Interview of the Week: Former Secretary of State John Kerry on the State of Our Ocean


Our Daily Planet was fortunate to catch up with Former Secretary Kerry as the 6th Our Ocean Conference in Oslo, Norway was drawing to a close. 

ODP:  Since launching the Our Ocean Conference five years ago, this meeting has resulted in 1,370 commitments from governments, the private sector, philanthropies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and academia valued at nearly USD $93 billion, with over 26 million square kilometers of the ocean designated for protection.  When you first conceived of the idea, did you think it would be this successful?  What was the key to all this progress?

JK:  I’ll tell you, other than good old-fashioned hard work by many people, you know why I think it’s succeeded? Because it was inclusive. We couldn’t afford for it to just reflect a personal passion or pet project of any single activist or philanthropist or individual nation. It had to be bigger than the investment of any single Secretary of State. (That turned out to be prescient for some sad but obvious reasons that need not be repeated!) But again, here’s what I love about the Our Oceans movement: at the very first conference in Washington D.C. in the Harry S Truman Building, Chile’s Former Foreign Minister Heraldo Munoz raised his hand and said Chile was volunteering to lead the next one. And before I left office, the EU, Indonesia, and Norway raised their hands to host too.  You can learn from that – multilateralism, finding friends and allies – it works!

What I think says so much about this issue and so much about the hunger for global leadership, are emerging leaders who have made it their cause, none more so than my friend the President of Palau, Tommy Remengesau, who is going to make next year’s conference one of the most groundbreaking ever – the first to ever be held in a tiny country in the western Pacific, a country that only gained its full sovereignty twenty five years ago but which recognizes none of us are free from a responsibility to protect this planet. It’s not just for environmentalists or activists, it’s everyone’s issue. It has to be. That’s why it’s working. 

It was refreshing to read the Oregon State research on how many marine protected areas have been completed because you can see over five years the conference has had an impact. That was the goal from day one. We didn’t just want it to be an excuse to talk, we wanted this conference to be grounded in pledges and actions. We wanted it to be a magnet and a forcing mechanism for concrete steps. That was a void we thought we were addressing.

ODP:  How does the Conference complement other global efforts — on climate change, conserving biodiversity, and achieving the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals?  What do you think it should achieve in its next five years?

JK:  This was meant to be different in many ways – to elevate these issues as foreign policy issues, at the foreign minister level or the head of state level wherever we could, and it was supposed to be grounded in tangible commitments. At the same time, we wanted it to be nimble, and flexible, so that anyone serious about the issue felt at home, no matter what their focus was or whether they were new to the issue. That’s entirely complementary to what happens, for example, around the UN SDGs. But it’s still different. The single biggest thing I believe we have to do is build more momentum and tracking and ongoing activity between the conferences so that each conference feeds on the past one and drives towards the next one.

ODP:  The world is in disarray at the moment.  But the Paris Agreement and efforts like the Our Ocean Conference have fostered global cooperation on the massive challenges of climate change and ocean health that impact everyone.  Does that give you hope?

JK:  It definitely gives me hope. It reminds me that countries and NGOs want to work together and that’s how the world works best, through collaboration. But it’s not a substitute for more active leadership by the United States. Oceans and climate are challenges of enormous scale, and the issue of the ocean, thank God, hasn’t been politically demonized or weaponized the way climate has, regrettably, by the deniers and the delayers. But you still have so little room for error if you’re going to do what the science says we have to do. Think about climate. Yes, states and cities, and other countries are doing good things, and it’s important. But we know how much more could be happening if we rallied the world to do it together.  We have to think this way more often – because the pressures are mounting: you can’t protect the oceans without solving climate change and you can’t solve climate change without protecting the oceans, and you can’t do either if you can’t prove it’s economically workable for average people.

The world’s top three emitters, China the EU and the United States, account for over 50 percent of emissions. Just three of us on this planet! Think about what could happen every time the G 20 meets. You could get a G 20 movement where the major emitters who are providing more than 80 to 85 percent of all the emissions come together to define the ambition of Paris upwards instead of dumbing it down and dividing us for politics. But we’re not today. The lower one hundred and thirty economies in the world produce less than 1 percent of global emissions. No wonder they’re angry at us. No wonder they’re suspicious of all of us at the top. Success is going to come from leadership in every single country, and it bothers me on a certain level when I go to Oslo and I meet leaders from tiny countries in the Pacific who didn’t create even a fraction’s fraction of the problem, but they seem to feel more urgency to be part of the solution than we do. We have to turn that around again.

ODP: Do you believe there ought to be areas of the high seas that are set aside for nature and the good of all mankind with no extraction or development?

JK:  Absolutely! Look, Teddy Roosevelt had a hell of a vision about places like the Grand Canyon and we won a series of National Parks that were controversial at the time, but which still today are largely unspoiled. Parts of the High Seas can be a kind of protected area for the whole world. But there’s more to it than that. We need to come together and make judgments about areas and places that were once inaccessible but aren’t in our modern world before development and greed make those judgments for us.

Everyone should read Ian Urbina’s new book Outlaw Oceans. The high seas are a wild west of human trafficking, piracy, and illegal fishing. And today you still have more than 400 unresolved maritime boundary disputes on this planet which leave behind ungoverned oceans spaces. We need to get serious about these challenges. It’s one of the reasons it would be nice if treaty weren’t still a dirty word in the US Senate and the US could listen to its military and the US Chamber of Commerce and finally join the Law of the Sea and take our seat at that table shaping the dialogue and the rules of the road to a greater degree. We’ve dealt ourselves out of the game.

ODP:  When you conceived of the Our Ocean Conference, you had the “blue economy” in mind.  Do you believe that with the knowledge we have now, we can expand the blue economy in a sustainable way — to allow for the growth of aquaculture, offshore wind, and even seabed mining for critical minerals that will make wider use of electric cars and renewable energy possible?

JK:  I do, and the more involved I’ve become in this, the more I learn that the solutions are opportunities because we live in such a remarkable time for technology. When you look at the distress the oceans are in, you want to feel urgency, not despair. And the difference is that we have within our grasp solutions no one had fifty or one hundred years ago. Just remember how much luckier we are than any other generation before that’s faced challenges approaching this magnitude. Today we know more about the oceans than any scientists or policy-makers ever before.

I was reading about this amazing historical figure, Richard Hakluyt. In the 1700s, he set out to map the oceans and write the globe’s first commercial Atlases for navigation, he had never even been to sea. He didn’t have the information or the money or the first-hand knowledge. He didn’t even know if it could be done. He went to the port-side bars of England and he bought sailors rum and he heard their stories and he went home each night and tried to connect their stories of far-off geographies and trade-routes and put it on paper in the form of maps. And he wrote guides that were pretty damn accurate. He didn’t have satellite imaging. He didn’t have Google. He didn’t have Skype. He didn’t have the ability to talk face to face with a fishermen ten thousand miles away without leaving a cubicle. He didn’t have billions of dollars in collective resources from research universities and governments and businesses determined to preserve their way of life. But somehow, he did it.

If he could map the oceans with so little information, surely, we can save the oceans with a level of innovation, insight, and investment that Hakluyt couldn’t dare dream existed. We can protect the oceans to feed the planet before the reefs are gone, species are wiped out and food insecurity and resource scarcity become the story of tomorrow. That’s what this is all about.

ODP: In the U.S. there has been much discussion about the Green New Deal.  Do you think the GND ought to have a “blue” component that would help to foster a new wave of sustainable ocean enterprises — fund coastal resilience projects, ocean energy development, cleaner shipping, and better fisheries management using new technologies, and a just transition for older workers in fishing and shipping whose jobs may be eliminated?

JK: Whether it’s part of any specific legislative package or not, that’s not for me to say, but I know this: there’s a great “blue deal” waiting to be made that’s for sure. There is no blue economy, and there’s no fishing industry if we don’t protect our oceans – and we can’t protect our oceans if we can’t show people everywhere that, done right, protecting the oceans doesn’t hurt jobs. It IS jobs. I’ve got a perspective on this that comes not just from being Secretary of State, but from being a Senator from Massachusetts for twenty-eight years.

If you’ve ever read Mark Kurlansky’s remarkable book, “Cod,” or watched “The Perfect Storm,” you know how much fishing is ingrained in our culture and economy. Our fisheries were breaking down. They were under incredible strain. But fishermen didn’t trust the science and they didn’t trust the regulators who acted on that science. And they also had to be able to put food on their tables and money in the bank. What did we do? Well, we started having the federal government pay fishermen to take the scientists out on their boards to monitor the fisheries. They built trust in the data and the science and it put money in the bank for fishermen that made up for some of the reduced catch when certain stocks couldn’t be harvested. It was a new form of cooperative management. It was also bipartisan – we passed it with Ted Stevens from Alaska. Fishermen get it, just like farmers get it. Farmers say “don’t eat your seed corn.” Fishermen know that if you overfish now, there won’t be fish in three and five years from now. But you have to fill that economic void.

It’s true globally too. Indonesia is the world’s second-largest fishing nation with nine million jobs hanging in the balance. Over the last decade, they began efforts to fish sustainably. Illegal fishing is going down and the daily catch is going up. There are more fish and they’re bigger fish – and policy-makers in Jakarta are reassured by new economic data they can bring to local communities projecting that if Indonesia’s fisheries stay on this new sustainable course, then fishing communities by 2050, could be earning nearly $2.3 billion more each year. 

Thank you so much, Secretary Kerry, for taking the time to talk with us and for creating the Our Ocean Conference!  We are already looking forward to next year’s Conference in Palau.   

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