One of my goals at this meeting was to reach out to delegates and discuss which ocean climate change impacts are of national concern for their countries. Ronald (Ronny) Jumeau, Seychelles Ambassador for Climate Change and Small Island Developing States, was kind enough to share his thoughts on how climate change is affecting marine ecosystems in the Seychelles and how the Seychelles are enacting creative policy decisions that help strengthen ocean resilience to climate threats.
Interviewing Ambassador Ronny Jumeau at SBSTA 42 in Bonn
The Seychelles are an archipelago of 115 islands in the Indian Ocean off East Africa and the Seychelles exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is 3000 times larger than the land area alone. Ronny called it a “liquid country” and indicated that it is highly dependent on and connected to its marine environment. In talking about ocean climate change impacts, sea level rise is one of the first that comes to mind. However, Ronny pointed out that islands become failed states economically far before they are covered with water. Economic losses result from declines in fisheries catch due to altered distribution patterns of fisheries species. Ronny says this is of particular concern to the Seychelles, which is the tuna fishing capital of the Indian Ocean. Studies show that species shift to higher latitudes as conditions warm, and blue marlin in the Atlantic experience habitat compression as oxygen minimum zones expand. Both warming and oxygen loss may alter tuna populations in the Seychelles fishing grounds. Ronny also stated that ocean acidification was a concern, especially given its potential to affect the food chain, but that knowledge was lacking.
Another economic loss we discussed was the loss of coral reefs, which are sensitive to ocean warming and acidification. In the Seychelles, coral reefs support the tourist industry, are important for food security serving as a nursery for many species of fish, and are the first physical defense to storm events and abnormal tides. Ronny said that one of the biggest climate change problems is coastal erosion and beaches are moving and changing profiles already even in response to minor changes in sea level rise. Loss of coral reefs due to climate change will make the weakened coastline of the Seychelles increasingly vulnerable to storm events, likely necessitating expensive adaptation measures. Because of the many serious climate change impacts experienced by the Seychelles and other nations, Ronny points out that a 1.5°C (and not a 2°C) warming threshold should be the goal, and that this more ambitious target, would better protect marine resources and the resilience of marine ecosystems.
But since getting global agreements takes a long time, the Seychelles are not falling into the victim-trap and are taking action now using a first-of-its-kind “debt for adaptation swap” to strengthen the resilience of their marine ecosystems. By partnering with the Nature Conservancy and the Paris Club, as well as other non-profits, the debt swap will allow the Seychelles to protect 30% of their national waters as a marine protected area. Ronny said that while similar dept swaps have been used in the past to protect forests, this is the first time one has been used to protect a marine ecosystem. This type of a financial approach to financing building resilience in marine ecosystems of developing nations is promising. Depending on the success of this debt swap, MPA establishment, and outcome to marine resources, the Seychelles may serve as a leader to other developing nations for taking similar action in the future. One thing that comes to mind is that flexibility in MPA boundaries may become key in allowing sensitive ecosystems to adapt to climate change as species distributions shift. I certainly look forward to hearing more about the progress and outcomes of this decision as it evolves and it sounds like there will be an event planned about this important conservation effort at the Paris COP.
I was also very interested in Ronny’s perspective on the attention ocean-issues have received within the UNFCCC process. He said that oceans are underrepresented and that both governments and scientists are to blame for this, since other communities like the rainforest community have been much more active in the process. Even small island developing states like the Seychelles have approached ocean climate change impacts from the terrestrial point of view (sea level rise, extreme weather events), further pointing to how difficult it is to change the mindset from one that tries to protect the land from the ocean, to one that strives to protect the ocean and protect the land. He emphasized that more interactions between scientists and governments are key in gaining appropriate representation for marine ecosystems within the UNFCCC process and that clear communication and science on both the consequences of not acting, as well as the benefits of acting to protect marine ecosystems is necessary. Furthermore, it is important to think about how to communicate the importance of marine ecosystems and resources to countries that are landlocked. One example of the interrelatedness of mountain and ocean ecosystems that he brought up was the phrase “when you melt, we drown,” which highlights the loss of ice in the world’s mountain ranges and the consequences for sea level rise, thereby linking mountain and island communities. Finally, Ronny pointed out that while marine ecosystems are not recognized enough within the UNFCCC negotiations, one of the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) does focus specifically on the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development. Therefore, this may encourage more attention to ocean climate change impacts at the international policy level in the future.
I certainly learned a lot from the conversation with Ambassador Ronny Jumeau and would like to thank him for his time during this busy meeting. It is interactions like these, which I believe are integral to building trust and understanding between scientists and policy makers, and are key to moving towards climate change action that considers marine ecosystems appropriately. And the UNFCCC meetings are certainly a good place to have these conversations.