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The Plastic-Climate Nexus: Linking Science, Policy, and Justice

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posted on 2023-05-24, 06:21 authored by Stoett, P, Joanna VinceJoanna Vince

Among the plethora of marine ecosystem challenges of this century, two have received increasing attention in recent years. One of these challenges, the primary subject of this book, is climate change. Another challenge is that of plastic. Marine plastic pollution can be subdivided into three basic categories: (1) macroplastics, including debris such as fishing nets, large pieces of Styrofoam, and parcels that have been lost or discarded from cargo ships; (2) microplastics, which comprise particles under 5 mm in diameter that remain when plastic objects, including plastic nurdles (which are used in various production processes), enter the sea and phytodegrade; and (3) nanoplastics, the end state of microplastic degradation, which are invisible to the naked eye and, because they are so small (1,000 times smaller than an algal cell)), are more likely than microplastics to pass through biological membranes. All of these categories of plastics are regrettable intrusions on natural ecosystems, but the latter are particularly worrisome for those concerned with environmental change.

In this chapter, we argue that all types of plastic pollution are also troublesome irritants for those concerned specifically with climate governance. The links between plastic debris, which is reshaping ocean ecology, and the broader threat of climate change are rarely explored. Our analysis suggests that there are several interlinked variables and relevant ethical and policy-related considerations. In particular, the climate change and the microplastics narratives – discovery, scientific advances, technological and policy innovations – need to come together if we are to make solid progress in response to both of these wicked problems.

We develop three primary ideas in this chapter. First, there are clear links between the oceans and climate change agenda and the marine debris agenda. Microplastics especially are contributing to the climate change problem and vice versa (Royer et al., 2018). Second, there are intriguing governance parallels between the two problems, such as existential threat responses, shared but differentiated responsibilities, and common heritage issues. The most pronounced intersection is at the level of ecological justice. Third, we argue that climate change governance should take the microplastics plague into account. Similarly, those dealing with plastic debris have no choice but to take climate change into serious consideration.

In the remainder of this chapter we discuss why plastic debris should be a topic of grave concern to the climate change mitigation and adaptation community, and we show why it is a vital issue for environmental governance and ecological justice. We explore similarities between these two mega-issues from policy and justice perspectives, looking especially at human impacts and concerns about shared governance. We examine international legal principles that can be applied to both issues, including common heritage, shared but differentiated responsibilities, and the precautionary principle. Finally, we take a pragmatic look at what can be done to integrate these twin issues as part of wider efforts to achieve effective ocean governance amidst climate change.


Publication title

Climate Change and Ocean Governance: Politics and Policy for Threatened Seas


PG Harris






School of Social Sciences


Cambridge University Press

Place of publication




Rights statement

Copyright 2019 Cambridge University Press

Repository Status

  • Restricted

Socio-economic Objectives

Assessment and management of coastal and estuarine ecosystems; Social impacts of climate change and variability

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