Navigating to a sustainable future

There is a risk that new and exciting evidence of climate impacts will overshadow old and well-known issues that damage sustainability. We need to strike a better balance between them.
Navigating to a sustainable future

The paper in Nature Sustainability is here:

Few aspects of life are unaffected by climate change and the fish stocks that I have been trying to develop sustainable harvesting strategies for over the past 50 years are certainly no exception. I moved to Copenhagen in 1996 to coordinate a cooperative international programme called Cod and Climate Change. It was exciting to be there in December 2009, when world leaders gathered for the COP15 meeting and we had high hopes that a turning point had been reached in agreeing and implementing effective and equitable global action to stem rising temperatures. Environmentalists, activists and people who wanted to speak up about the impacts on their livelihoods and futures came, and for three weeks the town turned into a huge symposium (in the original Greek usage of the word).

Everyone had a story about how their farms, their water supply, their agricutural pests, their disease vectors and so on were affected by climate. Having spent most of my professional life trying to persuade fisheries colleagues to take climate change seriously I should have been delighted, but instead I began to worry that people might forget or downplay the other human pressures that threaten the sustainability of our planet. Climate was in danger of mutating from an inconvenient truth into a convenient scapegoat for all our ills, with the attendant risk that other more immediate and locally tractable drivers, such as deforestation, loss of biodiversity, overuse of aquifers, pollution and overfishing were given lower priority.

The arrival of climate as the big issue had dramatic effects on funding, jobs, and publication within science. I estimate that the number of papers with “marine+climate+impact” in the title rose from under 3000 in 1990 to 37300 in 2010, doubling ever 5.3 years. High profile journals want to publish them because the media are eager for climate stories to give to the public. As a scientist it pays to write about climate and your career will not suffer if the story makes headlines.

Unfortunately the old familiar pressures on resources and ecosystems are still there and in order to navigate our way towards a sustainable future we cannot forget about them or reduce their priority. In fact in many cases, including fisheries, it is clear that the most effective actions we can take to adapt to future climate impacts are to tackle the issues that are damaging sustainability at present, such as overfishing.

The good news in my paper is that effective management has succeeded in reducing fishing pressure on North Sea cod and has restored the stock to a sustainable level, in spite of warming that was projected to be bad for the stock. In the Gulf of Maine a very similar temperature trend has been blamed for the collapse of cod, but it is clear that here too the main culprit is the level of fishing. There is an obvious risk that blaming the wrong pressure may divert attention from the necessary remedy.

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