Why resilience counts in a world of ocean risks

By Albert Norström, Robert Blasiak, Jean-Baptiste Jouffray, Kanae Tokunaga, Colette Wabnitz | November 5, 2021

Why was it such a big deal when Alok Sharma, President of COP26, launched the Race to Resilience in January 2021 alongside the Race to Zero?

It underscored that “resilience” – a concept that scientists have been pondering and fine-tuning for decades – had become a policy priority every bit as urgent as slashing greenhouse gas emissions.

This journey has taken the term from niche areas of scientific practice to the biggest stages of the global climate change and development policy arena. Today, “resilience” is everywhere. Factoring into practice, policy, and business strategies. Appearing in the objectives of influential multilateral agencies such as the FAO and the World Bank, and in several of the Sustainable Development Goals. In the wake of COVID-19, a flurry of commitments by major policy actors, from the IMF to the European Union, have made resilience a centerpiece of COVID-19 recovery plans.

Resilience has become trendy – a risk and an opportunity, perhaps, at a time when it is so crucially needed and when a proliferation of definitions threatens to dilute it. Scientists have a responsibility to remind everyone that resilience is more than the ability to “bounce back” after a disturbance. It is the capacity to live, develop, and innovate with change, applying adaptive capacities to absorb shocks and stresses and transform away from unsustainable development trajectories.

So what does resilience look like in the ocean space? 

As scientists with heads full of resilience theory, we have been inspired by the growing commitments by policymakers and the business community to translate theory into practice. To put such efforts on a solid foundation, we have prepared a trio of reports for the Ocean Risk and Resilience Action Alliance (ORRAA) that are simultaneously being launched today here.

  • Blue Acceleration – an ocean of risks and opportunities
  • Ocean risks in SIDS and LDCs
  • Gender dimensions of ocean risk and resilience in SIDS and coastal LDCs

Blue acceleration – an ocean of risk and opportunities

These days, the ocean is inspiring sky-high aspirations: the next economic frontier; the solution to climate change; a chance to strike the chords of equity and inclusivity that have been so elusive on land. While these aspirations remain, clear trends are emerging and underscore the reality of an ongoing “Blue Acceleration” in which many ocean-based industries are outpacing the global economy – in many cases, exponentially.

Take the last twenty years. During this blink of an eye, aquaculture has become the world’s fastest growing food production sector, offshore wind energy capacity increased five hundred-fold, more than 13,000 marine genetic sequences have been registered in patents, and a surge in desalination plants has led to 65 million cubic meters of seawater being desalinated every day. Nearly one million kilometers of fiber-optic cables have been laid on the seabed (now carrying 99% of international telecommunications), the annual volume of cargo transported by container shipping has quadrupled, and an area of ocean floor equivalent to the size of Peru has been leased for exploratory deep-sea mining.

As commercial uses of the ocean accelerate and climate change impacts worsen, marine ecosystems and the communities that depend on them face unprecedented cumulative pressures and the emergence of new interconnected risks. Interactions and conflicts among users are also expected to intensify as the ocean space becomes more crowded. It is an era of unpredictability, and a poorly understood frontier for policymakers, businesspeople and scientists alike.

Ocean risks in SIDS and LDCs

While the blue acceleration is an economic boon to the world’s most industrialized countries, ocean risks are growing and disproportionately impact the world’s least industrialized countries. Here, it is the most vulnerable and marginalized groups that are most impacted by these new ocean risks.

Two country groupings are particularly useful for considering vulnerability, risk and resilience in this new context: small island developing states (SIDS) and coastal least-developed countries (LDCs). Both SIDS and LDCs are highly exposed to the impacts of climate change, such as sea-level rise and ocean warming, while their populations have generally lower levels of adaptive capacity.

The general lack of economic diversity and heavy reliance on external sources of revenue makes SIDS and LDCs vulnerable not only to environmental hazards such as extreme weather and ecosystem changes but also to socioeconomic stressors such as global financial crises, pandemics, and geopolitics. For tourism-dependent SIDS and coastal LDCs, the COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly damaging. Nations such as Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, Fiji, the Maldives and Saint Lucia, are expected to see their GDP decrease by more than 16% due to the pandemic.

For tourism-dependent SIDS and coastal LDCs, the COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly damaging. Image: Unsplash.

Gender dimensions of risk in SIDS and coastal LDCs

Stepping beyond the broad economic and development trends of the Blue Acceleration and how oceans risks are affecting SIDS and coastal LDCs, we also took a close look at people – specifically how gender shapes exposure to ocean risks and resilience in those same geographies.

This analysis dives into the literature on how specific marginalized groups, such as women, feel the biggest brunt of ocean risks. The report focuses on two key ocean economy sectors: tourism and fisheries, as they feature prominently in plans to strengthen future sustainable and socially inclusive development opportunities. Women have been among the most severely affected by the socio-economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic across the fisheries and tourism industries. Workers in low-skilled, casual, seasonal and informal jobs – roles that women tend to fill – are typically the first to be laid off and are unlikely to be eligible for, or have access to, social protection benefits.

Our work highlights that women are not inherently more vulnerable to oceans risks; they find themselves in that position because of socio-economic structures, power relations, and social-cultural norms and expectations, which perpetuate unequal economic empowerment, educational attainment, health conditions and political representation. All of these have been created and can therefore be changed as well. Meaningfully engaging women and supporting their empowerment signifies engaging with an entire community and addressing these underlying restrictive conditions to support gender transformation. We document hopeful multi-pronged approaches to building resilience, which combine innovation, organisation, and women’s empowerment including through the effective implementation of fair policies across sectors and inclusion of women’s voices at multiple scales of governance. As gender intersects with other identities (including age, race, ethnicity, social status), intersectionality is an important additional lens to consider.

Why resilience?

We are in a new risk landscape, where turbulence and unpredictability are the new normal. Events such as pandemics, financial crashes and synchronized food shocks spread more rapidly than in the past and have greater geographic spread.

Resilience allows us to rethink and reshape ocean development in these dynamic contexts. Decades of research have identified a number of strategies for building and enhancing resilience that span the natural and social domains. These strategies include maintaining high levels of ecological diversity, stimulating flexibility to switch among the different assets that people can draw upon, making sure people have the agency to determine whether to change or not, and building collaborations across sectors. Investing and nurturing in inclusivity and equity is a central strategy to building resilient societies that can navigate turbulence and change.

Ultimately, the Race to Resilience is not a race towards an abstract concept. It is a race towards some of the most fundamental and universal yearnings of humanity: safety, wellbeing, sustainability, inclusivity, and equality.

Written by: Albert Norström, Robert Blasiak, Jean-Baptiste Jouffray: Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University; Kanae Tokunaga: Gulf of Maine Research Institute; & Colette Wabnitz: Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions, Stanford University / Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, University of British Columbia.


Private: Resilience

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