Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Mendenhall.

According to the United Nations, the impacts of climate change are global in scope and unprecedented in scale and without drastic action today, adapting to these impacts in the future will be more difficult and costly.

It is that same statement that has researchers from South County, Rhode Island searching for more answers.

Elizabeth Mendenhall, assistant professor at the University Rhode Island, is researching the effect that climate change has on international ocean governance. Mendenhall is assigned to the department of marine affairs and has a limited joint appointment to the department of political science.

“Climate change is really three things in the ocean; sea level rise, warming waters and acidifying waters,” said Mendenhall. “Those are added onto marine pollution, overfishing and all kinds of other environmental issues.”

Mendenhall, a Kansas-native, earned her Ph.D. in international relations from Johns Hopkins University in 2017, and shortly after found her way to Rhode Island.

“Studying the ocean was not predestined,” said Mendenhall. “The truth is, I got into [studying marine affairs] through doing debate in high school and college, and one of our big topics was governing the ocean.”

Just like many other Americans, Mendenhall also credits her frustration to the fact that the country is not doing enough to address issues such as climate change and pollution. “A lot of the answers have to do with international politics,” she said.

Her primary research focus is on international ocean governance, which many people confuse by calling it international ocean law.

“People often call in international ocean law, but it’s not really law because there is no world government,” said Mendenhall. “It’s rules that countries agree to in regards to managing the ocean.”

Many of the various paper projects that Mendenhall works on fall under ocean governance, specifically the primary rulebook for managing the ocean, known as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS).

According to Mendenhall, the UNCLOS created a lot of rules for which parts of the ocean and which oceanic resources countries can claim, but since it’s negotiation in the 1970s, there are now a lot of problems with those rules.

Even though the United States was a big player in the negotiation of the treaty, a shift of political ideology in the early 1980s had America backing out and demanding new amendments, many of which have since been made. However, the U.S. has still not ratified the document.

“Negotiators didn’t assume sea level rise, marine plastic pollution, or new resources like genetic sequences of deep sea creatures, and many of the rules we have are subject to disagreement between countries,” said Mendenhall.

One of her current projects is covering the negotiations within the United Nations as they are currently working on a new treaty to add to UNCLOS in regards to governing the middle parts of the ocean.

In addition to obvious effects, climate change in the ocean is going to affect primary productivity, and may reduce the amount of fish available for consumption.

“The effect climate change has on the ocean is going to affect primary productivity of fish available for consumption,” said Mendenhall.

In her professional opinion, water warming and water acidification are particularly dangerous, in terms of environmental hazards.

In Feb. 2018, Mendenhall spoke about international ocean governance in terms of sea level rise for TEDxURI.

While teaching classes and conducting research, Mendenhall also serves as an advisor to students achieving their graduate degrees. One of those students is Asta Habtemichael.

Habtemichael is currently completing his final semester in his program to be awarded his Masters degree.

“My background is in applied marine sciences, focusing directly on ocean acidification and its effects on ecology,” said Habtemichael.

After coming to URI in the Fall of 2017, he researched deeper into the policy side of what happens within marine affairs.

Although their research ideas have commonalities, Habtemichael says that Mendenhall’s role “is kind of like the audience of my research.”

“Me having the natural science background and [Mendenhall] having the social science background allows the research that I produce make sense to the audience,” said Habtemichael.

Currently, Mendenhall said that she considers climate change to be the greatest threat to humanity, and why she believes her research and the work of her colleagues is so crucial right now.

Mendenhall said she is looking to see a “willingness to try something new,” in terms of how our government can react to this crisis. “One of the biggest problems with ocean governance is the status quo bias.”

“This seems like a winning issue,” says Mendenhall. “Joining UCLOS, we can influence the application of its rules, and also allows the US to make stronger legal claims over parts of the ocean.”

“It’s also a low-cost leadership issue,” she said. “We can step up and help manage issues in the ocean.”