President's Letter: Portrait of a healthy planet

I recently joined my friend Julie Packard to witness the unveiling of her portrait at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. Julie’s is just the 17th portrait to be commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery, and only the second of a woman in marine sciences and conservation in the gallery’s collection (the other is Rachel Carson—pretty good company). The portrait, by the artist Hope Gangloff, depicts Julie in front of the iridescent glory of the big tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which she helped found in the late 1970s, with an assemblage of fish and kelp and sunlight streaming down from above.

To me, Julie represents the finest kind of conservationist. First and foremost is her humility—she is the last person to seek either a portrait or a headline. She has a steadfast devotion to using science, and science-based communications, to drive change and solutions in the world. Over the years I’ve watched Julie set the standard for how aquariums can serve as platforms for saving the ocean. She’s done that through the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, the aquarium’s research arm. It’s happened through insanely creative exhibits that set the table with stories of the origins of seafood choices and dazzle the imagination with the sheer vertical height of underwater kelp forests. And it’s happened through innovative solutions like the Seafood Watch program, the seafood cards pioneered at the aquarium over 20 years ago that remain a central consumer reference point for choosing sustainable seafood.

Carter Roberts headshot

Carter Roberts
President & CEO, WWF

A few weeks before spending time with Julie, I was at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History with Sir David Attenborough and producers Alistair Fothergill and Keith Scholey for the US launch of the Netflix series Our Planet. You could feel the energy in the room full of congressional representatives, conservation leaders, and scientists. And I was reminded of what a privilege it’s been for WWF to be the lead research partner for Our Planet and to provide the series’ scientific underpinning. Our Planet begins with the genius and glory of the assemblage of life in the Humboldt Current (both above and below the surface of the ocean) and then, through a series of eight episodes, lays bare the changes we are making to the planet and the slow destruction of ecological processes upon which we and the diversity of the world depend. The incomparable Sir David Attenborough narrates, pivoting from wonder to catalyst, and imploring the world to act before it’s too late.

“What comes to mind when we think about conservation?”

What comes to mind when we think about conservation? Often, it’s parks and soaring mountains, endless vistas, and the sublime landscapes made famous by artists like Albert Bierstadt, whose legendary Yosemite sunrise is on display just down the hall from Julie’s portrait. But oceans are rarely depicted, even though they occupy fully 70% of our planet and perform a breathtaking array of services, from sheltering biodiversity to providing food and stabilizing the climate.

The oceans are being destroyed by a combination of overfishing, pollution, and poor governance. They are also slowly, steadily boiling through a feat of simple chemistry: Greenhouse gas emissions produce elevated CO2, which when combined with H2O produces carbonic acid. The resulting acidification is destroying the very structure of coral reefs, which play an irreplaceable role in the provision of food and the resilience of coastal communities in places like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Australia.

The gift of Julie Packard and Sir David Attenborough is that they capture our imagination and transport us to places far away. They remind us of our love for the oceans and for all of nature. They lay plain the fact that climate change is altering the flow of ocean currents around the world. It is decimating landscapes and biodiversity and livelihoods. And they make clear we need to act. Now.

I’m grateful for the work of Julie and Sir David in providing clear signals, clear solutions, and a clear path to help us save this planet that is our home. Time now to get to work. Because we must aspire to nothing less than a portrait of a world that flourishes and sustains us all.

Carter Roberts

President and CEO

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