The roots of our troubled oceans lie on land
In 2006, a handful of people in London and Beijing launched chinadialogue.net. At the time, it was the world’s only completely bilingual Chinese-English website, and it sought to promote the exchange of ideas on climate change and the environment across the formidable barriers of language, culture and geography.
With only small teams in London and Beijing, we were taking on a planetary scale crisis. What did we think we were doing, and what did we learn from the process of dialogue?
We began with the understanding that our planet belongs to every citizen who lives on it and every citizen of the planet has the right to hold and express his or her view on how we treat it.
But in a real dialogue, the equally important counterpart to speaking is listening. It is through listening that we learn from each other and can come to see how we can move forward.
We made our website completely bilingual because we felt that embedding the principles of respect and even-handedness that dialogue required dictated that neither language should be privileged above the other: as far as possible, each reader of the site should have the same experience, regardless of language.
Why was this approach so important? Because, at the time, China was approaching its current status as the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases by volume, and was still heading down a path of high carbon development, with all its accompanying waste and pollution. If this continued, catastrophic climate change could not be avoided.
But from Beijing, people looked at the much higher per capita emissions of more developed countries, and their long history of pollution, and claimed the right, as they saw it, to follow that path to development.
In New York or London, on the other hand, people looked at the sheer scale of Chinese emissions and felt that any action they might take, or persuade others to take, to reduce their own emissions would be futile if China did not also act. Those who resisted the whole idea of human induced climate change justified inaction by pointing out that the UK’s entire annual emissions were a tiny fraction of China’s.
Both perspectives had some basis in fact, but that conversation was not leading to a liveable future for anybody. There is no other planet, and we must all live on it. The first step towards changing our behaviour is to change our viewpoint.
It is only through dialogue that we can come to a shared understanding of the challenges that we face. Those challenges remain truly immense, but the progress we have made in the last 12 years is also impressive. In China, when chinadialogue launched, “develop first, clean up later,” was a common view. Today, ecological civilization and the circular economy are guiding principles. This is a tribute to the tenacity and persistence of the far-sighted men and women who could see that a sustainable future demanded a different approach and used their powers of persuasion to convince others. There is still a long way to go, but China is now in a position to help others to power a better, cleaner and more sustainable future.
Today, chinadialogue embarks on a new, and equally daunting project called chinadialogue ocean.
The parallels with our beginnings in the climate dialogue are striking: the life of the planet depends on the health of the ocean and the ocean is in crisis. It covers 70% of the planet’s surface and we see it as both vast and inexhaustible. We take its benefits for granted and forget how vital it is to the survival of life on land: every second breath we take is provided by the ocean; it has absorbed most of the excess heat and one third of the carbon dioxide we have produced; it contains 80% of global biodiversity in complex and interdependent ecosystems; it supplies food and transport networks and determines our planetary climate and weather systems.
Yet we continue to abuse it, treating it like a giant garbage dump. Today we have the capacity to explore and discover more about the ocean than ever. The news is not good. The ocean depths are warming, plastic pollution is everywhere, vast dead zones where eutrophication ensures no life survives, acidification threatens the survival of shell forming creatures, the destruction of coral reefs, with their essential breeding grounds and nurseries, overfishing and the degradation of coastal waters — all the ills of the ocean that human activities have produced — are now threatening the integrity of an ecosystem on which terrestrial life depends.
And just as China became the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, China today stands as the world’s most significant single source of ocean impacts: China has the world’s largest fishing fleet; China consumes, processes and exports more fish than any other nation on the planet. China is also a major source of ocean pollution — from fertiliser run-off to plastics and chemical contamination. Without China, there is no solution, but nor is the task China’s alone.
The ocean is a common resource: we have all exploited it and we have a shared responsibility to protect it. How we approach the preservation and protection of ocean life will determine whether the ocean will continue to support life – or will progressively fail to give us the oxygen we breathe, the food we rely on and the climate that we need.
Since 2006, chinadialogue has continued to publish in Chinese and English on the major environmental and climate challenges that humanity faces, in the belief that a common understanding of complex issues is the essential basis for the cooperation required to resolve them. Our focus on China and the global ocean is in that same spirit and starts from the undeniable premise that, without China, none of the separate aspects of the global ocean crisis can be effectively addressed.
Restoring the health of the world’s ocean is a global challenge that will require effort, ideas and goodwill from many sectors, including business, government, civil society, science and everyday consumers. We shall be publishing on the key issues of pollution, fishing, climate change, ocean governance and conservation, exploring the impacts of the ocean crisis around the world, as well as in China.
The ocean’s troubles have their origins on land. That is where the solutions also have to begin, and they begin with dialogue. We hope you will accompany us on this journey.