Global Future of the Environment

Global Future of the Environment

September 30, 2016

Climate Change and the Oceans: Challenges Ahead

John Kerry

The following is excerpted from Secretary Kerry’s welcome remarks at the “Our Ocean” conference on September 19, 2016. Large textual omissions have been noted.

...The sheer power of the ocean, its poignant, incomparable grandeur, is something that humans have felt viscerally from the earliest days. Our awe at the ocean’s life-giving power and its beauty has been captured by our most sacred religious texts, our great philosophies, our art and our literature.


[But] for literally billions of people around the world, the connection with the ocean is not just emotional, it is also existential. To put it simply, the ocean is essential to all life on Earth. It is responsible for almost 50 percent of the oxygen that we breathe, for the food that we eat, for the climate in which we live, for the employment of hundreds of millions of people around the planet.


Despite our knowledge and appreciation of the oceans’ importance, despite the inexorable link between the ocean and our variability to exist, we—humans—have been systematically undermining the ability of the maritime environment to nurture, perhaps even survive and sustain life. For decades, even centuries, we have been polluting and pillaging the resources of the sea with devastating consequences for our coastal communities and our marine ecosystems.


However, in recent years, after decades of denial and neglect, we have begun to chart a new course. The global community has begun to demonstrate a willingness to honor the responsibility that we have to future generations. Consider, for example, the first two of Our Oceans conferences generated more than $4 billion of commitment to conservation and other kinds of pilot deal with coastal communities and fishing and more than 6 million square kilometers of newly protected ocean.

The progress that we’ve made on rule of law initiatives like the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA) is just as encouraging. The PSMA was the first international treaty that was aimed at preventing illegally caught fish from making it to the market…Today more than 60 nations, including the United States, have now ratified the PSMA, and as a result it’s [now] going to be much more difficult for illegal fishermen to come to port and be able to market their fish.

In Paris last December, we gaveled in the most ambitious, most far-reaching, and we hope enduring global climate change agreement in history—an agreement that was drafted with the support and input of not only 200 countries. And now, we are working together to bring that agreement into force as quickly as possible.

I like to think that particularly with the two largest emitters—regrettably, China and the United States—joining together, we’ve begun to set a mark that can, in fact, indicate the seriousness of purpose of the most significant emitters. We have to make a sustained and universal commitment to keep moving forward in every way that we can for as long as we have the power to do so. And like Our Ocean conferences in the years past, this gathering is not about just talking. It’s about catalyzing specific steps that we will take.

President Obama got the ball rolling earlier this month when he expanded the marine protected area off the coast of Hawaii, creating the world’s largest marine protected area. [He also designated] the first no-take marine monument in the Atlantic Ocean.

[But we need to do more still.] We [need] new ways to monitor and to address climate change on our ocean. We [need] innovative means for mitigating the flow of pollution from land to sea. We [need] to outline further plans for the global community to come together to preserve our fish stocks and prevent illegal fishing. And we need to make sure that no patch of ocean is beyond the law.

The bottom line is that none of what we are working toward is beyond our capacity. This is not a question of what do we do, this is a question of the willpower to do what we know we can do. And if we make the right choices, if we set the right priorities, if we respond to the same understanding that saving our ocean isn’t just an option or a priority, it’s an absolute necessity, we will get there. We have to think big and we have to think small at the same time…In doing so, we will create a current fueled by the energy of literally millions of advocates and activists, a current that can correct the course of history, that can preserve our coastal communities and ecosystems, that can strengthen fisheries, and feed the billions who will inhabit this planet, and that will allow us to keep for future generations the majesty of the ocean that covers three quarters of our planet and sustains life around the equator from pole to pole.


John Kerry is the U.S. secretary of state.

Other Responses


Fishermen, Fish, and the Tragedy of the Commons

Paul Sullivan | September 30, 2016


Ocean Degradation as a Source of Conflict

Camille Gaskin-Reyes | September 29, 2016


Our Ocean, One Future, Our Common Home

François Pazisnewende Kaboré | September 29, 2016


A Global Commitment Grounded in Local Stories

Paulus Bambang Irawan | September 29, 2016

Randallamster 1

Saving Our Oceans, Saving Ourselves

Randall Amster | September 29, 2016


Everything is Interconnected

René Micallef | September 29, 2016


Understanding our Oceans

Monica Mahal | September 28, 2016

About the Blog

Over the course of 2015 and 2016, the Global Future's Initiative invited the Georgetown University community to address four critical global issues: development, governance, security, and the environment.

During the fall 2016 semester, the Global Futures blog tracked a number of high-level events centered on the future of the environment. A series of lectures were co-sponsored with the Walsh School of Foreign Service, which emphasized the environment as a strategic centennial theme over the course of the 2016-2017 academic year.

Georgetown is home to a number of environment-related centers and programs in the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown College, and the Georgetown Law Center. Among these are the Georgetown Environment Initiative, the Center for the Environment, Georgetown Climate Center, and the Program on Science in the Public Interest.

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