For most of human history, the ocean was seen as so vast, so bountiful that it was inconceivable that people could impact it. The narrative was simply that the ocean is too big to fail. The fallacy of that narrative has become painfully obvious during the last few decades. Many people have given up on fixing the ocean, saying that the problems are impossible, they are too complex, too intractable. In short, the new narrative today is that the ocean is too big to fix.


We are realizing that in fact the ocean is so central to the solutions we need for climate change, for food security, for equity, and more, that we must roll up our sleeves, and work together to tackle the problems and realize the potential. The emerging narrative is that the ocean is so central to our future, and so important, that we dare not ignore it. In sum, the ocean is not too big to fail, nor is it too big to fix, but it is too important to ignore.

DR. JANE LUBCHENCO AT THE UN OCEAN CONFERENCE 2022

“Interactive Dialogue: Increasing Scientific Knowledge and Developing Research Capacity and Transfer of Marine Technology”

As Prepared for Delivery at the United Nations Ocean Conference 2022 in Lisbon, Portugal

A recording of the remarks is available here.


Excellencies, distinguished attendees, ocean scientists and ocean champions, it is an honor to participate today. I thank the co-chairs, moderator, fellow panelists, and the audience here in Lisbon and watching online.

A wise global leader once told me, “Jane, the world needs science to save itself from fantasy.”

Science does indeed provide data, evidence and knowledge to sort out fact from fiction.  It helps us understand how the world works, how it’s changing, and why.  But it does even more – it helps us understand the likely consequences of the choices in front of us, and it provides solutions and hope – but only if we listen to and use that science.  

My boss, President Biden, is a strong champion of science and of basing policy and action on science and evidence.  When he talks about science, he often focuses on possibilities — possibilities, e.g., that enable us to tackle climate change while creating jobs, growing the economy, and saving lives.

In Glasgow, the U.S. announced that President Biden would join 14 other heads of state and government as members of the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy: Kenya and Portugal (our fabulous hosts for this conference), Norway and Palau (Ocean Panel co-chairs), and Australia, Canada, Chile, Fiji, Ghana, Indonesia, Jamaica, Japan, Mexico, and Namibia. 

We joined because we found the collaborations and the science-to-policy-and-action philosophy to be a powerful approach.  And we found the triple-bottom line goals compelling:  protect effectively, produce sustainably, and prosper equitably.

The Ocean Panel first delivered a pioneering set of scientific assessments that paved the way for innovative policy and action.  

For example, one of the Ocean Panel scientific assessments flipped the script on the ocean-climate nexus.  It concluded that the ocean is not just a victim of climate change, but a powerful source of solutions. It said that the ocean could provide up to 21% of the greenhouse gas reductions needed to achieve the 1.5° target by 2050 – a figure that many of you have quoted and that significantly accelerated the push to put the ocean on the climate agenda.

Other Ocean Panel scientific findings highlighted the central role of the ocean in addressing food security, poverty reduction, job creation, loss of biodiversity, and inequity.

Those scientific findings highlighted possibilities.  Possibilities that give politicians confidence to act.  Possibilities that provide civil society, philanthropy, industry, the finance sector and communities options for action.

After we joined, France and now the UK have also joined, bringing the expanded family to 17 countries and representing about ½ of the EEZs of the world. These 17 heads of state and government have committed their nations to bold new actions to achieve a sustainable ocean economy. 

In addition, the Ocean Panel also inspired and enabled the creation of many inter-sectoral action groups to facilitate the achievement of the bold commitments made by the Ocean Panel Leaders. 

Now, that is science to action.

I am pleased to report that the U.S. is delivering on our commitments to advance ocean science and convert science to policy & action.  Here are a few highlights from announcements this week and recent announcements:

  • This week, the U.S. announced our science-based Ocean Action Plan, including the intent to produce an Ocean Climate Action Plan focusing on green shipping, blue carbon, wind energy, 30×30 and more, and initiating the process to create a Sustainable Ocean Plan for our entire EEZ.
  • This week the U.S. renewed its invitation to other countries to join the Green Shipping Challenge launched recently by the U.S. and Norway.
  • The Department of Commerce and NOAA announced $2.96B of funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to address the climate crisis and strengthen coastal resilience and infrastructure.
  • This week the President signed a National Security Memorandum to address IUU fishing and harmful fishing practices and the Administration launched a series of important complementary IUU efforts.
  • On the biodiversity front, through the America the Beautiful Initiative, the U.S. is accelerating our 30×30 efforts. At present, 26% of the U.S. EEZ is in Marine Protected Areas, with almost all of that in Fully and Highly Protected status (as defined by the MPA-Guide).
  • The U.S. encourages all countries to commit to conserving or protecting 30% of their land and waters, including ocean waters, by 2030, and join the Ocean Conservation Pledge launched here at the UNOC.
  • On Earth Day, the U.S. initiated our first-ever U.S. National Nature Assessment, including biodiversity in the ocean. In parallel, we are developing Natural Capital Accounts and Environmental Economic Statistics, and accelerating our Nature-based Solution efforts. Today, we are excited to partner with the Ocean Panel action group, the Global Ocean Accounts Partnership for a session this afternoon highlighting the importance of robust ocean accounts.
  • To complement our international partnerships through the UN Ocean Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, and many international partnerships and efforts, the U.S. has committed to mapping the seabed of our entire EEZ, and are close to releasing the identity of our priority areas for intensive exploration and characterization, based on geographic priorities and the three thematic priorities of climate, biodiversity and environmental justice.

Each of these actions is grounded in science and evidence.

The U.S. also recognize that there is a wealth of knowledge in Indigenous and Traditional Ecological Knowledge that needs to be elevated in Federal decision-making.   We are in the process of developing guidance to elevate the importance of ITEK in Federal agencies, alongside their mandate to use science and evidence for all policies and actions.

Much of what science is telling us is that now is a fundamentally different time on our planet. The scale of change, the pace of change, and the kinds of change are unprecedented. These changes present unprecedented challenges to society, challenges that cry out for knowledge to help inform actions.

We need science now, more than ever before.  But, we need the science of tomorrow, not the science of yesterday.  The science that is urgently needed must be more strategic, integrated, accessible, useful, relevant and inclusive.

We need scale-relevant, decision-ready data, information, and knowledge.  We need products and services based on that data and knowledge that are tailored to specific places or conditions, sectors, or interests. 

To conclude, the ocean sustains and connects us.  It is our past and our future.

In addition to the roles of science that I highlighted earlier, science is driving a new narrative for the ocean.  Narratives are important – they frame our thinking and actions.  A new narrative can reset expectations and liberate engagement.  Narratives can constrain or inspire us.  As our ocean changes, as science reveals challenges and opportunities, so, too, must our narratives about the ocean change.

For most of human history, the ocean was seen as so vast, so bountiful that it was inconceivable that people could impact it.  The narrative was simply that the ocean is too big to fail. 

The fallacy of that narrative has become painfully obvious during the last few decades.  Many people have given up on fixing the ocean, saying that the problems are impossible, they are too complex, too intractable.  In short, the new narrative today is that the ocean is too big to fix. 

However, science, and indeed this conference, are revealing a different narrative.  We are realizing that in fact the ocean is so central to the solutions we need for climate change, for food security, for equity, and more, that we must roll up our sleeves, and work together to tackle the problems and realize the potential.  The emerging narrative is that the ocean is so central to our future, and so important, that we dare not ignore it.

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