UNESCO has been tasked with a big job – fostering peace through international cooperation in education, science, and culture. On these pillars lies the future of our nations, but also that of our planet.
The ocean is a key part of securing this future. UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission is charged by the United Nations to promote cooperation between states, acquiring and providing knowledge to help countries manage the ocean and build a healthy relationship with our planet’s largest ecosystem.
Vinicius Lindoso, communications officer at UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, talks about the role of effective communication in saving our marine environment.
UNESCO and its Oceanographic Commission are all about pooling knowledge and resources to learn more about our oceans. “[We want to] apply that knowledge for the improvement of management, sustainable development, the protection of the marine environment, and the decision-making processes of UNESCO’s member states.”
With key objectives around ecosystem services, hazard prevention, sustainable practices, and a better understanding of upcoming challenges, Lindoso says the commission aims to deliver “very real, concrete solutions to the ocean’s major threats, from pollution to overfishing and so on.”
…to real threats
The task at hand is no small one – and it’s only getting bigger. “For many years now, the ocean and its biodiversity have been subject to various threats, from land-based pollution to the direct impacts of climate change through acidification and the increase in ‘dead zones’ where there is no longer enough oxygen to sustain life..
“Just to give an idea of the challenge, dead zones have grown exponentially since the 1950s. In fact, they have quadrupled, according to the latest major study that we conducted, released in 2018.”
Lindoso cites the 10 challenges identified by the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development as a good working summary of where the international community should be focusing its efforts.
The Ocean Decade framework presents threats the general public is familiar with but also introduces less well-known issues. “A good example is the concept of ‘multiple stressors’. It’s a holistic way of thinking about ocean threats not as issues operating in parallel, but as interlinked threats that happen at the same time, and may have cumulative impacts on the marine ecosystem.
“What happens to an ocean area subject to a high degree of deoxygenation, acidification, loss of biodiversity, and on top of that lots of land-based or shipping-based pollution? People work hard to predict and model these scenarios so that decision-makers know what to do and take the correct and well-informed action.”
“We only have one ocean”
Common issues require common solutions. For Lindoso, we need to consider ocean threats in their globality, as a shared problem that affects us all. “We often talk about the planet as having different ‘oceans’, like the Pacific or the Atlantic. But the first thing an ocean-literate citizen needs to know is that on earth we only have one ocean. All the water is connected – even if it’s in different basins.
“Ultimately, they all form one global ocean that shares not only the same water, but naturally also the same threats and challenges. Plastic discarded in the Atlantic Ocean basin may easily travel to the Indian Ocean basin, and so on. Eutrophication due to nutrient discharges, albeit more local in nature, can also impact coastal areas covering various political borders. When it comes to the environment, no one can do it alone and expect to succeed.”
“When it comes to the environment, no one can do it alone and expect to succeed.”
That’s where major negotiations and discussions come in – from the Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and UN Ocean Conferences. “The latest Ocean Conference happened in Lisbon. MOO partnered with UNESCO and the Ocean Decade to try and raise the flag of the urgent need to increase investment to bolster the creation and use of ocean knowledge for sustainable development.”
Lindoso believes in the power of working together. “Collectively, countries have what it takes in terms of human resources, financing, and infrastructure to address the major threats facing the marine environment.” Through UNESCO, the IOC, and other stakeholders, the UN ensures decision-makers understand these issues and keep their objectives.
Promoting marine conservation on a global scale
What does a good communication strategy look like when so much is at stake? Lindoso cites UNESCO’s pillars of education, science, and culture as the inspiration behind the Oceanographic Commission’s approach. “We focus on two distinct, but very complementary axes of action: ocean science communications and ocean literacy.”
Ocean science communications focus on engaging different target audiences around ocean action. “They need to answer some crucial questions: Why is conversing and sustainably managing the ocean important for me at a personal, professional, institutional level? Why is ocean science critical to conserving and sustainably managing the ocean, and why should I care?”
“Why should I care?”
If the former is the bait, ocean literacy is the line that reels them in. “Once someone is engaged, captivated, and has bought into the cause, then ocean literacy kicks in, offering the what and how for how any citizen, regardless of professional or institutional context, can become a champion of ocean action.”
Lindoso sums up the IOC’s mission as raising the flag of knowledge-based ocean action across a variety of audiences. “We work at the interface of governments, civil society, NGOs, the private sector, academia, and UN agencies. This means we have a huge convening power to bring everyone together.”
“The ocean is becoming an electoral issue”
What’s the role of worldwide gatherings like UN Ocean Conference in reaching that common goal? “While they may lack the legal weight of the Climate Summits, they are incredibly important to raise the political stakes around the importance of ocean action. When you have dozens of heads of state showing up to speak about what they are doing, and what we must do together, to protect the ocean, it tells us something.
“It tells us that the ocean is becoming an electoral issue, a realm where elected officials and states(wo)men increasingly see themselves evaluated by both their electors and their peers within the international community.”
“Many political and national leaders have built legacies on ocean action, from Prince Albert II of Monaco to President Kenyatta of Kenya, and conferences like the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon are the place to showcase all of this. It also, both directly and indirectly, encourages other actors to take up that mantle.”
Lindoso also highlights the other key benefit of these conferences – bringing ocean actors and constituents together. “It leads to a lot of productive dialogue and tends to spark co-design of innovative solutions.”
A message in a bottle for marine conservation
Behind every country, institution, or business, there are people. Part of Lindoso’s role is to ensure individuals get the right message from conferences like the Ocean Decade. “Our collaboration with MOO, whether through the Ocean Decade ‘exhibition in a box’, the Notebooks, or the Water Bottles are the direct results of the understanding that communications must, at its most fundamental level, focus on individuals.
“A call-to-action to learn more about the Decade brought to you as a gift has infinitely more power than any number of mailings, social media posts, or public presentations. Communication must be about caring and catering. Caring for us as individuals with specific worries and aspirations. Catering to those very unique aspirations, offering guidance and a path to achieve the change we wish to make for our communities, families, and the extended society and planet.”
Lindoso believes in the power of positive communication to empower an audience. “Positive communications need to help make people the heroes of the story, making them feel special, gifted and motivated to collectively avert planetary disaster and successfully build a nature-positive society.
“UNESCO has been trying to do precisely that through various campaigns, including the Green Citizens and GenOcean campaign”. For Lindoso, the quantity and variety of information and messaging out there means it’s essential for NGOs to focus on very specific actions, informed by the best science available. GenOcean, for instance, is a campaign promoting simple yet science-informed actions that any citizen can take to become an ocean champion in their own right.
The depths of science
The IOC works towards a better scientific understanding of the ocean. A lot of the data they collect is worrying – when not downright terrifying. “Climate and ocean science findings have for the last few years been increasingly despairing: the concentration of low-oxygen ‘dead zones’ has quadrupled since the 1950s, the ocean is increasingly warm and acidic, generating massive biodiversity loss; climate change and sea level rise are hurting communities all over the globe, and even generating more volatile seismic activity that leads to tsunami events happening more frequently.
“That said, there is a lot of hope. A major exciting project I worked to promote earlier this year involved mapping and documenting a little-known-turned-major piece of coral ecosystem near Tahiti. Beyond the amazing imagery collected by our partner, photographer Alexis Rosenfeld – who led the diving with scientists from France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), it turns out that the two-mile-long coral remains in pristine conditions.
“That’s despite all expectations and the fact that more than 50% of corals have died off, while much more is threatened by changing ocean conditions in the next 80 years. The ‘rose coral’ as we called it is, at least for me, a symbol of nature’s potential for protecting and recovering itself – if only we can give it a chance.”
Committing to science doesn’t come without its challenges. “The major challenge for us is to avoid the “marketing rush” of communicating only for the sake of being visible. Every day, someone gets in the spotlight, whether on the mainstream or social media, with a key figure or a disruptive idea or statement about the ocean.
“As UNESCO, we cannot afford to communicate anything less than the best knowledge available, duly verified by the world’s collective scientific community… Even if it means not landing the most successful marketing calls to action. But the media is also open for the veritable scientific “coups”, like the rose coral off Tahiti, which was covered by all international, national and local press, everywhere. Diligent science pays off.”
MOO’s drop in the ocean
The IOC collaborated with MOO to deliver its message in a powerful way. “I grew up ordering MOO’s beautiful Business Cards for my family and myself. MOO’s deep reach among motivated, artistic, action-oriented communities of individuals and organizations is a perfect fit for a collaboration with UNESCO, communicating the importance of action to conserve and sustainably use the ocean for the benefit of society and the planet alike.”
MOO supported UNESCO and The Ocean Agency on a series of initiatives to promote marine conservation. “Our initial actions included transforming the Ocean Decade Creative Exhibition into an ‘exhibition in a box’ format for distribution to schools and educational institutions around the world. Then, we designed sustainable goodies bearing the UNESCO and Ocean Decade brands and, most important, messaging for wide distribution in Ocean Decade events as well as official meetings.”
“[We] need to integrate an artistic, inspiring element to ocean science and ocean action”
The partnership was a win for UNESCO – and the ocean. “We’ve already established a very productive and friendly relationship between MOO and UNESCO, but as we understand further each other’s strengths and needs, there’s only room for the collaboration to grow and escalate to focus increasingly on substantive messaging around the need to integrate an artistic, inspiring element to ocean science and ocean action.”
He concludes: “unlike the prognosis for the state of the ocean, the prognosis for the joint work between UNESCO and MOO to bolster ocean awareness couldn’t be more positive.”
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