An Ocean of Change: How Climate Change is Upending our View of Maritime Sustainability, Sovereignty, and Security

On October 8, the Stephenson Ocean Security Project hosted an event on the science and security implications of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate. In a first panel, speakers addressed the science outlined in the report, highlighting the effects of climate change on sea level rise, ocean biodiversity, ocean productivity, and species range shifts. In a second panel, speakers examined the security challenges raised by the changing ocean. A keynote conversation with retired Admiral John M. Richardson, the 31st chief of naval operations, explored the security strategies the United States can employ to meet those challenges.

Ocean Governance Challenges Created by Climate Change

Ecosystems are stressed and moving.

Climate change is decreasing ocean productivity, threatening marine biodiversity, and causing species and ecosystems to shift poleward, according to IPCC officials and scientists on the event’s first panel. The ocean’s role in mitigating atmospheric warming underlies those changes; its waters have absorbed 90 percent of the excess heat generated by humans. As the ocean warms and acidifies, its phytoplankton become less productive. And because phytoplankton absorb one-third of annual anthropogenic carbon emissions, lost productivity will accelerate climate change. Tropical ecosystems are especially vulnerable, with equatorial fisheries potentially losing 50 percent of their biomass due to climate change, according to John Mimikakis, vice president for oceans at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Warming also threatens marine biodiversity. Sir Robert Watson—former chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)—explained that climate change will likely drive marine biodiversity loss going forward, though overfishing has done so to date. Watson added that species ranges are moving poleward by a total of 30 to 50 kilometers per decade, changing the structure and composition of ecosystems. Those changes will especially impact communities in the developing world that depend for survival on marine resources such as the steady, predictable supply of fish. But communities in the developed world are vulnerable, too. Kathy Mills, a scientist at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, illustrated how range shifts for species like Atlantic cod are already affecting the livelihoods of fishermen in New England.

A dynamic ocean strains governance institutions.

All these changes will stress ocean governance institutions, which are designed to manage resources in a predictable, steady-state world. Regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs), for example, were built to manage species in a specific geographical area. They will struggle to govern fish stocks that migrate poleward across international boundaries.

CSIS’s Heather Conley explained how the warming Arctic Ocean is causing states to task the Arctic Council with objectives it was not set up to pursue. The Arctic Council was convened in 1996 to drive environmental policy for a largely inaccessible seascape. As melting increases access, however, the Arctic Council has been used as a forum to manage shipping, drilling, mining, and even tourism near the pole. As a result, a patchwork of new institutions has been constructed around the Arctic Council, including the Arctic Coast Guard Forum, the Arctic Economic Council, and the Central Arctic Ocean Fisheries Moratorium. So far, those institutions have worked well. But managing a dynamic environment via ad hoc institution building on the fly—whether through the Arctic Council, an RFMO, or another ocean policy organization—creates the potential for governance gaps.

Resource conflict and gray zone challenges thrive in institutional gaps.

Ambiguity around ocean resource management creates opportunities for gray zone competition and resource conflict. One Earth Future’s Sarah Glaser highlighted how unclear maritime boundaries in Africa combine with migrating fish stocks to drive fisheries conflict between African states. Meanwhile, stocks that move from EEZs into international waters become vulnerable to overfishing by distant-water fishing powers such as China, Russia, and the European Union. Competition between local and distant-water fishers can also drive conflict.

Areas of legal ambiguity can also become gray zone competition hotspots. States such as Russia and China can exploit uncertainty to advance their security objectives—such as access to fisheries and key shipping lanes—while avoiding the escalation thresholds created by strong institutions.

Opportunities for Action and American Leadership

Build dynamic ocean governance institutions.

U.S. negotiators should design dynamic ocean governance institutions premised upon change so that institutions do not need to be constantly renegotiated as climate change alters their underlying assumptions. For example, RFMO agreements could be constructed with built-in provisions that adjust management strategies for migrating fish stocks. Stronger, more flexible RFMOs would help states manage stocks cooperatively as they move across national and international waters. The unrivaled health of U.S. fisheries gives the United States the credibility to lead a push for stronger, climate-resilient RFMOs.

Invest in local fisheries management capacity in developing countries.

The United States should double down on assistance programs that help developing countries improve their fisheries data collection and marine resources enforcement capacity. Glaser decried the lack of species-level data on the locations, sizes, reproduction strategies, and exploitation levels of developing world fish stocks—all key data for sustainable management. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service is a leader in that kind of data collection and could partner with developing states to advance ocean science.

Admiral Richardson suggested that the United States should help developing countries combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing through increased navy-to-navy and coast guard-to-coast guard cooperation. IUU fishing costs world fisheries $23 billion per year and threatens food security in fish-reliant countries in West Africa, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere. Stocks that are already pressed by IUU fishing are more vulnerable to climate change. Improved data sharing between the United States and foreign navies would help the identification and apprehension of fisheries criminals. The Maritime SAFE Act would increase U.S. capacity-building efforts to combat IUU fishing in developing countries.

Double down on promoting human rights abroad.

To help communities adapt to climate change, the U.S. diplomatic corps should double down on promoting human rights, according to CSIS’s Amy Lehr. Communities are better able to advocate for climate-resilient ocean policy when they are supported by democracy, free expression, and the rule of law. Communities are also less likely to seek change through violence when they feel they can address climate change through democratic channels. Promoting human rights should therefore mitigate the threat of resource conflict posed by shifting ecosystems. Helping developing states progress toward adopting the International Finance Corporation’s environmental and social standards is one place to start when promoting human rights.

Think strategically about the relationship between climate change, biodiversity loss, and maritime security.

Finally, Admiral Richardson noted the tendency to focus on short-term acute threats at the expense of considering long-term strategic threats. Climate change and biodiversity loss are both examples of the latter; they threaten instability by eroding ecosystem services, such as fish supply and storm buffering, on which billions of people depend. Moreover, they propel each other forward in a positive feedback loop: climate change is poised to be the largest driver of marine biodiversity loss this century, and ecosystems weakened by species loss are more vulnerable to collapse driven by climate change.

Biodiversity loss and climate change must therefore be considered together as twin destabilizing forces, according to Watson. The U.S. defense community should invest more effort into considering the strategic threats posed to ocean security by ecosystem collapse and by institutions unable to cope. One place to start is to consider how gray zone actors might exploit the institutional gaps cracked open by the changing ocean.

Whitley Saumweber is director of the Stephenson Ocean Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.