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Transcript: Climate Solutions: A Conversation with Sylvia Earle

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MS. STEAD SELLERS: Good morning, and welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m Frances Stead Sellers, a senior writer here at the Post.

I'm particularly honored this morning to welcome the renowned oceanographer, Sylvia Earle, who is the president and chair of Mission Blue. Also with us is Dan Laffoley. He's a global expert on ocean conservation.

A very warm welcome to Washington Post Live to you both.

MR. LAFFOLEY: Thank you very much.

MS. EARLE: Good morning.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: Good morning, Sylvia.

MS. EARLE: Or afternoon.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: Right. Wherever you are in the world, welcome, anyway.

I'd like to start, Sylvia, by talking about the extent of the problem. We're going to focus the show today on climate solutions, but tell us how bad the problem is with the health of the oceans. How did we get here, and what's at stake?

MS. EARLE: In the last half century, we have really witnessed an accelerated decline of the planet as a whole, but in the ocean, about half the coral reefs have disappeared or are in a state of sharp decline. There's been a sharp decline of ocean wildlife. Ninety percent of many of the big fish are gone.

Ocean acidification is a major issue spurred by excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that in the ocean becomes carbonic acid. There are a lot of problems, but there are also solutions and plenty of reason for hope.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: You said in the introduction that we have a moment right now. Tell us about that. How do we move ahead, and why do you see this as such an important moment?

MS. EARLE: Well, the top priority truly is to understand we've got a problem. If you don't know that you have a problem, it's going to be hard to do anything about it. We must embrace the natural systems that maintain Earth as a habitable planet and accelerate protection for the last remaining places on the land, restore what we can, and the same is true with the ocean, the goal set by many around the world, with many countries signing on to this. There's at least 30 percent of the land, at least 30 percent of the ocean, including the high seas that represents about half of the world to really be safeguarded so that we can be safeguarded. It's our life support system that's at risk.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: Wow, those are huge and challenging targets you're talking about. Could you tell me specifically what Mission Blue is doing towards these goals?

MS. EARLE: We are really aiming to help make that goal come true. I mean at least that much. How much of your heart do you want to really protect? The ocean is the blue heart of the planet. It drives climate and weather. It generates most of the oxygen in the atmosphere, and we have taken it for granted through most of our history, and we can't take it for granted anymore. The ocean is in trouble.

So, with Mission Blue, enlisting champions that are celebrated in the "Perpetual Planet: Heroes" film that Rolex has just released in connection with World Ocean Day and now to really highlight what individuals around the world are committing to, embracing special places, Hope Spots, looking to enhance protection, again, trying to reach that goal of at least 30 percent of the planet protected by 2030.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: So, I'll come to you, Dan, in a moment, but I do want to ask just a little bit more about Hope Spots. I've been reading about these areas. These are areas of preservation, right, Sylvia? Is that correct?

MS. EARLE: Well, that's the goal, but some of the places are not in great shape. But there's hope if people take action, and that's really the aim here to create not just--

MS. STEAD SELLERS: So, this sounds like a huge logistical challenge, and, Dan, you have been one of a group of marine scientists who called on G7 leaders to move ahead with ocean conservation. Can you outline the goals you've laid out for them and what prospects you see for them?

MR. LAFFOLEY: So, I think it's really about understanding, as Sylvia says, that we are the minority people on an ocean planet, and therefore, if we're going to solve the climate challenges and the biodiversity challenges, the ocean is a massive part of that. So, it is about better protecting the ocean. It's about better managing the ocean, and it's about setting aside areas, Hope Spots, marine-protected areas, where we take the pressure off, and what I think is incredible, even in 2021, is if you take the pressure off the ocean, it still bounces back, and that gives us reason for hope because the ocean supports us both through climate regulation, but it supports hundreds of millions, if not billions of people in their daily lives. And so, these are the sorts of calls that we've been making on G7 leaders to listen to the ocean, to not be dominated by what's happening on land, but to realize that the ocean is, as Sylvia says, the blue heart of the planet and really the heart of the solution if we're going to get things right moving forwards.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: Well, tell me, are your requests being responded to in an appropriate say, Dan?

MR. LAFFOLEY: Well, we were heartened to see a number of statements that the G7 countries came out with. So, they have put themselves fully behind at least 30 percent. They are talking about getting a much better handle, if you like, on some of the climate issues, but really, we need to go further. Really, we need to realize that it's not just about that at least 30 percent. It's about the whole ocean. It's about how we manage the whole thing together.

So, it's great that we want to get a handle on plastics and we want to get a good treaty in place to protect half the planet that doesn't have a conservation framework. This is the open ocean beyond the jurisdiction of individual countries, but we need to go further and faster. And I think many people will still be saying that, even with some of the welcome news that we've seen the G7 countries come up with so far.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: So, Sylvia, I'd love to hear your take on this 30 percent by 2030. How do we go further?

MS. EARLE: Well, we have to individually take responsibility as well as collectively. Keep in mind the critical importance of taking care of the natural world that makes our existence possible. Many people look at the ocean and think, as people have thought through all of the history of our species, what can we take out of the ocean? How can we use the ocean? What's the ocean good for in terms of products or what we can extract or what we can use the ocean as a dump site for all the stuff that we want to dispose of? Where do you put it? Now we know there is no way, and we also know there are limits to what we can take out.

I think most importantly, we're beginning to understand the real value of the living ocean that fish and whales, coral reefs, seagrass meadows, mangroves are vital in terms of maintaining the integrity of the planet and the deep sea. We're now looking at mining the deep sea when we should be looking at the deep sea and all of the ocean and maintaining the way the system works and functions. It's in trouble. What can we do to heal the trouble that we have imposed?

Dan has been involved with looking at a phrase that's now becoming headlines: "blue carbon." We know about climate change and protecting trees and the carbon cycle on the land, getting carbon credits for taking care with respect to climate, but now the ocean, the ocean is blue carbon with all of the life in the ocean as a critical part of climate.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: That's fascinating.

Dan, just to follow up on that, the UN released a report, a sweeping report in 2019, saying things may have gone so far that they could be almost irredeemable in terms of human impact on the oceans. I have an audience question that's come in relating to this, and it's about national governments. And I'll read it to you. It is from Mark Mangual in Brazil who says, "What practical solutions are governments implementing to help solve this issue?"

MR. LAFFOLEY: Well, I think there's several things that they're doing. So, we've talked about taking the pressure off and rebuilding resilience, and I think you see a number of countries ahead of the game who are already doing an awful lot, and we need to be working with them to bring the ones which are more reluctant to do that.

I think that a number of countries are also looking at blue carbon, this natural solution. It's about keeping carbon in nature in the way that nature intended, and we've learned the lessons on land with forests and peatlands, and we're starting to do that in the ocean. And, again, we see some countries leading that. So, we have, if you like, a gradation of countries, some that are still very much on the exploitation and further pushing the boundaries on that, but many are starting to hear these messages and are starting to realize that we really need to step up now and do more. And these are really kind of practical things that you can do to actually make a difference.

I mean, I think, as Sylvia says, everybody can't do everything, but everyone can do something, and I think having countries stepping up and showing--shining a bright light on what they're doing is part of the solution to drive ambition in other governments.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: So, could you be specific, Dan, about which countries are doing this so well? I'm talking to you--I did a story this week from Coastal Maine where there's actually no recycling and watched huge amounts of plastics and other trash being shipped off towards landfills. Which countries are doing well?

MR. LAFFOLEY: So, we have high-ambition coalitions. We have, for example--the UK is leading. I think it's up to 80 countries now that are saying that we need to protect at least 30 percent. You're getting countries like Panama and Chile and other places declaring massive marine-protected areas now.

So, it's around the world, if you like, but there are--we mustn't escape the issue, that there is still an awful lot of problems and still an awful lot of heavy lifting to do, but I think the more voices we have in the room, the more we're saying listen to the ocean, the more people are going to get the messages, and as I say, keeping it at a practical level but adding all these things together will really start to scale up.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: So, Sylvia, you've mentioned the plastics earlier on, and we hear a lot from individuals who want to know what they can do. What can the individual do to advance the causes you're talking about?

MS. EARLE: I suggest people look in the mirror. There are no two people alike. Glory be, we need all of the talents that exist on the planet, but to know--first of all, to know what the problems are, you know, get up to speed. Look at the nature of the issues and then figure out what is the thing that you can do.

Everyone in their choices every day add to either the solution or to the problems, and much of what we're now looking at in terms of solutions has to do with our food habits. Agriculture is targeted, our current land-use practices and our current dietary choices, the way we grow our food and what we take from the natural systems in order to grow what we consume.

I think there is underway kind of a revolution in terms of understanding that, yes, we have to eat, but the choices about what we eat and where food comes from, the transportation of food from far away has a big carbon footprint in times.

In the ocean, too, taking wildlife as a source of sustenance is vital for some people in island countries, coastal communities, but what we're taking from the high seas and what we're taking on a large industrial scale is mostly not feeding the needs of people. It's mostly feeding choices, taking a bit bite out of the blue carbon that is so important for climate and for the integrity of the ocean systems that keep us alive.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: Dan, to pick up on what Sylvia was saying about food choices, takeaway food and beverage cans are a huge source of plastics in the ocean. Is it realistic, Dan, do you think to ask governments to eliminate single-use plastics?

MR. LAFFOLEY: I think that's exactly what we should be doing, and I think consumers have also driven it by their choice as well. I think people--for example, in the UK, a lot of consumers have taken it up with the supermarkets saying, "Why are you cling film wrapping an individual apple or broccoli head or something like that?" And we see supermarkets, we see the consumer chain responding, and that's why both Sylvia said and I've said every voice matters here because it is going to be about driving that change.

But governments should be getting on top of this because it is completely unsustainable what we're doing. We don't have enough resources. We have the burgeoning global population as well, and we're going to--we know that there's good business to be done in other ways of doing things, and we need to be accelerating those switches as quickly as we can.

I mean, I don't think anyone in the UK has materially suffered from the removal of all the free plastic bags, for example, at checkouts. People just take a bag in. So, you change your behavior, and that's what we need to do.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: I'd like to follow up with another audience question. This one comes from Margaret Sharp who is in California, and she writes, "What's the most effective way to eliminate plastics from the oceans?"

MR. LAFFOLEY: Is that for me or Sylvia?

MS. STEAD SELLERS: Dan, you can take that one, or, Sylvia, go ahead.

MS. EARLE: Well, I can start and--


MS. EARLE: --please weigh in. But the plastics that have been put in the ocean since we began disposing of plastics in the oceans in the 1950s, much of that is still there. Plastics, one of their great attributes is they're durable, and when they do break down--and some of them do--they still maintain their integrity as microplastics and now even as nanoplastics. Removing them is difficult, but there are people motivated with beach cleanups, divers going out to try to retrieve what's been put into the ocean. A great source of much of what is there in recent times is the fishing gear, nets, lines that have either been lost or discarded and have a double whammy as far as wildlife in the ocean is concerned. Not only do they take it in, but also, they get entangled in those lost gear, nets and lines. It's really a big deal. I mean, we're talking hundreds of thousands of birds and whales and other creatures that get tangled in this discarded gear.

What are we going to do about it? Well, knowing we've got the problem, we can at least start now to not let more escape into the ocean. Yes, we have to try to retrieve what's there, but realistically, down at the nanoplastic level, we have to look at the natural systems for recovery, and we don't really have a way to retrieve those tiny little bits of plastic. It's pervasive throughout not only the ocean but in the air, in the water, in our bodies. Knowing that we've got this problem, we really ought to be motivated to not let more get into the system.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: Dan, I'm going to refine this question again and come back to you. How has the pandemic played into this waste? I mean, the gloves, the masks, the everything else that we're seeing littered everywhere, and are heading into the sea, many of them, I'm sure.

MR. LAFFOLEY: Yes. Well, it has. I mean, that's the very issue. We see an increase of those, of the--if you like, the pharmaceutical, the health care products going into the ocean, the masks and everything, and we've got to learn to do better business with the ocean, I guess, and respect the ocean much more.

I keep going back to the fact that consumers have a strong role to play here in demanding better products that are more recyclable, because I think there's two ways you could look at this, like Sylvia says. You know, there's beach cleans. You can do your bit to pick up the residual problem, but we've also got to be very alive to stemming the flow going in, in the first place, and it is our generation that is causing this. It's in my lifetime that we've really taken off with single-use plastics, and it's now getting into the future and including our food chain.

I mean, I dread to think what we're actually eating in terms of microplastics, but it's almost certainly a really bad idea.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: Right. Sylvia, take me to the U.S. government level. If you had two or three proposals to put to U.S. policymakers, what would your top two or three be?

MS. EARLE: Number one is to identify the remaining places that are in good condition, land and sea, and to restore what we can of what has been lost. We still have laws on the books that were made when the world was a different place, expectations about what we can take out of the ocean, expectations about the ocean as a dump site, but we know better. But the habits that we have acquired have a long history.

But we know we have to change if we are to really move from decline to recovery to get to that better place, that perpetual planet, that sustainable place for ourselves within a universe that's really unfriendly.

So, during 2020, when we realized that our lives were at risk, we changed our ways, like, in weeks, months, not decades, and because our lives were at risk. Well, our lives are at risk because of climate change. Our lives are at risk because of what we've done to the ocean, what we've done to the land, what we've done to nature. So, governments around the world, starting with my own in the United States, listen up. Look at the policies that are enforcing bad habits about land use, about ocean use, and realize we have a 21st century planet that's not like it was 50 year ago or a hundred or more when the habits were formed, when expectations about what we can extract from the ocean, what we can take from nature and get away with it. We cannot think that way when we look at the reality. How do we make peace with the natural systems that keep us alive?

MS. STEAD SELLERS: Sylvia, you have changed some of your own habits, including eating fish, I understand. We've read about what damage commercial fishing has done, but can you explain your decision and what it means and why you decided not to eat fish anymore?

MS. EARLE: I used to say I never eat anybody I know personally--


MS. EARLE: --because it's the same creatures in the sea. You know, it's like any other thing. Knowing is the key, and knowing that they're not just lumps of meat swimming around waiting for us to extract.

The attitude about whales is an example. We used to think of them as just pounds of meat, barrels of oil, and celebrated the whalers for their heroic efforts to take these big animals out of the ocean.

I served on the International Whaling Commission for four years and listened to countries around the world just thinking about how can we sustainably extract wildlife from the ocean, and it was just about a mindset that their purpose is so we can use them for products. Well, it's not just whales. It's birds. It's fish. It's seals. It's sea lions. It's life on earth, wildlife.

We now have a different way of looking at fish to realize their amazing diversity, like birds. People have made a transition from looking at birds simply as something to eat. I've grown up during that time, and we've lost so much of the wildlife from the land during that era when birds were useful for feathers or useful for meals or whatever, but we've changed. We now see wild birds as something really important, not just aesthetically, although that's a factor, but because they keep us alive with their role in the systems.

Same is true with fish. I did not know that. My parents did not know that. Most people still do not see fish as elements of our life support system, part of the carbon cycle, part of the nutrient cycle in the ocean. We have come to respect birds. We have come to respect whales and other marine mammals. What about fish? Can't we see them with the same kind of respect?

Of course, people will eat animals, and they will continue to eat fish to some extent. I mean, it's just part of what humans are, but the large-scale extraction on an industrial level is not only harming the populations of fish, it's breaking the nutrient cycles. It's affecting the carbon cycle.

I mean, I can do my bit by making choices to leave the fish in the ocean because they're more important alive than they are on my plate. That's how I figure. There are plenty of things I can eat, and if birds eat fish, they're allowed.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: Dan, we've talked about the individual responsibility and global and national goals, but corporate responsibility, are we seeing any change in the climate plans and awareness among big major corporations to the kinds of concerns you have about ocean conservation?

MR. LAFFOLEY: I think we're starting to, and we've always had corporate social responsibility in these types of things in companies, and I think the smart companies are starting to realize that we really are pushing boundaries now in the world we live in and are starting to look at the change. We see very innovative schemes from some parts of industry, looking at how they may restore natural systems as part of their day-to-day operations, but we need to see much more of it.

We still have at the core here, a kind of wedding to the whole idea of petrochemicals and taking carbon out of natural systems still, and we've got to wean ourselves off that, and we've got to do it quickly. And I think the success we see in some industries like the electric car industries, for example, should be taken as kind of an inspiration that you can make change. It doesn't necessarily come from a gradual evolution, but it comes partly from revolution as well. And we need that combination, but we need it quickly.

So, we are seeing some changes, but again, I would be saying we're not moving fast enough in the direction of what we need to do.

As Sylvia says, you know--well, my way of describing it is knowing is halfway to doing. We kind of know now. There's no excuses anymore. We know. And so, there is good business to be done by changing your business model. It's just how quickly some of them are going to adjust.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: Sylvia, we're getting close to the end of the program, but I want to ask you before we finish about your new book, which I think comes out this fall, and it's called "Ocean: A Global Odyssey." And the big question I have about it is about people's relationship to the sea. How do you get people interested in the ocean? We can walk through national parks on land. How do we begin to understand the oceans with the intimacy you describe?

MS. EARLE: My recipe is to start with the kids: No child left dry. Get out. Take a child into some wild place, and if you do not have a child of your own, borrow one and look at the future through their eyes.

The next 10 years are likely to be the most important in the next 10,000 years because of what we do or what we fail to do, but I'm encouraged by the kids, by the generation coming along. They're celebrated in the book, just as they are in the "Heroes" film that Rolex has produced, that looking at what individuals are doing, making a difference, it really is a source of inspiration.

You see somebody doing something. I can do that. Maybe I can do something even more. That's, I think, cause for hope. It's the power, the super power of knowing. The children of today are growing up in this era known as the "Anthropocene," this new geological age that is so dominated by human impact on the natural world.

Dan and I have roots that really embrace a different time, when we know what the ocean should be, when there were sharks everywhere in the ocean. There aren't so many sharks anymore. Ninety percent are gone, and I mentioned that half the coral reefs, so much of the natural integrity of the ocean systems have been depleted, ruined by us. We are the victors of change negatively. We can be the victors of change positively, and I'm really counting on the kids who don't know that it's impossible. It isn't impossible.

They are so exciting to see that we can turn from decline to recovery, and we can do it. We must do it in the lifetime of the kids now, and I hope that I get to see this recovery. I believe we're on a track, because go back 10 years ago, who was talking about 30 percent of the land and sea embraced with care as a starting point for embracing all of the natural world? The planet as a whole is our life support system, to treat it as if our lives depend on it, because, of course, they do. I mean, everything we care about, whether it's the economy, our health, our security, life itself, we must look at the nature with the understanding that now is possible. It was not possible a hundred years ago, 50 years ago, and for some, they still don't get it. But stand by. The kids get it.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: What a great message to finish on, counting on the kids. I'll hold that one close.

Sylvia Earle, Dan Laffoley, thank you so much for joining me today at Washington Post Live.

If you would like to see more of our Climate Solutions programming, please tune into our hub which is solutions, and we have great programming coming up for you on Washington Post Live. My colleague, David Ignatius, will be back at 9:00 a.m. tomorrow morning with Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins.

Thanks so much for joining us for another fascinating program. I'm Frances Stead Sellers.

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