THE undersea explorer Victor Vescovo returned last month from the deepest-known point in the earth’s seabed (the “Challenger Deep” in the Pacific Ocean) with reports of an arresting sight: a plastic bag and sweet wrappers floating on the ocean floor.
The story was highlighted by the head of oceans and natural resources for the Commonwealth Secretariat, Nicholas Hardman-Mountford, before the first Commonwealth Blue Charter “All Champs” conference this month.
Signed by 53 world leaders in April 2018, the charter commits the Commonwealth to “actively co-operate to solve ocean-related problems and achieve sustainable ocean development”. Among the “champion” countries is Britain, which, in partnership with Vanuatu, is leading efforts to tackle marine plastic pollution.
Speaking from the conference last month, Stephen Harris, a diplomat from New Zealand who is serving as special representative to the Commonwealth Clean Ocean Alliance, said that the Commonwealth was demonstrating “what can be done by a group of countries that share certain values. . . You look at the 53 nations from Tuvalu to Australia, and big developed countries like the UK: what do they have in common? The ability to see each other’s interests through a common prism, and to work together to try to solve problems together.”
The Church was a “central institution” in this network, he said. “I have been really struck in the Pacific, as I travelled around, by how prominent churches are. In Samoa, for example, there are way more churches than petrol stations. . . You can’t mobilise communities without having the full involvement of church leadership.”
In addition to attending the Blue Charter conference, Mr Harris spoke at a workshop at Lambeth Palace, at which community leaders, diplomats, business representatives, scientists, and NGOs had been invited to explore how to “turn the tide on plastic”.
Mr Harris has been seconded to the Ocean Alliance from New Zealand, where people were “very aware of how vulnerable many Pacific islands are”, he said. He gave the example of Tuvalu, where 6000 people live on one island ten kilometers in length and two metres above sea level.
But the geography of these islands should not be seen only as a source of vulnerability, he said. “They also have a very proud mindset of being a great ocean ‘continent’, rather than small island countries. That ocean narrative is very powerful in their mythology, and their storytelling, and church communities resonate those values and associations.”
The UK had found a “kindred spirit” in Vanuatu, a Pacific archipelago that had been “among the more energetic and single-minded” in tackling pollution, he said. The UK had taken a “really rigorous approach” to the problem of plastic pollution: “It’s not just about picking up rubbish on beaches, or banning single-use plastic bags. They are important, but [they need to] sit within a rigorous multi-faceted approach to look at the source of the problem. . .
“It really requires everyone to do his or her part, and that includes households. This is where churches are really important. We have a personal responsibility in this area.”
While he was optimistic that a “big impact” could be achieved, he did not under-estimate the scale of the challenge. “When you look at climate change, ocean acidification, and the bleaching of coral reefs, those things really do have the potential, if not reversed, of changing life as we know it on this planet considerably. . . We won’t be able to turn back the clock 200 years to pre-industrial times. We have already lost a lot of that biodiversity for good.”