Ocean Sciences News

New Program Connects Ocean Health and National Security

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse says the security risk along the U.S.–Mexican border pales compared with the security threat from the decline in ocean health.


Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse doesn’t just think that the administration’s push to construct a wall along the U.S.–Mexican border in the name of national security is a bad and trumped-up idea that triggered the current government shutdown.

Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, thinks that the security threat along the U.S. southern border pales when compared with the security threat that the United States and other nations face from the decline in health of the world’s oceans. That decline, caused by climate change, population growth, overfishing, and other threats, is leading to increasing competition and conflict over marine resources.

“When Trump moves on to another topic, he’ll be talking about something completely different, and this political episode is likely to pass,” Whitehouse told Eos during an interview at an event this week to launch the Stephenson Ocean Security (SOS) Project. “The mounting problems in the oceans are only going to build into worse and worse security concerns, ones that our military and defense experts have warned us about now for 5–6 years,” Whitehouse said. He was referring to warnings including the Pentagon’s 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, which describes climate change as a global threat multiplier.

Comparing the security issue along the U.S.–Mexican border with ocean security issues, Whitehouse told Eos, “One is, I think, temporary, political, and largely rhetorical. One is deep, abiding, and potentially catastrophic.”

Ocean Security Project Is Launched

The SOS Project, which is an initiative of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington, D. C.–based policy research organization, focuses on the connection between ocean health and global security and the need to support sustainable development to manage global marine resources and reduce conflicts. The project plans to highlight key aspects of ocean security. Among them are identifying current and potential marine resource conflicts—whether they relate to fisheries, mineral rights, or territorial disputes—and possible solutions.

“In a world that’s ever more crowded and a world that is ever more competitive, sustainability needs to be at the core of our national, foreign, and security policies in a way that I don’t think it has been to date,” project director Whitley Saumweber said at the 9 January launch event.

Ocean security combines traditional concepts of maritime security with the principles of conservation and sustainable use of marine resources, according to Saumweber, who was President Barack Obama’s director for ocean and coastal policy on the White House Council on Environmental Quality. “Over the long term, unless you’re thinking about sustainability, you are not secure in the maritime sphere. So it’s not just a conservation solution, but a vital element of soft power and a critical alternative to the more exploitive path,” he said.

In an interview with Eos, Saumweber said that “the world is changing out from under our feet” in many ways, including from the dramatic impact of climate change on the oceans, a shifting geopolitical dynamic and the rapid ascent of China, and the Trump administration’s “views on America’s place in the world, which has allowed other nations to step into places where we were previously a larger presence.”

“There is no better time to talk about the needed integration of sustainability and national security in the marine space,” Saumweber said.

Case Studies Look at the South China Sea and the Arctic Ocean

Saumweber explained that the launch event focused on two initial SOS projects that look at sharply contrasting areas of the ocean. One project focuses on the South China Sea, an area crowded with fishing vessels, many of which may be involved in illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. There, China is asserting its dominance in “an incredibly crowded space with incredibly complicated debates around jurisdictions and boundaries and resource use and without any real effective mode of collective governance,” Saumweber said.

The other initial SOS project looks at the currently relatively unexploited Arctic Ocean that already has strong international governance structures in place, which include the intergovernmental Arctic Council and a new international agreement to prevent unregulated commercial fishing in the central Arctic Ocean.

In the Arctic, “we have the opportunity to run an experiment, if you will, and think about the lessons that we have in the South China Sea of what happens when you have a crowded space with heavy exploitation and little to no governance,” he said. “Well, what happens if we can set up that kind of regime at the start? What happens if we can be conscious about where this all might end up?”

Climate Change Threats to the Oceans

At the CSIS event, Whitehouse focused on the threat of climate change to the oceans, noting that they annually absorb more than 9 zettajoules of excess heat energy due to climate change and carbon emissions. He said that the added heat the oceans absorb “is equivalent to four Hiroshima-sized nuclear bombs exploding in the ocean every second, with all of the thermal energy of that release captured by the ocean.”

Whitehouse sharply criticized “the nefarious political activities” of the fossil fuel industry. The industry “maintains a very large and complex armada of false-front organizations designed both to obscure the hand of the fossil fuel industry and to propagate junk and false science to counter the legitimate science that the world knows” about climate change, he said. “Although the climate-denial apparatus has won unseemly influence in Congress now, it will surely lose the test of time.”

Whitehouse said that the administration is doing “reasonably well” at some “specific and localized levels” regarding the oceans, “where common sense and factuality continue to exist.” He said, for instance, “I don’t think the denial operation has done a very effective job at infiltrating NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] and trying to shut down its scientific efforts.”

However, Whitehouse added that the administration is doing poorly in many other areas. “The extent to which this administration has been—to put it very bluntly in the terms the Founding Fathers would use—corrupted by an interested party,” the fossil fuel industry, “is almost unprecedented in our history.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2019), New program connects ocean health and national security, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO113797. Published on 11 January 2019.
Text © 2019. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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