Why do I see blue when everyone else sees green?

Could participants at the climate summit only see the colour green? How else can we explain the near total absence of the oceans from the programme and declarations, asks Essam Yassin Mohammed.

01 October 2014
Blue, rather than green, is the dominant colour of planet earth (Photo: Google licence)

Blue, rather than green, is the dominant colour of planet earth (Photo: Google licence)

As a child I used to find it difficult to distinguish blue from green. I vividly remember coming home from school one day to find one of our rooms painted green. I was pleasantly surprised and, to the shock of my parents, said "Wow! I like blue". It took my parents a few years to retrain my visual perception of colours until I finally got it right. 

This unusual colour perception, which some call colour blindness, seems to be haunting me again. This time, I'm astonished by the colour blindness of the participants at the largest-ever summit on climate change, hosted by the UN in New York. While they see green, and focus on the terrestrial environment, I wonder why they don't see blue. 

The oceans, which make up 71 per cent of the earth's surface, play an important role capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide and regulating global climate. Yet the oceans were missing from the summit. 

The Secretary-General of the UN called upon governments, the private sector and civil society groups to commit to eight action areas critical for keeping global temperature increases to less than two degrees celsius. Surprise, surprise: none of the eight are on oceans.

You don't have to be a scientist to understand that the oceans and climate change are indistinguishably linked. The oceans play a major role in mitigating climate change by serving as a major heat and carbon sink. 

The oceans also bear the brunt of climate change. Evidence of its impact include the ocean's growing acidification, sea level rises, increasing water temperatures, changing salinity, changing water currents and primary productivity (how much plant life, mostly micro-algae, the seas support). 

Climate change already poses a significant threat to fisheries, adding to the other pressures struggling fish populations face, including overfishing, habitat degradation, pollution, and the introduction of new species. These changes to the biophysical characteristics of the aquatic environment have significant effects on the ecosystems that support fish, and the people that depend on them. 

In simple terms, people struggling to get by now on existing fish stock levels will go hungry. For example, a reduction in fish production by 10,000 metric tonnes in Ghana (partly due to the impacts of climate change) would increase hunger and food insecurity from a 'moderate' to a 'serious' level. In Kenya, the same reduction in fish catch levels could drive the country's food security from the current 'serious' level to 'alarming'. 

A fish seller at Nyakrom fish market in Agona District, Ghana. A reduction in fish production by 10,000 metric tonnes in Ghana would increase hunger and food insecurity from a 'moderate' to a 'serious' level (Photo: Google/Wikipedia licence)

Of course, commitments made at the climate summit are simply aspirations and declarations; they are not legally binding. But they pave a smoother way to the next climate summit in Paris, France. Omitting the oceans from the debate makes the road to protecting the oceans a much rockier one to climb.  

Co-chairs from the Global Oceans Commission also believe "the summit is guilty of a major sin of omission: the ocean… is completely absent from the programme. The summit is keeping its feet firmly on (terrestrial environment, hence green) and is highlighting the huge gap between scientific knowledge and political action".

The writer and ocean explorer Arthur C. Clarke said it was "inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is quite clearly ocean". It's time global leaders start to see and protect our blue planet.