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Climate, Environment, and Conservation: Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Catherine Novelli on the 2016 Our Ocean Conference

MR TONER: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the State Department. Sorry, I didn’t mean to surprise you there, David. (Laughter.) Anyway, welcome. Happy Wednesday.

Before I get to your questions, just very fortunate to have with us Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Catherine Novelli, who’s here to talk a little bit about Our Ocean conference, which is going to take place over the next several days, but tomorrow and Friday mainly, here at the State Department and a couple off-campus venues as well.

Without further ado, over to you, Cathy.

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: Thanks, Mark. Thanks so much and I’m really excited to be able to be here and talk to you about the third Our Ocean conference, which is, as Mark said, is going to be hosted here – Secretary Kerry will host – tomorrow and Friday. And I just thought I could – you may ask why are you even having an ocean conference, and there – here’s a couple of things to think about.

First, the ocean is threatened. Second, the ocean is resilient, so if we take action now, we can actually protect the ocean. And third, the Our Ocean conference – and we started the first one two years ago, so now we’re on our third one – actually has been a place where action has been taken. It’s not just a talk shop. And so even though when we think about the ocean, which covers 71 percent of the Earth’s surface, it’s hard to think about how could something that big be threatened.

But here’s a few things: We have to care about this because half the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean, and it regulates our weather. And fish is the primary source of protein for 3 billion people, so this is extremely important for everybody, even if you don’t live in the ocean. And the threatened part is this: We’ve got 90 percent of the world’s fish stocks being fished at or over capacity. We have the ocean having absorbed 30 percent of all the carbon dioxide released in the atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. And while that’s a great thing to take that carbon out of the atmosphere, what it means is that the ocean is now 26 percent more acidic than it was before the Industrial Revolution. And that is destroying coral reefs, it is destroying shellfish, it’s having a very deleterious effect on the health of the ocean.

There is plastic running into the ocean at such a rate that if you lined up garbage bags of plastic along the coast, every coastline that touches the ocean in the entire world, you would have five deep of garbage bags. That’s how much ocean is – or plastic is in the ocean now. And in fact, what experts are saying is if we continue at this pace, by 2050, there’s going to be more plastic than fish in the ocean. We’ve also got warming water from sea level that scientists are now saying can cause sea level to rise by four to six feet by the end of the century, so we know that we really have to tackle this.

And the last two Our Ocean conferences were all about action and this one is going to be about action too. And so from the first two conferences, we had $4 billion in pledges to do conservation activities with regard to the ocean, and 90 percent of those have actually been implemented so far and the rest are in process. We actually protected, through marine protected areas which are kind of like national parks in the ocean that allow fish to regenerate – we protected an area the size of the continent of Australia just in the last two Our Ocean conferences, and we expect to do much more at this conference.

And one of the things that we have been able to do is really elevate this issue from something that has only been the purview of fisheries ministers to now looking at it as really a foreign policy and national security issue. And so we’re going to have 450 leaders here over the next two days and 60 foreign ministers and environment ministers, several heads of state, scientists, philanthropists, heads of civil society, heads of companies, because we know that we all have to work together here. We’ll have over 90 countries represented and we’re expecting over a hundred new initiatives that are going to be worth billions of dollars. So we’re very excited about that.

The conference is going to look at five things: sustainable fisheries, which I just talked about, and how to combat illegal fishing; marine protected areas; marine pollution, which is the plastic I’ve been talking about; climate-related impacts of the ocean; and the blue economy. And the blue economy is how do we have an intersection between this economic activity that’s taking place in the ocean and conservation so that both are being done in a sustainable way. We have to have economic activity. We’d like it to be able to be done and we believe it can be done in a way that also conserves the resources.

So we’re very excited about that. And the last thing that I would say is that we also know that it’s very important that we have the next generation of ocean leaders being prepared. So we are co-hosting with Georgetown University a youth ocean summit that’s going to be taking place on the same two days – tomorrow and Friday. And what’s great about this is there’s going to be 150 youth ocean leaders from over 50 countries. They had to compete to be able to be part of this, and they had to compete with suggested solutions for some of these problems. And they’re going to be rolling up their sleeves and consulting with some of the experts that’ll be here at the Our Ocean conference here to develop some solutions that they can take forward.

So this is very exciting, and the EU has already committed to hosting the next Our Ocean conference next year in Malta in 2017, and we have countries lined up to host it for a couple more years after that, and those’ll be announced at the conference. So we’re very, very, very excited about this and I’m happy to take any questions that you have.


QUESTION: I actually do have a question, and I apologize in advance for being probably one of the more ignorant questions that you’ve gotten about this.


QUESTION: On the plastic thing, when you say by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean, how – what does that mean exactly? Weight-wise?


QUESTION: So – okay. So how do you deal with that?

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: So the way to deal with it --

QUESTION: Can you just take it out?

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: Well, no. I wish we could just take it out. It’s very hard because what happens to it is that it breaks up into small pieces and then it becomes micro-plastic. Some of it just sinks to the bottom of the ocean floor.

QUESTION: But aren’t there those huge islands of trash?

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: There are those huge gyres. So I think the consensus is that what we really need to do is we need to go upstream and stop all that plastic from pouring into the ocean, and that means we have to look at how do we do better recycling, how do we look at sort of a more circular economy where we’re using less plastic in what we’re doing. And we have several projects that are looking at recycling and doing it more efficiently.

And part of the problem comes from Asia, where their waste management has not caught up with the burgeoning middle class. So you’ve got about 40 percent of solid waste being recycled in Asia, or being collected in Asia. In the U.S., it’s like over 90 percent. And so we really have to boost up what is happening on the recycling and waste management, and that is actually what we’re doing. And there will be several pilot projects on that.

QUESTION: Well, does that mean, though, that you’re basically resigned to the amount that’s in there now?

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: We – so experts have said – and I’m not the expert on how to remove plastic from the ocean, but what – we are not resigned, but if we don’t stop more from coming in, it’s only going to keep getting worse. So if we just focus on taking the plastics that’s there and trying to get rid of it, exponentially more is just going to keep coming in.

QUESTION: I have a follow-up. I know that this is a discussion about pressing issues, but are you expecting – I know you probably don’t want to get ahead of the Secretary – are you expecting to have any kind of major announcements coming out of this conference?

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. And I don’t want to get ahead.

QUESTION: Can you just give us a rough idea?

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: So we’re expecting new marine protected areas to be announced. We’re going to detail – the Secretary has started this whole collaboration called Operation Safe Ocean Network, which is to get at illegal fishing and to actually use technology and conventional means to work together to get the information to the people who need to have it, so they can interdict the illegal fishers. So we’re going to have a lot of announcements around that. We’re going to have announcements around the plastics and what’s going to happen there. And we’re going to have announcements around the whole question of how we deal with the acidification of the ocean and preserve, for example – mangroves, for example, are carbon sinks, they absorb a great deal of carbon, and what we have recently found out is that it’s – not only is it a bad thing if you get rid of the mangroves because they’re not absorbing the carbon, but they actually release the carbon they’ve absorbed. So there’s – we’re expecting announcements on coastal management as well. So there’s a number of things sort of across the board that are going to be announced.


QUESTION: Thank you. You partially answered the question by saying Asia. So could you tell us which country is more responsible than any other for dumping plastic? And conversely, which country is doing more to really mitigate this problem? And pardon my ignorance, can you also include places like the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian or the Arabian Gulf and so on, right?

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: Yes, yes. And so I don’t have a country-by-country breakdown, but Asia writ-large is seen as the place where it’s really – it – in a sense, the fact that the middle class is rising there is a really good thing, but they’re buying more things, and as you know from using anything, these things are packaged in plastic. They’re single-use plastic – the ultimate irony, right? Because you use this thing to package something, you throw it away, you expect it’s gone, but instead it stays around forever. So really the Asian region is a place where, because of this disconnect between waste management and the rising middle class, you see just a real burgeoning of this problem. But it is not absent from developed areas like the United States and Europe. It’s not completely absent from there either, so we all have to work on this.

QUESTION: I just want to go back to one thing and I – you’re probably – I don’t – maybe I have to talk to an expert to figure this out, but – or to explain how you calculate this weight of plastic versus weight of fish.

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: I am not that expert, but we can get you the details.

QUESTION: But I mean, has someone actually gone around and estimated --

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: Someone has gone around and --

QUESTION: -- estimated the weight of every single fish? And it includes mammals, like whales too, right, and porpoises?

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: Right. They have actually --

QUESTION: Every marine animal, someone has estimated what they would all, put together, weigh?

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: That’s what they’ve done.

QUESTION: And they’ve also estimated how much all the plastic, including these micro-plastic stuff, is?

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: That is my understanding.


UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: But I’m happy to get you the study that is --


UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: -- that is doing that.

QUESTION: I don’t doubt it. I’m just kind of curious as to how it works.

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: Yeah, yeah. It’s kind of mind-boggling, actually.

QUESTION: By 2050 there will be as much plastic by weight as there --


QUESTION: By 2050 there will be as much plastic by weight as there are fish in 2050 or fish currently? We could eat all the fish between now and 2050. (Laughter.)

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: This is true, we could. I don’t know the answer to that. I’m assuming it’s fish by 2050, but we’ll get you the study. I don’t want to misspeak.

MR TONER: Alright, thank you so much, everyone. Appreciate it.

QUESTION: Thank you.


MR TONER: Thank you, Cathy. Appreciate it.