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Rosalind Savage: Climate change from the sea level up

The Reading Room: The champion ocean rower reflects on pollution and rising sea levels from the close vantage point of a trans-oceanic rowboat, and considers why even today it's hard to make the global North grasp the scale and the urgency of the crisis. 

November 15 2022, 16.17pm

The Reading Room

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The Pacific Ocean is big. Really big.

This might be stating the obvious, but when I was planning to row it, I was quite shocked at just how mind-bogglingly big it is, so indulge me while I share some statistics. If I tell you it’s about 64 million square miles, that’s quite hard to imagine, so to put it a different way: if you took all the continents in the world and put them in the Pacific, you would still have enough room for another entire Africa.

And that’s just the surface area. When you consider its volume, factoring in an average depth of one mile, bottoming out at seven miles deep in the Mariana Trench, the Pacific is around 170 million cubic miles, just over half of all the oceanic water on the planet. This equates to over half the liveable volume of the Earth, because creatures can live throughout the water column, compared with the land, where most creatures live within a narrow band above and below ground level.

Enormous as the Pacific is, we have managed to pollute just about every last cubic inch of it with plastic. You’ve probably heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which I’ve heard described as an island of floating trash the size of Texas. I’ve been asked many times if I saw it. No, I didn’t. I’m not saying it’s not there, but on my way from San Francisco to Hawai’i on the first leg of my Pacific crossing, I skirted around the edges of the Garbage Patch, and although I saw a few items of recognisable plastic, like a fishing net, mooring buoys and the occasional plastic bottle, I certainly didn’t see anything you could describe as an island.

What I did see, however, is maybe more sinister. A few hundred miles east of Hawai’i, I met up with a couple of researchers on board an exceedingly homemade vessel – using the most generous interpretation of the word ‘vessel’ – made out of rubbish, and appropriately enough, called the Junk Raft. Joel and Marcus showed me what they were finding in the manta trawl that they towed behind their boat periodically throughout the day to test how much plastic was in the water. The pieces they were finding were mostly tiny, just a few millimetres in size, invisible to the casual observer.

This may sound less horrific than the rumours I’d heard of floating TV sets, abandoned yachts and giant accumulations of ghost nets (discarded fishing nets), but the bad news is that these fragments are perfectly sized to make a handy snack for small fish, so they get into the oceanic food chain lower down, and accumulate to higher levels as they move up.

As Joel and Marcus told me, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is less of a patch, and more of a smog: diffuse clouds of plastic made brittle by exposure to sunlight and then pounded to pieces by waves. This makes it tremendously difficult to get the plastic out of the ocean without also taking out the good stuff, the plankton that form the bottom of the oceanic food pyramid.

In Hawai’i a few weeks later, I met up with the Hunks on the Junk (as the media had dubbed them) at a beach clean-up on Kahuku Beach on O’ahu’s north-east coast. It is a rarely visited beach, so any litter that shows up there is unlikely to be left by day trippers and more likely to have been washed up from the ocean. I was shocked to see the amount of debris. Where I might expect to see lines of seaweed, instead I saw tidemarks of trash, most of it plastic. We took away about twenty bags of rubbish that day, but there was still plenty left lying on the sand, and an almost endless supply lurking offshore in the Garbage Patch, waiting to roll in on the next tide.

I was a frequent spokesperson on the plastic pollution issue around that time, not because I thought it was the most pressing issue, but because it seemed like a good gateway into environmental action. Climate change, for example, can be a tough sell. It’s much easier for most people to picture how much disposable plastic they are using than it is for them to imagine a cloud of invisible greenhouse gases. And although I know they exist, I haven’t yet knowingly met a plastic pollution denier. I was working on the assumption that a photograph of a tropical beach covered in plastic rubbish, or a turtle eating a plastic bag, or a seal ensnared in a packing strap, is more likely to evoke a visceral reaction – and hopefully action – than a hockey stick graph of carbon emissions.

I have to confess, then, that I fell into the common trap of addressing the problem that seems solvable, rather than the one that’s the most important. I’m not saying that plastic pollution isn’t important, nor am I saying that climate change should be the highest priority– I’m merely noting the human tendency to focus on cleaning up the elephant poop, rather than tackling the environmental elephant in the room. 

The following year, after a winter of rest, recuperation and reprovisioning, I set out from Hawai’i and rowed the second leg of the Pacific, making landfall one hundred and four days later in the Republic of Kiribati, a small island nation of about a hundred thousand souls, lying on both the equator and the International Date Line. It’s the only country in the world that straddles all four hemispheres and consists of thirty-three low-lying islands, mostly less than six feet above sea level.

Understandably, its citizens are apprehensive about the future. Global mean sea level has risen between eight and nine inches (twenty-one to twenty-four centimetres) since 1880, with about a third of that happening in the last twenty-five years. The rising water level is mostly due to thermal expansion of seawater as global temperatures rise, plus meltwater from ice caps and glaciers like the one I had seen in Peru.

Eight or nine inches may not sound like much, but when most of your country consists of coral atolls that barely protrude above sea level, it matters. When you consider that Kiribati has a land area of 313 square miles and 710 miles of coastline, it’s clear that nowhere in the country is far from the rising tide.

Even before the atolls are inundated, increasing tropical storms are going to cause major problems, overreaching fringing reefs, contaminating fresh water supplies with seawater and washing away the fragile causeways that link the more inhabited islands. I met with President Anote Tong, who in our videoed conversation shared his fears for the future of his country.

I saw him again that December at the COP15 climate change conference, hosted by the United Nations in Copenhagen. It was the last Friday of the conference and he and his small delegation invited me to join them for dinner in an Indian restaurant. The conference had just ended in disappointment. The UN process had broken down, most of the national delegations had been excluded from the final rounds of talks (the Copenhagen Accord was drafted by only five countries: the United States, China, India, Brazil and South Africa), and there had been no fair and binding deal. While the conference had recognised that keeping average global temperature rise below 2°C would be a good thing, it made no commitments for reducing emissions in order to achieve the target, and had dropped proposals to limit temperature rises to 1.5°C and to cut CO2 emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. The developed world pledged to help poor countries adapt to climate change, and offered to pay them to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (the REDD+ framework).

In effect, the failure of the conference had signed the death warrant for Kiribati and many of the other small island nations. In their speeches that night, the I-Kiribati contingent spoke brave words, but their despondency was palpable. ‘We are trying to maintain our composure, but I am very sad,’ President Anote Tong said to me. ‘We were naïve and vulnerable. I wish I was so much more ruthless.’ 

The following year, the president came down to the dock in Kiribati to wave me off on the third and final stage of my Pacific crossing. In his speech, he thanked me for my efforts in bringing attention to the plight of his country. As I rowed away, I reflected on the direness of their situation, and the pathetic insignificance of my endeavours on their behalf. I wondered how I would feel if it were my country destined to disappear under the waves, drowning the places where I had been born, grown up, gone to school, and where my ancestors were buried. I couldn’t help thinking that if their economy was worth $15 trillion (US GDP for 2010) rather than $150 million (Kiribati GDP for 2010), their future would be taken much more seriously by the global community. As it was, this proud island nation was apparently seen as dispensable. 

Ecological damage has been generated primarily by the more developed world, and suffered primarily by the less developed world. There is a geographical disconnect, compounded by wilful blindness. As the environmental journalist George Monbiot said in a talk at COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, the attitude of the Global North seems to be: ‘If I swing my fist and my neighbour’s nose happens to get in the way… tough.’ The economic disparity between the Global North and the Global South allows the North to continue its exploitation, and affords it the luxury of insulating itself from the worst impacts. 

This colonialist attitude is written into every climate change agreement there’s ever been; look at the Copenhagen pledges as an example: the developed world pledged to help poor countries adapt to climate change. Translates to: ‘We’ve screwed your country – oops, sorry, here’s some money.’ They also offered to pay developing countries to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation. Translates to: ‘We’ve deforested and degraded your country for the last couple of centuries, but we don’t want you to do the same. Here – have some more money.’ This has to change. Climate and colonialism are inextricably linked. It is high time the developed economies moved beyond exploitation and wilful blindness, and recognised the value of all human life.

This is an edited extract from Rosalind Savage's new book, The Ocean in a Drop: Navigating from Crisis to Consciousness, published by Flint Books on 24 November 2022. Order your copy here.