Optimism in the face of the Climate Crisis – A letter to environmental scientists on World Oceans Day

Climate change is the biggest threat to security that modern humans have ever faced

Sir David Attenborough

As scientists we love a bit of research, but we don’t need it to tell us that shocking, fearful imagery can capture attention. The problem is that these images can make us feel helpless, which can distance us from important issues or, worse, trigger disengagement and denial. For those of you who think this sounds suspiciously like the stages of grief, you’d be right.

But we can’t nurture a culture of negativity by dwelling in the stages of anger and depression. Negativity among environmentalists represents denial that positive outcomes are possible.

The great thing is that as marine scientists it isn’t difficult to envision healthy marine ecosystems, it is quite literally our job to understand how they function. 

In the next few minutes I would like to demonstrate how we can rid ourselves of negativity by connecting problems to solutions so that we can focus on positive achievements for future, sustainable oceans.

Aptly named, Nature-based solutions are defined as actions to protect, sustainably manage and restore nature that address societal challenges such as climate change, food security and natural disasters, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits.

In the case of climate change, nature provides some of the best tools for removing carbon from the atmosphere. Forests, wetlands and grasslands draw carbon from the atmosphere and store it away in their soils, roots and branches.

Coastal ecosystems such as mangroves, seagrass and saltmarshes are particularly efficient carbon sinks locking away vast amounts of carbon within deep sediments layers beneath their vegetation. For this reason, we tend to refer to them as blue carbon ecosystems.

Scientists really started to get excited about the role that these ecosystems play as a nature-based solution to mitigating climate change just over a decade ago and the concept has sparked multi-disciplinary and global collaboration since then.

As with all other marine ecosystems, coastal blue carbon ecosystems don’t only remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere but provide a whole range of valuable ecosystem services. They help us to adapt to climate change by providing coastal protection from sea level rise and storms, they support food security by acting as nursery grounds for important fish species, they support biodiversity, provision of goods and services and much more.

Unfortunately, despite this, and in part, because of this, globally these ecosystems are being degraded and lost at devastating rates. 

But not to dwell too much on the negatives, this is where the role of blue carbon as a nature-based solution comes in.

The idea of blue carbon is that by capitalising on the global value of carbon emission reductions in the fight against climate change we can drive forward the sustainable management, restoration, and conservation of coastal ecosystems.

In its simplest form this is achieved by measuring the carbon benefit of implementing ecosystem management. When we restore these ecosystems we increase the amount of carbon removed from the atmosphere and when we sustainably manage and conserve them we can avoid the emissions that may have happened without the management measure.

In my mind, one of the most fantastic things about current blue carbon initiatives is their implementation at a local level. 

Coastal communities living in the tropics are some of the most vulnerable people on the planet, facing a myriad of challenges, including being disproportionately impacted by climate change despite often having done the least to cause it.

But it is from within this region that we are starting to see blue carbon projects being developed through community-led initiatives targeting the voluntary carbon market. When this happens not only does the global community benefit from reduced CO2 emissions, but these projects help to bolster the resilience of communities by maintaining and restoring ecosystem services and through the diversification of livelihoods.

From Kenya to Madagascar, Indonesia and Colombia verified carbon projects are coming online with the revenue generated supporting community development projects from rehabilitating local schools and buying textbooks to providing renewable electricity and piped water to the communities. 

In a previous life I was privileged to work with an NGO supporting local communities to develop mangrove carbon projects.

I can tell you with absolute certainty that no matter how much technology develops to help us scientists build the evidence base the long-term success of blue carbon projects will always depend on the engagement and empowerment of local communities.

These successful projects have built teams of community blue carbon assessors to monitor the benefits of management interventions that pair results with their deep-rooted local knowledge to fully understand the drivers of ecosystem degradation so that solutions can be aligned with the livelihoods of local people and developed without social or environmental detriment. 

To add more positivity into the mix, global commitments to tackling climate change are stepping up. The latest round of pledged national climate actions has seen an increase in countries recognising the importance of nature-based solutions not just for mitigating climate change but also for building resilience and adapting to its impacts.

With a growing interest in blue carbon there is an opportunity to scale-up our efforts, to protect larger areas of coastal ecosystems and make an important contribution to emissions reductions, reducing biodiversity loss and ensuring food security.

With the focus shifting from local initiatives to national, government-led programmes we must safeguard engagement with local and indigenous communities to respect and protect their cultural and ecological rights.

Now, I have highlighted nature-based solutions as a source of optimism but we mustn’t be complacent. they have their place in the fight against climate change but are not a complete solution, for instance they cannot be viewed as a substitute for the rapid phase-out of fossil fuels and their implementation is not without challenges.

But, we are facing a climate crisis, one that demands urgent action. As environmentalists we should not dwell in negativity but celebrate our victories and learn from defeats.

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