David Miliband, former UK Foreign Secretary, told a meeting of the Global Ocean Commission at Somerville College that the debate on the oceans today resembles the debate on climate change twenty years ago.

While there is plenty of scientific date to demonstrate the severity of the challenge facing the world’s oceans, Miliband said, yet nobody in the public arena has been successful in raising the alarm and generating a compelling public debate.

“What is striking about this debate about the future of the ocean is that it’s not yet a debate,” said Miliband, who is one of the Commission’s Co-Chairs. “If you care about the billion people in the world that depend on fish for protein, you’ve got to care about the seas, including the high seas.”

Jose Maria Figueres, former President of Costa Rica and Co-Chair of the Commission, shared Mr Miliband’s concern over the pace of the global response to the declining state of the world’s oceans, and called for progress to be made quickly in achieving tangible protections.

“This Commission needs to be bold,” said Mr Figueres. “If we come out with recommendations that tinker at the ends of little things here and there, we have not spent our time correctly. The planet has never before been stressed by the needs, requirements and aspirations of seven billion people, much less nine billion people.

“So I think we need a different kind of mental construction that says ‘this is a different ballgame, and we have to address governance in a dramatically improved way from what we have done in the past’.”

Valuing the high seas: economics, environment and governance in the 21st century was hosted by the Global Ocean Commission, Somerville College and Prospect Magazine. On the panel were José Maria Figueres, former President of Costa Rica, Cristina Narbona, former Environment Minister of Spain, Professor Alex Rogers, Ernest Cook Fellow and Professor in Conservation Biology at Somerville College, Oxford, and David Miliband, former British Foreign Secretary. The debate was chaired by Bronwen Maddox, Editor of Prospect magazine.

It was Professor Rogers, founder of IPSO, the International Programme for the Security of the Ocean, who was instrumental in bringing the GoC’s secretariat to Somerville and he acts as the Commission’s Scientific Advisor.

“The effects of climate change we are now seeing all over the ocean,” he told delegates. “They are manifesting themselves in three ways: one is rising temperature, one is acidification, and the final process is a lowering of the level of oxygen in many parts of the ocean.

“Interestingly, if you look back at the big five global extinction events of the past, we see those symptoms cropping up time and again – rising temperatures, acidification and hypoxia – so this is a very concerning set of circumstances,” Rogers said.

Dr Alice Prochaska, Principal of Somerville College, welcomed the audience of scientists, journalists and professionals involved in public policy at the reception held for the event and particularly thanked the Commissioners for taking precious time out of their schedule in order to contribute to the crucial work of protecting the world’s oceans.

“Your commitment to this cause is a signal of hope for the environment and an affirmation of your leadership to all of us who care and work, in our own ways, for the future of the planet,” she said. “Thank you for being here today. You do us great honour.”

The Global Ocean Commission was set up to provide recommendations to the United Nations by mid-2014 on protecting the world’s oceans. With its Secretariat in Somerville College, the Commission has also taken students from Somerville on a highly competitive internship programme involving research for the Commission in a range of different subject areas and languages.

Among those interns was Somervillian Lorna Sutton, who graduated this year. Sutton wrote the brochure accompanying the conference: A Short History of the High Seas.

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