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Oceans Can Recover by 2050, Study Shows

Oceans
Oceans Can Recover by 2050, Study Shows
The recovery of elephant seals is one of the "signs of hope" that scientists say show the oceans can recover swiftly if we let them. NOAA / CC BY 2.0

The challenges facing the world's oceans are well known: plastic pollution could crowd out fish by 2050, and the climate crisis could wipe out coral reefs by 2100.


But a new scientific review published in Nature Wednesday offered cause for hope. If governments work together to address the threats facing Earth's marine ecosystems, they could recover in just 30 years.

"We have a narrow window of opportunity to deliver a healthy ocean to our grandchildren's generation, and we have the knowledge and tools to do so," study leader Carlos Duarte of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia said in a university press release published by Phys.org. "Failing to embrace this challenge—and in so doing condemning our grandchildren to a broken ocean unable to support high-quality livelihoods—is not an option."

The review drew on the expertise of marine scientists from 10 countries and 16 universities. Together, they found several "signs of hope" pointing to the growing success of conservation efforts and the ocean's remarkable resilience, coauthor Boris Worm, a marine ecologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, told The Globe and Mail.

Those signs include:

  1. The percentage of the world's ocean under protection has grown from less than one percent in 2000 to almost eight percent today.
  2. The percentage of fish stocks fished sustainably has risen from 60 percent in 2000 to 68 percent in 2012.
  3. Key habitats like kelp forests, seagrass beds and mangroves are being restored.
  4. Almost half of 124 marine mammal species are increasing.

All of this indicates that human action makes a difference, for good as well as ill.

"We see local efforts that lead to local improvements. We have global examples as well, species that are crossing international boundaries, that were close to extinction, that have rebounded – in some cases, manyfold," Worm said.

One of these individual species success stories is the population of humpback whales that migrate between Antarctica and eastern Australia. Their numbers have rebounded from a few hundred in 1968 to more than 40,000 today, according to The Guardian. Sea otters in Western Canada have also jumped from dozens in 1980 to thousands. Green turtles in Japan, grey seals and cormorants in the Baltic and elephant seals in the U.S. have all also made remarkable comebacks.

"One of the overarching messages of the review is, if you stop killing sea life and protect it, then it does come back," study coauthor Prof. Callum Roberts of the University of York told The Guardian.

That's not to say there aren't challenges. The researchers laid out actions that governments could take to restore the oceans to health by 2050, according to the press release.

These included protecting and restoring nine components of a healthy ocean:

  1. Salt marshes
  2. Mangroves
  3. Seagrasses
  4. Coral reefs
  5. Kelp
  6. Oyster reefs
  7. Fisheries
  8. Megafauna
  9. The deep sea

The researchers also listed six "recovery wedges," or actions to be taken to restore these valuable ecosystems:

  1. Protecting species
  2. Harvesting wisely
  3. Protecting spaces
  4. Restoring habitats
  5. Reducing pollution
  6. Mitigating climate change

This last is particularly essential if any progress is to be made.

"If we don't tackle climate change and raise the ambition and immediacy of these efforts, we risk wasting our efforts," Duarte told BBC News.

Duarte said it was also important to reduce overfishing and pollution, including plastic waste.

The initial price tag on all this is hefty: $10 to $20 billion a year until the 2050 recovery date. But the researchers said the efforts would make back $10 for every dollar spent.

"Rebuilding marine life represents a doable grand challenge for humanity, an ethical obligation and a smart economic objective to achieve a sustainable future," Susana Agusti, KAUST professor of marine science, said in the press release.


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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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