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September 29, 2016

Responding To: Climate Change and the Oceans: Challenges Ahead

Everything is Interconnected

René Micallef

I grew up by the sea in Malta, spent weeks modeling and studying disturbed benthic marine assemblages during my time as a biology major, and have fond memories of the Massachusetts coastline from my years in Boston, so I can understand and identify with Secretary John Kerry’s passion for the ocean very well. I can even picture some of the childhood reminiscences he shared in his welcome remarks at the "Our Ocean" conference on September 15.

Weaving personal experience, scientific data, and political initiative, Kerry argued that everything is interconnected, a view that I deeply share. In our age—some authors have called it the “anthropocene”—we may feel tiny in front of a huge expanse of ocean, but human activity is truly changing that ocean and making life within it vulnerable.

In illustrating the interconnectedness of nature, Kerry does not refer to the “butterfly effect” or the chaos theory, but rather to Pascal’s claim that “the entire ocean is affected by a pebble.” Pebbles can fall from a cliff, but Pascal’s image evokes a child skimming pebbles on a beach, and hence, humbly, but surely integrates human agency and responsibility into the vision of an ever-changing environment. As a Rome-based Jesuit theological ethicist, this approach brings to mind the fourth chapter of Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si (LS), where the claim that everything is interconnected (LS 138) is developed into a reflection on integral ecology, “one which clearly respects its human and social dimensions.” (LS 137)

An Interconnection of Peoples
As a Maltese citizen, what immediately comes to mind, after hearing Kerry’s remarks on both occasions, is Arvid Pardo’s captivating three-hour speech to the UN General Assembly on the morning of November 1, 1967. The learned and eloquent, Swedish-Maltese diplomat argued for one of Malta’s first international diplomatic initiatives, three years after its independence: “The reservation exclusively for peaceful purposes of the seabed and the ocean floor, and the subsoil thereof, underlying the high seas beyond the limits of present national jurisdiction, and the use of their resources in the interests of mankind” (A/C. 1/952).

Pardo’s vision of placing the riches of the seas and oceans beyond the reach of any single country’s control necessitated a written, binding Law of the Sea, to become reality. His proposal kindled a lengthy diplomatic debate leading to the UNCLOS-III conference (1973-82); the resulting Law of the Sea is considered one of Malta’s (few) great diplomatic achievements. Pardo materialized the intentions and hopes of environmental trailblazers such as Rachel Carson in a way that brought them to bear on the development of international law. Kerry’s speech mentions Carson and the fact that we “have not responded sufficiently to [the] threat [to life] or other warnings;” we may be more than half a century late, but Kerry believes that “we are not going to be the prisoners of history.”

Changing the Course of History

Today, 49 years later, we are starting to tackle a number of major environmental issues raised in Pardo’s speech, and some of the politicians who participated in the "Our Ocean" conference, such as Ségolène Royal and Kerry, are showing remarkable leadership. Much of their leadership, however, concerns unilateral actions, often regarding areas of the ocean claimed by individual states. Although Pardo’s succeeded in preventing nation-states from claiming sovereignty over huge tracts of the oceans, he did not necessarily facilitate countries’ task to protect the ocean. Many governments today still find it hard to stand up to environmental skepticism and eco-denial, and to act on greenhouse gas emissions and pollution within their sovereign borders, even when it manifestly hurts their citizens and threatens their economies. The problem is further aggravated by the fact that some nations could not care less about what lies beyond their jurisdiction, or about the commonwealth of humanity.In fact, many great riches in the oceans, are already being exploited and over-exploited.

Nonetheless with a pinch of realism and coordination, the international community could control and tax exploitative activities beyond national borders. Together countries could harness this wealth to protect the oceans and build resilience in coastal areas and the territorial waters of developing countries. I believe Pardo’s idea of an “ocean fund” or “ocean tax,” updated to the reflect the current concerns of the international community, could provide good food for thought for future "Our Ocean" conferences.

Fr. Rene Micallef, S.J., is an associate professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He is a citizen of the Republic of Malta and has been a member of the Society of Jesus since October 1997.

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