If you’ve never seen a yacht race, it’s a wonder to behold. Catamarans with sails the size of a 747 airplane wing cruise by faster than motorboats in the howling wind. Capsizing is a regular occurrence, dunking even the most seasoned sailors into the sea (see video below).
Attending the 34th America’s Cup sailing races in San Diego recently, I had the privilege of meeting some of the world’s most elite sailors — ocean lovers who take their passion for sport and competition seriously. Now, thanks to new commitments by what is often called “the oldest trophy in international sport,” the America’s Cup is using its prestige to turn the spotlight on what’s happening beneath the surface of their shimmering raceways: ocean health and climate security.
The America’s Cup Healthy Ocean Project is an ambitious effort aiming to develop “the world’s largest communication outreach program focused on improving ocean health.” This year, the America’s Cup Event Authority has a new partner to help reduce the carbon footprint of its activities — the Althelia Climate Fund (ACF), a newly formed investment fund that will focus on sustainable land use, ecosystem services and forest carbon assets generated by projects that reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+). In addition to providing financing to help jump-start the ACF, CI will help the fund determine the right projects to invest in — perhaps eventually moving beyond forest protection and including new “blue carbon” projects that aim to protect the mangroves, seagrass beds and salt marshes that absorb and store massive amounts of carbon from the atmosphere.
I was invited to join panels and the press conference celebrating this new partnership, alongside representatives from America’s Cup and ACF, as well as CI’s own Chief Scientist for Oceans Dr. Greg Stone and world-renowned oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle. Much of the credit for the America’s Cup turning its attention to ocean health goes to Sylvia and her Mission Blue initiative which was established to leverage the TED wish she was granted in 2010, to create “Hope Spots” in the ocean. Sylvia, or “her deepness” as she is sometimes called, is hope personified — an inspiring champion who is neither political nor compromised, who is just … true.
So as Sylvia and Greg spoke about the challenges that the oceans are facing — extreme overfishing, pollution and acidification from CO2 emissions, among others — and the sailors listened with rapt attention, I was struck not by the difficulty of these obstacles, but by how far we have come in raising awareness about the critical role of healthy oceans for human well-being, and in pioneering large-scale solutions to responsibly manage them.
This is a breakthrough moment. The production capacity of sports networks is astounding — high-quality video capabilities, other advanced technology — yet before now, we had never seen the sports or entertainment world step in at such a large scale to communicate issues like ocean health and climate change.
In order to get the public to become aware of these issues, I fully believe we need to go to them — go to where they are already absorbing information. And for millions of people around the world, their attention is transfixed by sports. The America’s Cup is taking advantage of this, using the moments when they have a captive audience to deepen our collective understanding of human dependence on nature.
I was heartened to see how excited the staff of the America’s Cup is to do this; it allows them to make a deep, lasting contribution for humanity, today and in the future. They are setting a precedent; now we just have to get FIFA, the NFL and others to follow in their footsteps.
From my own youthful attempts to crew a small secondhand sailboat with friend and CI co-founder Spencer Beebe, to today, the sailing world and conservation community have come a long way. Back when we began working in this field more than 30 years ago, and envisioning the organization that would become CI (almost exactly 25 years ago), we were really grateful if we could get $1000 from someone in the business world.
Today, I see example after example of businesses coming to understand that it is in their self-interest to protect nature for their economic and competitive sustainability. In our current age of economic stress, many national governments do not have the resources or commitment to take the action we need. Fortunately, businesses are stepping up to the plate … and by “voting” with their dollars, consumers can encourage them to take even more action.
The America’s Cup is a great example of partnerships for our planet. I hope their leadership spurs other global influencers to jump on board and join us in the race to save our natural capital.
Peter Seligmann is the chairman and CEO of Conservation International.