At 88, Sylvia Earle has lost none of her zeal to preserve the world’s oceans from the ravages of global warming, pollution and overfishing.
If anything, the highly influential marine biologist is working harder than ever to change hearts and minds, as evidenced by her impassioned rhetoric at the recent United Nations COP28 climate conference in Dubai, where she pleaded with world leaders to do more to prevent water temperatures rising still further.
Earle, an academic and campaigner from the United States, has been a force of nature in oceanography and environmental research for nearly 60 years, winning dozens of prestigious awards during a career where she’s been dubbed ‘Queen of the Deep’ or simply ‘Her Deepness’. She even holds the record for the deepest untethered seabed walk at 381 meters.
During her interview with Elevation Barn’s Will Travis at kyu House during the two-week COP28 summit, Earle issued a grim warning that human life won’t survive if marine life continues to be decimated.
“Our oceans are facing so many challenges. People say ‘Why should we care?’ Most don’t really know. They say they love to swim and sail, but aren’t aware of the problems,” she told the audience.
“When you have warm water where there used to be cold water, it has a profound impact on creatures. In the 1990s, we realized that El Niño doesn’t just affect a small region of the Pacific, it’s part of one big, interconnected global phenomenon. Temperature and salinity drive currents so the ocean is in motion.”
Earle said that the increasingly acidic sea water and depleted oxygen levels mean the planet is in serious trouble. She’s frustrated that science tells us what has to be done, yet governments are glacially slow in taking the steps needed and accuses them of treating oceans as “garbage dumps”.
Her concern is understandable, given that sea temperatures have been rising by 0.13 degrees Celsius per decade for over a century, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts the global average could rise by up to four degrees Celsius by 2100, melting the polar ice caps, displacing millions in low-lying countries and causing a mass extinction of sea life.
“This time is unprecedented in the history of Earth. We’re seeing more rapid change than at any other time. We’ve lost half the coral reefs on my watch. Where have they gone? There’s no excuse for not thinking about it as, without life in the oceans, Earth will be rocks and water,” she said.
“Burning fossil fuels gives us the power to go high in the sky, deep in the sea. We’re in an era of transition and we have choices about our future, the direction we’d like to go. A lot depends on what we do… or fail to do because, as degraded as Earth now is, it’s the best chance we have.”
In 1966, Earle was one of the first scientists to use scuba diving to collect aquatic plants as part of a groundbreaking study into algae in the Gulf of Mexico. Over the following years, she undertook hundreds of research voyages before becoming the first woman to be Chief Scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
During the 1991 Gulf War, she led a scientific expedition to examine the damage to Kuwaiti oil wells and later advised President Obama.
More recently, she founded Mission Blue, a conservation project to establish 160 Hope Spots, areas critical to the health of oceans that are championed by local conservationists. They cover nearly 58 million square kilometers.
A devoted vegetarian, her mantra is “Do unto whales and squid as you would have them do unto you,” and she describes factory ships as “like using bulldozers to kill songbirds”.
“We’re in an era of transition and we have choices about our future, the direction we’d like to go.”
“So many people seem to think that fish are equivalent to cows and chickens and pigs. We even talk about ‘harvesting’ the sea. It’s not a harvest – we’re just out there as hunters,” she said.
“It has taken a couple of billion years to get where we are. We are sharing this little bitty moment in time. And how little time it has taken for us to unravel it. What were we thinking? How can we put it together again?”
Earle points out that, as 90 percent of international trade is transported by ship, decarbonizing the industry is paramount, especially given that the volume of sea-borne goods is projected to triple by 2050.
But any hopes she had that COP28 would climax with a powerful declaration from every participant nation to phase out fossil fuels were dashed as delegates squabbled and jockeyed over the watered down wording in an unhappy compromise that talks of ‘transitioning away’ from oil and gas in ‘energy systems’.
Among the agreements reached was the Ocean Declaration, which involves improving global stocktakes and carbon measurement, protecting critical ecosystems and expanding the monitoring of biodiversity and marine health.
On the gathering’s Nature, Land Use and Ocean Day, US$186 million was pledged to protect and restore nature, while new protections for mangroves and coastal ecosystems were also announced.
“Can we make it fashionable to care? Compassion is something we should be celebrating – for one another and for nature.”
For Earle, dragging reluctant politicians into line is only half the battle. To realize the ‘north star’ of net zero, climate campaigners must be more strategic.
“We can change the way people think. It’s called marketing. So can we please market hope? Can we make it fashionable to care? Compassion is something we should be celebrating – for one another and for nature.”
She has no time for handwringers who despair that it’s too hard and too late to fix things. “Everybody can do something, whether it’s picking up trash, clearing the junk or changing eating habits,” she said.
“There are eight billion answers. We need to respect the oceans and take care of them as if our lives depended on it. Because they do.”
As the world’s oceans contain up to 80 percent of all life on Earth, and absorb 90 percent of the excess heat caused by greenhouse gases, they’re key to stabilizing climate.
A recent report revealed that replenishing fish stocks, restoring coastal ecosystems and boosting water-based renewable energy production could contribute more than 20 percent of planned emission reductions by 2050.
Interview courtesy of kyu Collective and Elevation Barn.