The world is moving forward on climate

From Nov. 7-18, 2016, delegates from the world’s nations gathered in Marrakech, Morocco, for the 2016 U.N. Climate Change Conference, known as COP22. With the Paris Agreement—the strongest global commitment to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases—now in effect, nations focused on how to meet reduction targets designed to keep Earth’s atmospheric temperature from rising 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Dr. Kyle Van Houtan, the Aquarium’s director of science, attended the conference to address how carbon emissions affect ocean health. Here, Kyle shares his reflections about the conference.

A souk selling potpourri, spices, and yarn in the Medina district of Marrakech.

The skylines of Marrakech are framed by stark contrasts. There is the adobe-pink Medina, the ancient city and the heart of Marrakech; modern hotels and bustling urban roundabouts; and the massive, snow-capped Atlas Mountains that hold back the Sahara Desert. The people of Marrakech are mostly of Berber ethnic heritage, and the locals I met were exceedingly conversational, kind and curious.

Nearly 30,000 delegates, speakers, students and emissaries from scores of countries passed through security checkpoints to the tent city where the COP22 meetings were held. We were on the outskirts of town, in a district called Bab Ighli, next to extensive royal olive groves. The tent “rooms”—which became increasingly hot as the day went on,  with crowds of up to a few hundred people per room—were appropriately named after the seas of the world: Arctic, Mediterranean, Caribbean.

Following the landmark agreement at last year’s U.N. climate change conference in Paris (COP21), the Marrakech conference was expected to be a quieter, less exciting gathering focused on the business of implementing the Paris accord. But a few things happened on the way to Marrakech that elevated its importance.

Projected displays on walls and ceilings were common in the exhibit space of the Blue Zone at COP22.

Several leaps forward

In early October, the international community forged an agreement to curtail emissions from aviation, the world’s seventh-biggest source of heat-trapping gases. A few weeks later, 170 countries announced an agreement to eliminate almost all hydrofluorocarbons, a deal expected to prevent 0.5 degrees Celsius of future global warming.

Most significantly, on November 4, just before the start of COP22, the climate accord passed a critical threshold: 55 countries, representing more than 55 percent of global emissions, ratified the Paris Agreement, allowing it to enter into force as  international law. As of today, the historic agreement has 193 signatories, representing almost every country in the world.

Embossed geometric wall design and metal lantern in a hotel alcove, Hivernage district of Marrakech.

On the second day of COP22, the U.S. held its presidential election. I was boarding a red-eye flight in Tokyo when I caught a glimpse of the early results. By the time I landed in Marrakech, the outcome was clear. The results sent shockwaves through the conference. Many were wondering how the U.S. delegation would react, and how other groups might adjust their strategies in response.

But that uncertainty quickly shifted into a shared sense of resolve. Businesses looked to move forward on the estimated $23 trillion in climate-smart investment opportunities worldwide. China and India, which along with the U.S. rank among the top three emitters of heat-trapping gases, pledged to follow through with their climate commitments.

Bound together as inhabitants of our shared planet, delegates from around the world moved forward with the climate talks in Marrakech.

Smarter science communication

One of my take-home lessons from COP22 is that we need better, smarter and more abundant science communication. Especially in the United States.

The world’s first 100% electric truck, made in Morocco by Rabat, on display within the tents at COP22.

Much of the public discussion and understanding of climate change right now is focused on the temperature of the Earth’s surface. While this metric is telling, it oversimplifies the impacts of climate change—it literally just scrapes the surface. Yet around us, every day, climate change is happening.

At the session where I spoke, we recommended using five metrics to more fully report on climate change’s ocean impacts: surface temperature, ocean heat content, sea level, ocean pH, and dissolved oxygen content. Together, we felt these five metrics more faithfully describe the serious problems facing our planet. (Learn more about these metrics here.)

The analogy I offered was a comparison to what happens during a visit to your physician.

When you arrive at the doctor’s office, regardless of the reason, the staff usually takes five measurements on the state of your health: height, weight, heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature. Why these five? The human body is a complex ecosystem, and together these metrics have been demonstrated as reasonable indicators of baseline human health.

In other words, your body temperate alone does not paint a complete picture of your health. Since our planet is seriously sick, we too need to do more than discuss its temperature.

COP22 ocean panelists and guests, from left: Dr. Charles Kennel (Scripps Institute of Oceanography), Archbishop Kikkotis (Patriarchate of Alexandria), Tahirih Matthee (Assembly of Baha’i), Dr. Kyle Van Houtan (Monterey Bay Aquarium), Fred Krueger (EcoStewards), Dr. Richard Miller (Creighton University)

We are moving forward

Interestingly, the events that preceded Marrakech did something unexpected. They invigorated the talks and emboldened the delegates—from all countries, including the U.S.—to take action under the Paris Agreement.

As representatives of the world’s nations discussed the urgent action needed to stabilize Earth’s climate, it was hard not to feel overwhelmed. Is there a more important problem facing humanity? Most of the world doesn’t think so. The global momentum to address climate change seems unstoppable.

Marrakech was always intended to be a pivot point from Paris. Now that the global climate agreement is in place, the progress to be made from here involves substantive commitments from corporations and universities, financial investments, and actions by state and local governments.

Now more than ever, these commitments are critical.

The world is moving forward to act on climate change. The state of California, a global leader in emissions reduction, is moving forward as well.

And we at the Monterey Bay Aquarium are more committed than ever to this movement.


Learn more about the ocean impacts of climate change, and what you can do to help.

Featured photo: Berber tribal dancers perform outside the tents as the COP22 proceedings wind down at day’s end.

All photos © Monterey Bay Aquarium / Kyle Van Houtan.

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