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Ocean Elders

Obama’s Ocean Diplomat: U.S. Must Engage on Marine Issues

Former Under Secretary of State Catherine Novelli says the U.S. has much to gain as global momentum grows to protect the seas from overfishing, pollution and climate change.

Written by Todd Woody Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 17: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (2nd L) greets actor Leonardo DiCaprio (L) as Under Secretary Catherine Novelli (R) looks on during the second and the final day of the 'Our Ocean' conference June 17, 2014 at the State Department in Washington, DC. The two-day conference was focused on 'sustainable fisheries, marine pollution, and ocean acidification. Alex Wong/Getty Images

As Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment in the Obama administration, Catherine Novelli worked with Secretary of State John Kerry to put the health of oceans on the international agenda.

She helped spearhead the State Department’s annual Our Ocean summit. It brought together policymakers, scientists and advocates from around the world to discuss how to tackle overfishing, pollution, ocean acidification and other threats to the marine environment; they also made financial commitments to improve ocean health. The conference, which started in 2014, will be hosted by the European Union this October in Malta.

The international gathering was a forerunner of the first United Nations Ocean Conference, held earlier this month. It convened national leaders, scientists and advocates to develop strategies to implement Sustainable Development Goal 14, which set targets to, among other things, reduce the impact of ocean acidification, curtail overfishing and protect 10 percent of the ocean in marine reserves by 2020.

Novelli joined the Obama administration in February 2014 from Apple, where she was vice-president for worldwide government affairs. But she was no government novice: she previously served as an assistant U.S. trade representative for Europe and the Mediterranean, and deputy assistant U.S. trade representative for central and eastern Europe and Eurasia.

She is also an “Ocean Elder,” part of a group of global leaders on marine issues – among them, Sylvia Earle, Jean-Michel Cousteau and Nainoa Thompson – organized by technology investor Gigi Brisson.

Oceans Deeply caught up with Novelli at the U.N. Ocean Conference, which she was attending as a private citizen. The U.S. government had little presence at the event, the Trump administration objecting to its focus on climate change and the importance of the Paris agreement in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We met on a plaza amid gigantic sculptures of salmon, a seahorse and a whale tail made from plastic trash collected from beaches on the U.S. west coast.

Oceans Deeply: What’s your take on whether progress has been made at the U.N. Ocean Conference?

Catherine Novelli: I think progress is made by creating momentum and then by inspiring people to action. What conferences like this can do is connect the dots and people can learn from each other and understand that, yes, we have a daunting challenge, but it is not insurmountable. And we can actually make progress by doing things, using technology, by things that we learn. And people in fact are doing that.

I think that sometimes people can become discouraged by the magnitude of what faces us and then they say, “Why should I even bother because I can’t matter.” So things like this are very important to show that, in fact, that are lots of things that matter are happening

You don’t just want to talk, you have to do. When we started the Our Ocean conferences that was one of the really important things that we looked at – actions must actually happen. You have the most chance encounters here. Waiting in line to get my badge I ended up talking to someone doing coral restoration. It’s great cross-fertilization but that has to lead to action.

Oceans Deeply: The United States government has had virtually no presence at the Ocean Conference. You and Secretary Kerry made oceans a high-profile issue. Are you concerned about the implications for ocean health if the U.S. disengages?

Novelli: I think it’s really important for the U.S. to be involved. It’s important for the economy of the U.S. There are multiple millions of jobs in the United States connected to the ocean. Also, a lot of the solutions are going to come from technology, where we are a leader. Part of our thinking about the Our Ocean conferences was that we couldn’t do it by ourselves and we needed to galvanize lots of other actors. I think we had done that and they’re continuing to move, which I think is hugely important.

The ocean is vast, 70 percent of the planet, and not any one country is responsible for all of it. I hope the U.S. as a government will continue to be a presence. I think that’s an important thing for our country. And I’m gratified that there is so much other participation here from the U.S. more broadly.

Oceans Deeply: The Trump administration objected to language in the conference call-for-action that discusses climate change’s impact on the ocean.

Novelli: Climate-change impacts on the ocean are documented. We may differ about the appropriate solutions, but the baseline of fact is extremely well documented. We know that ocean temperatures are rising, we know that coral bleaching is happening. We know this. And we could try to say the sky is actually purple, but that doesn’t mean it is.

Oceans Deeply: Do you see a need to get business involved in ocean preservation issues and the development of the blue economy?

Novelli: Absolutely, a thousand percent. The European Union is going to make that a major theme of the Malta version of the Our Ocean conference. When you think about how many people have fish, for example, as their primary source of protein, it’s over 3 billion people. There’s already all kinds of business activity going on just around fishing, let alone the experimentation going on with sustainable energy from waves and other things.

Sustainability has two sides to the coin. It has to have economic sustainability and environmental sustainability. The more we talk about the blue economy, I think the better. So that we can do well and do good at exactly the same time. Companies on the ocean side are starting to think like that. There’s a whole alliance on plastics, looking at how do we redesign packaging, how do we use different materials. I do think there is a business engagement and I think it will get larger.

Oceans Deeply: You were at Apple for many years. How do you see the potential for technology to help solve ocean issues?

Novelli: There’s a great promise in how do we use big data in numerous ways. If we want to think about illegal fishing, how do we collaborate with all the data being collected in disparate ways to work together on that? From surveillance of what’s going on in the ocean to fish arriving in ports. If you can’t sell this illegally caught fish there is way less incentive to do it. The technology to trace the whole supply chain is hugely sophisticated now. On the pollution of the ocean part, you have the twin things of plastics and all the fertilizer runoff. Technology can be hugely beneficial. How do you scientifically apply fertilizer so that you maximize the effectiveness on the plants but so it doesn’t run off into the streams and then the ocean? So I do think technology is a key.

Oceans Deeply: Small island nations have take a prominent at the U.N. Ocean Conference. What role do you expect island nations to take on ocean issues going forward?

Novelli: They’re super important obviously because their existence depends on us tackling some of these problems, particularly overfishing. And their economic livelihood depends on it. I think it’s great they’re taking a leadership role and I fully expect that to continue and I think it can help galvanize others. They are also innovating. Their doing these things becomes proving grounds for others. The idea that a dead shark is worth way less than a live shark – that came from them. I think there’s a lot that everyone can learn from what they’re doing.

Oceans Deeply: Will people be focusing on Malta to keep momentum from the U.N. Ocean conference going?

Novelli: Yes, and Chile is doing some conferences also. It’s been wonderful to see how Chile has taken the lead. They have really gone gangbusters in terms of President [Michelle] Bachelet deciding that the ocean is going to be part of her legacy. That’s what makes me feel really optimistic. There’s lots of these things that are starting to happen and snowball.

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