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What Happens To The Sea Affects Us All, No Matter Where We Live

What Happens To The Sea Affects Us All, No Matter Where We Live

I'm really pleased to introduce this article from Claire Wallerstein of Cornwall Climate Care, published on World Ocean Day.  Claire acknowledges that we can all feel powerless in the face of the global climate crisis and suggests some positive steps that we can all take.  Over to Claire..

You can’t live on the Rame Peninsula and fail to be in love with the sea.

We are surrounded almost entirely by water here – from the ever-changing estuary of the River Tamar round to Cawsand Bay (always busy with vessels ranging from tiny kayaks to the gigantic Brittany Ferry and naval ships heading in and out of Plymouth) and then further along to Rame Head and the westward sweep of Whitsand Bay – a Marine Conservation Zone backed by wild cliffs dotted with small chalets.

Rame Head from the Coast Path at Penlee, Rame Peninsula, Cornwall UK

Like Helen Round, I’m lucky to call this area home, and like her I also draw a lot of inspiration from our beautiful coastline …. so she has asked me to write a post about my own work to mark World Ocean Day.

I grew up in Kingsand, not too far from where Helen has her workshop, and much of my childhood in the 1970s was spent on the beach. Apart from the occasional blob of tar (possibly left over from the disastrous Torrey Canyon oil spill in 1967) most of the flotsam that turned up on the shore back then was natural.

Fast forward a few decades and I had spent much of my working life living far away, including lucky stints living and travelling in places like the Philippines and Venezuela. Having married a Spaniard I also spent six years living there.

Eventually I returned to live in Kingsand with my husband and two small children, full of nostalgia and excitement for them being able to enjoy the same kind of carefree childhood I’d experienced, in fresh air and a close knit community.

But my rose-tinted spectacles were shattered soon after on a visit to Tregantle, a beautiful local sandy beach, on New Year’s Day 2013.

At first glance I couldn’t understand what I was seeing – the sand looked like it was covered in coloured confetti, stretching for miles and miles along the tide line.

Instead of the sticks, seaglass, feathers and shells I’d remembered playing with in my childhood, my own children were – I realised upon closer inspection – playing among millions of pieces of microplastics.

Children amongst the microplastics on Tregantle Beach, SE Cornwall, UK

This was a mix of nurdles or ‘mermaids’ tears’, the tiny pellets used as the raw material for all the multiple plastic objects in our lives, and smashed up, unidentifiable pieces of larger plastic objects. It was almost poetic in its ghastliness – here was plastic at both the beginning and end of its life cycle, each stage equally toxic to the sea and the creatures that live in it.

Shock spurred me to action and I set up a beach cleaning group for our area, Rame Peninsula Beach Care, which I ran for eight years.

Rame Peninsula Beach Care, Beach Clean At Sandways

Many other similar groups started up around Cornwall around the same time, each of us buoyed up by a huge wave of public and media concern about plastic pollution (which more recently seems to have moved on to sewage).

While it’s hard to do much in the UK about the plight of orang utans or tigers, the plastic crisis is one environmental tragedy that is playing out right on our doorstep here in Cornwall.  Our monthly beach cleans became a great way for the local community to come together and feel like we were making a difference.

Alongside the beach cleans we collaborated with local artists like the brilliant Rob Arnold, creating high profile awareness-raising marine plastic artworks and ended up doing all sorts of other crazy things too – from counting and categorising every piece of plastic washed up in one tiny cove (it took three weeks!), to creating a chain of 65,000 bottle tops collected from local beaches and taking action on plastic to our local supermarkets.

Bottle Top Chain Launch, Chain Made From Bottle Tops Found On Beaches Locally

But one day something happened to make me question whether this extreme focus on plastic might have become a bit of an unhelpful distraction.

There’s no denying the horrific impact of marine plastic pollution. The UN estimates that it kills one million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals each year, either through entanglement or ingestion. These figures are probably a gross underestimate, and I’ve seen my fair share of these tragic cases just on our little slice of the Cornish coastline.

Seal Pup surrounded by plastic on Tregonhawke Beach, Rame Peninsula, Cornwall, UK

But a chance conversation with a very frustrated marine scientist made me start to look at things differently. He said he had expected the public focus on plastic pollution to act as a gateway, engaging people to learn about and act on other major issues affecting the sea too.

Ghost Gear Clean Up From Fishing Industry

To his disappointment though, while so much energy was being devoted to campaigning on the perils of specific, small items of single use plastic, like straws, balloons and cotton bud sticks, the biggest threat to all life in the ocean – temperature rise – was attracting almost no attention at all.

This got me thinking. Sure, most of us know about bleached coral reefs and polar bears struggling to feed due to melting Arctic ice…. but was climate change really having such a big impact on the marine environment here in Cornwall too?

With a filmmaker friend, Bryony Stokes, we set about researching a documentary called Under the Surface looking at this very subject. We discovered fascinating, sad – and also inspiring – stories, including a local company investigating how fast-growing seaweed could be used to help suck up carbon emissions and a start-up making low-carbon reef cubes to rebuild devastated seabed habitats.

Documentary 'Under the Surface' looking at the effects of climate change on our marine environment

This first film became the seed for a whole series of half-hour documentaries (Cornwall’s Climate Stories) looking much more widely at topics around climate change in Cornwall, from energy to housing, waste, transport and health.

We’re currently about to launch the sixth episode, Hungry for Change, covering how climate links in with our broken food system. All our films are presented by real people, including farmers and fishermen. They aim to reach unengaged audiences and steer away from wall-to-wall doom and gloom. Instead, they showcase the many brilliant things that local people, organisations and companies are doing to try to address the climate challenges coming our way.

Bryony Stokes Filming Coastal Erosion at Gwithian Beach, West Cornwall

But ultimately it really does all come back to the sea…

We humans may call this planet Earth – but there’s a reason why it is blue when seen from space. Given its extent and depth, the ocean accounts for over 95% of Earth’s biosphere (the area in which life exists).

Beautiful and important as it is, however, the sea has a major image problem – because compared with deforestation or other environmental impacts on land, what is happening beneath the waves is invisible.

The sea has absorbed nearly all the additional heat (equivalent to one atom bomb per second for the past 150 years) generated by our burning of fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution. Until now this has cushioned the effects we’re experiencing up here on dry land – but we ignore the plight of the sea at our peril.

From major disruptions in populations of plankton – the base of the entire marine food chain – to rapidly melting polar ice and alterations in the ocean currents that control our weather patterns, what happens to the sea will affect us all, even if we live hundreds of miles from the coast.

I know how overwhelming this can feel, and how hard it is to see how we, as individuals, can really have any impact on this unfolding global crisis.

But we do have more power than we think – especially if we act in numbers.

Four Things We Can Do

On this World Ocean Day, I’d urge you to think deeply about the inter-connected nature of everything we do and would like to suggest four things you can do to have a really big impact – certainly much greater than recycling!

  1. Cumulatively, our pensions, bank accounts and savings are worth billions – but they are very often invested in fossil fuels. Changing to an ethical pension provider has over 20 times the climate impact of giving up flying or changing your energy supplier. Visit Make My Money Matter and Switch It Green to find out more about what your money is really doing - and how to switch, hassle free, to help fund a more positive future.
  2. What we eat accounts for a huge amount of our individual carbon footprint. The most significant thing you can do to reduce this is to cut down on meat. While low level animal agriculture on mixed farms can be environmentally positive, this is not the case at the scale we’re consuming meat today. The emissions caused by producing a kilo of beef are vast compared with producing a kilo of beans. Industrial meat production is a major driver of deforestation and water pollution (most pollution in Cornish rivers, for example, is from dairy farms – not human sewage).
  3. Staying with what we eat, check out these tips for avoiding food waste. Vast amounts of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from producing our food – and 30% of it then ends up in landfill!
  4. Less is more! Our consumption of everything from cosmetics to plastics to smartphones has a huge energy and environmental impact – but we don’t see it, as these things are generally produced overseas. The fast fashion industry is one of the biggest contributors to the climate crisis. Challenge yourself to buy second hand for a year. It might sound like a long time, but the unusual bargains you can find will probably leave you hooked for life!


Should we stop caring about plastic pollution or doing beach cleans?

Absolutely not. Plastic, especially single-use plastic, is a major problem. But let’s look at it as part of the wider climate crisis (after all – it is made from fossil fuels and releases greenhouse gases at every stage of its life, from production to disposal).

Simple acts like always bringing along a refillable coffee cup and water bottle will help reduce demand in the first place. Refuse pointless plastic wherever you can!

Cornwall's Climate Stories Films

And lastly – watch our Cornwall’s Climate Stories films 😊 We also offer community screenings with Q&A and school climate workshops. Please get in touch if you’re interested.

Facebook: Cornwall Climate Care

Instagram: cornwallclimatecare

Twitter: @ClimateCornwall

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