabian Sea.
Together with Natalie Hart, of Communications INC, and Ken Kostel, of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, we examined the key ingredients for a successful ocean and climate story, how different interest groups can work together to tell accurate but impactful stories, and how to reach and engage with audiences.
We were also really lucky to hear from the Norwegian ministry, which is funding our ocean reporting program of grants and fellowships. Andreas Bjelland Eriksen, the Norwegian minister of climate and the environment, hailed the success of the Pulitzer Center’s rainforest reporting initiatives and spoke of the transformative power of independent investigative journalism when applied to environmental issues. “I’m grateful that Pulitzer Center has taken on the task to report on the oceans as well,” he said.
“We need your journalistic eyes and ears to investigate and expose. Go tell your stories and make the public sphere a safer place. When the Fourth Estate is awake, the rest of us can sleep more tight.”
Watch the panel recording: