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Protecting Our Oceans - Key to Sustainability

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In February, I will speak at The Economist's "World Oceans Summit," a valiant -- and valuable -- effort to increase awareness and commitment to preserving the oceans. The world's oceans cover three-fourths of the Earth's territory, but they occupy far less than that in terms of mindshare regarding sustainability. This Summit may help change that.

The challenges facing our oceans affect all of us in many ways. Pollution has created immense floating islands of trash, as well as "dead zones" that plague large swathes of the briny deep. Climate change has bleached coral reefs, causing significant damage to ocean ecosystems that depend on healthy coral to survive. There is growing evidence that methane--a greenhouse gas more potent than CO2 -- is being released from the Arctic Ocean in far greater volumes than previously understood.

And, of course, what happens in our oceans does not stay in our oceans. Rising sea temperatures have detrimental impacts on land, as they create the conditions for larger and more violent storms. Overfishing has decimated fish stocks that provide a crucial source of protein for countless people, threatening communities around the globe who also depend on the oceans for their livelihoods, whether through fishing, tourism, or other activities.

Despite all of this, oceans are too often orphaned in the sustainability world. While many companies depend on the oceans for feedstocks, transport, and energy, few businesses have developed a comprehensive approach to sustaining this precious resource. Nation-states also struggle with their approach: The wrangling over the Law of the Sea has now given way to geopolitics over control of the Arctic, which by cruel fate, has been opened up for navigation and energy development on our warming planet. This will only magnify the heating process.

The Summit will be a great success if it can generate a greater commitment by all actors to stop the tragedy of our ocean commons. I'm hopeful this event will help to educate, inform and catalyze action. Participating companies like Google, Marks & Spencer, Statoil, and Tiffany & Co. will be speaking about their perspectives and approaches to the oceans. Oceanographer Sylvia Earle, who wowed the BSR Conference in 2009, will deliver the opening keynote. And heads of state, including President Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia, will discuss their policies on the oceans.

BSR was founded 20 years ago next month. Over these past two decades, we have seen numerous silent and invisible aspects of our world come to light, from the conditions of workers in global supply chains to the vast amounts of food and energy wasted by the developed world. While it's not yet time to declare victory on solving these issues, recognition is a necessary first step, and there has been much progress along the way. Let us hope that 2012 will see attention to the oceans' future rise more quickly than sea levels themselves, with a redoubled commitment from business, government, and civil society to take the fate of our oceans more seriously.

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