Sunday, December 30, 2007

Editorial: The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission

The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) "has a problem". It is being asked to take on more and more responsibilities, and in fact had a cut in its budget during the last biennium. The recent General Conference of UNESCO ordered the creation of a Working Group on the Future of the IOC. The United States was elected one of the ten members of the Working Group. The Working Group will meet on 19 and 20 February 2008 in UNESCO headquarters in Paris.

A questionnaire has been circulated asking UNESCO's member states to provide information on their views on the IOC and the priorities for it for the future. The U.S. National Commission for UNESCO is holding a phone conference on January 7th seeking advice on the U.S. response to the questionnaire.

I think most Americans don't recognize how important the oceans are to our civilization, nor how important is the role of the IOC in coordinating international scientific efforts to understand the oceans. We go to the beaches. Once and a while a disaster such as Hurricane Katrina or the Banda Ache Tsunami gains our attention. Americans fail to recognize the environmental challenges posed by loss of fisheries, degradation of coastal zones, or loss of tropical reefs. The energy crisis has directed attention to off shore drilling.

Since most of the earths surface is ocean, the oceans have huge influence on the weather of our continent, and of all the continents. We will not understand climate change unless we understand the absorption of greenhouse gases by the oceans, and the interaction of the atmosphere and the oceans. Similarly, climate change is expected to have important implications for the oceans, including sea level rise, changes and increases in serious storms, and changes in ocean environments and thus biodiversity. These will in turn have important impacts on the large portion of the world's human population that lives close to the oceans.

If one has any doubt about the economic and security importance of the ocean, just look at the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas. The Convention was the result of a decade of negotiations, and has not been ratified by the United States in the 25 years since it was signed. The Bush administration is now asking for Congressional ratification of the treaty.

Mapping and studying oceans involves obtaining data on ocean systems that do not respect national borders. UNESCO and the IOC can legitimate research voyages and other data gathering techniques, making them acceptable to the nations whose waters are studied. UNESCO and the IOC can legitimate the findings of such research, demonstrating that they do not favor one or another party to a dispute among nations.

If there were not an IOC, the world would have to create one. Fortunately, not only is the an IOC, but it has celebrated its 50th anniversary, and is well established as a legitimate intergovernmental scientific institution.

The response to the questionnaire on the future of the IOC requires detailed knowledge beyond that which I possess. Having said that, it is important that the public gives its views on the broader issues involved in the IOC's operation and the solution of the IOC's problems. I suggest that:

  • There is increasing need for scientific understanding of the oceans and the ocean-land and ocean-atmosphere interfaces. The century of climate change faced by the world requires that such information be developed, but so does increasing degradation of ocean environments, increasing anthropogenic pressure on coastal and ocean environments and resources, and increasing need for resources from the oceans.
  • The issues of international ocean policy depend greatly on ocean science, but have broader economic and political aspects; scientific advice is necessary but not sufficient for defining U.S. policy toward UNESCO and the IOC.
  • It is very important not only that the United States' government coordinates with all stakeholders in U.S. ocean policy in formulating its positions on the IOC.
  • ..S/ policy toward the UNESCO's oceanographic activities and the IOC includes concerns for the ocean resources in our own coastal zones, the weather and ocean systems that directly affect our country, and our ocean commerce and shipping.
  • However, the United States as the world's richest and most powerful country has a responsibility to lead in assuring that oceanographic information is developed and made available to all nations, and that the legitimate interests of other nations in ocean science are respected and addressed by UNESCO and the IOC.
  • While there needs to be greater support for IOC programs and activities as they are extended to meet more and more pressing demands, that support should not be achieved by cuts in other critical UNESCO services in education, communications, peace, culture or indeed in other science programs. Thus, UNESCO's budget should grow in the future, given that it has continued success in increasing the efficiency with which it uses resources.
  • I strongly support the IOC and UNESCO's involvement in intergovernmental ocean science, and strongly urge the State Department to be forthcoming in the negotiations about the future of the IOC.
The opinions expressed above are mine and do not necessarily represent those of Americans for UNESCO or any other group.

John Daly

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