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Victims without a voice

Updated Monday 27th September 2010

Ocean expert Dr Patricio Bernal talks about how his interest in environmental change developed from research to pushing a leading process within the United Nations system, establishing a regular assessment of global oceans.

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Polluted oceans [Image on Flickr by Kevin Krejci under a Creative Commons 2.0 licence] Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Flickr

[Plastic ocean on Flickr by Kevin Krejci under a CreativeCommons 2.0 licence]

Copyright The Open University


Interviewer: The first question, then, is can you remember what first triggered your interest in environmental issues?

Patricio Bernal: Probably my studies in college, I really support for following a career that will allow me to address the study of complex systems. And at the time, you know, the two complex systems I was considering was societies or ecosystems, and I settled for ecosystems. So I got a training as an ecologist and a marine biologist. So environmental issues came along from my very early training.

Interviewer: And that re-arose out of the academic career?

Patricio: Well definitely, and, I mean, I have my academic career for most of my life – I’ve been doing research, publishing research, training, PhDs. But then an important transition, I was called by my government, and, I am from Chile, to serve as a civil servant for the first time, when we recovered democracy after 17 years of military dictatorship, so they called me to be the Director of the National Fish Resource and Oceanography Research Institute and then I became Under Secretary of State for Fisheries, so I managed fisheries in the country, so I’m aware of doing sort of both sides, there, the basic academic and the policy making. And now I came after that, I applied for this job at the United Nations System and I have been serving it for 11 years.

Interviewer: Well, that to some extent answers the next question, which is what are you working on concerned by, or motivated by, at the moment regarding environmental change?

Patricio: Oh I think the issues are so huge, in terms of the several challenges. And my major areas of engagement right now are, I have been pushing and leading a process within the United Nations System to establish a regular assessment of global oceans, just to regularly look at the status of natural systems in the ocean. As you probably very well know, the oceans have been mostly responsible of us not having already catastrophic climate change, by not taking a significant amount of CO2 emissions. But also by taking the largest proportion of the heat generated by, you know, the climate change process.

So in that sense, you know, the status of the of ocean systems and, in many respects, those are not necessarily kept up to level, in terms of monitoring other systems. The reason being essentially that we don’t have the final accountability that you have on land for environmental issues, it’s not present in the ocean. You don’t have citizens in the ocean, so if something goes wrong with the disposal of refuse in a county or a city, eventually, they know, their mayor might be changed. Not in the ocean, there are no citizens out there.

Interviewer: What do you anticipate that you’ll be working on, or thinking about, in relation to environmental issues over the next five years, ten years’ time?

Patricio: I think I will be working on, probably, helping to put a mechanism to keep an effective monitoring of ocean systems, ecological system underpinning basic ecosystem services. And when I say basic, I say really basic, you know, keep producing oxygen to maintain the balance, the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere. And to look at the imbalances that are affecting ocean systems, produced by the passive, you know, dumping of CO2 into the ocean. We’ve dumped 25 million tonnes of carbon every day. So, in a sense, this is creating a more acidic ocean. My organisation was responsible of putting a sort of a programme that have been able to monitor the long-term trends of CO2 concentration in the ocean. In fact, it was created in 1960, with the purpose of having a CO2 inventory of the ocean; it’s an interesting history case.

Interviewer: Okay then. Final question then are you an optimist or a pessimist as you look out to where we might be in 2020?

Patricio: With respect to different areas, I have a slightly different appraisal. I think for climate change, I’m not particularly optimistic. The level of understanding by policymakers, of the issues involved, is very weak, and the impact of some of the challenging measures that would have to be adopted, and taken by major economies, are so large, so huge, that they tend to provoke the immobility – non ability to move forward. And, in that sense, I’m not an optimist because, unfortunately, I believe that we will be able to act much faster from the political side, when real crisis, involving a lot of human pain, will be more frequent.

Right now, we still can hide or look the other way, in another direction, when we see these issues. It’s clear that some of them, you can try to attribute them to climate change, partially, but it’s not that 100 per cent certain attribution. So, you know, it’s difficult to say how much of the Darfur problem is created by a stream of five drops, and the fact that, you know, to a couple of million people from one religious persuasion, moving through the territory of another, you know, group, creating this major disruption, social disruption, to me, is certainly partially due to this environmental, changing environmental condition. How much of that is straightforward linked to climate change, difficult to attribute, but there is no question in my mind that these are environmentally partially environmentally created.

So these are examples when, and I think when the first crisis of water scarcity will be hit by, you know, with policymakers, will be hit by this crisis, there will be a different outlook. We have to think of a small organisation of the United Nations, their world food programme, feeds daily, today, 80 million people; without that programme those 80 million people will starve to death. When we react to any emergency the first thing we need to secure is one litre of water per capita for the first 48 hours, to keep people alive. So, this level of urgency, can it be improvised? Um, people tend to… don’t think what is needed to act.

Interviewer: Okay, thank you so much.





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