Our Daily Planet's Bright Ideas

Bright Ideas is a weekly featured opinion piece authored by policymakers, thought leaders & experts highlighting steps we can take toward a more sustainable future brought to you by people that know these topics best.

Putting the “Blue” into the Green New Deal

By Mark Spalding and Angel Braestrup

As we have written before (Roundtable DiscussionLooking at the Small DetailsThe New Blue EconomySustainable Blue Economy Conference), the (new) Blue Economy is the subset of the ocean economy’s activities that are positive for the ocean. A “true blue” economic perspective would limit large scale industrial activity in the ocean, from energy extraction to industrial fishing—and focus on reducing the biggest threats to ocean health: excess greenhouse gas emissions.

Broadly speaking, the Green New Deal similarly envisions a “massive program of investments in clean-energy jobs and infrastructure, meant to transform not just the energy sector, but the entire economy. It is meant both to decarbonize the economy and to make it fairer and more just.”  The devil is always in the details, but in our view, this Blue Economy vision should not be overlooked in developing the Green New Deal. The key elements within the framework of the Green New Deal should ensure an overall more sustainable Blue Economy that supports a healthy ocean and thus healthy human communities – with an emphasis on the shipping, energy production, and fisheries sectors.

Shipping: Transporting goods, raw materials, and even people by sea (and rivers) is by far the most energy efficient way to do so. Within the framework of the International Maritime Organization and other agreements, the shipping industry has been increasingly innovative in its response to demands for cleaner shipping through lower emissions, improved efficiency (new hybrid wind vessels and electric ferries are just two examples), and ballast water treatments that help reduce invasive species without dumping new toxins in coastal waterways.  It cannot be said that every shipping entity is already a forward-thinking actor—but the groundwork is being laid technologically and logistically to improve shipping at every level.

Energy Production: For a healthier ocean, energy production does need to shift away from the dirty, harmful work of exploring for, extracting and burning oil and gas—especially in the ocean. From seismic tests to drilling muds, the impact on ocean life and habitat is negative in both the short and long term—even without consideration of spills from platforms, pipelines, or ship groundings. The “blue elements” of a Green New Deal should focus on how and where to best site in-water energy production capacity (especially wind, currents, tidal, and wave energy) and how to increase island communities’ independence from oil and gas imports and improve their ability to restore electricity after storms.

Fisheries: Food security, like energy security, means that at least some portion of production must be decentralized. Where seafood is concerned, we must protect the rights to and supply of seafood for those who depend most on seafood for protein. Investing in small-scale fisheries’ capacity to store seafood safely can improve efficiency by reducing waste—from the net to the plate. A “true blue” fishery management scheme accepts that catch and export of high-value species must not occur at the expense of domestic need or economic activity, emphasizes monitoring and enforcement, and promotes greater domestic processing to improve per ton value of the product to the origin nation. True blue food security would also promote storm-safe, well-monitored onshore seafood production facilities to stabilize supply for processors and consumers alike, and one not so narrowly focused on the luxury market.  Moreover, investing in restoring and protecting seagrass meadows, mangroves, and coastal marshes can improve fishery reproduction and recovery. Restoration of these marine habitats has the added benefit of increasing carbon uptake and offering storm surge mitigation benefits while offering employment opportunities in coastal communities.

If we look at the Green New Deal as an opportunity to have a conversation about revitalizing and invigorating new areas of economic activity, and designing the framework of finance, policy, and enforcement to support such investment and growth, such a conversation must include the “blue” opportunities in the 71% of the ocean that is our planet and the 100% of us who depend on her health for our well-being.  So let’s roll up our sleeves, put our oars in the water, and launch into the sustainable Blue Economy.

Mark J. Spalding has been the President of The Ocean Foundation since its founding in 2002. Angel Braestrup, who is the Executive Director, The Curtis & Edith Munson Foundation, has been involved in ocean conservation funding for more than 20 years. A longer version of this blog appears on The Ocean Foundation’s website here.  

Compromise and the Art of the Deal

By Daniel C. Esty

Two weeks ago, at the memorial service to President George H.W. Bush, his eulogists celebrated the extraordinary things accomplished during his Presidency on a bipartisan basis – including the passage of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act, a crime bill, the 1991 Civil Rights Act, and even taxes and balancing the budget. President Bush believed that governing, in essence, required collaboration and to work with the other party in order to achieve lasting progress. Looking back, his legislative accomplishments stand tall as having made our country stronger – especially as compared to those of today.

President Bush understood that policy advances often require compromise — and not just with the other party. Good policy must build on solid factual foundations, careful analysis, and judgment about how to balance competing interests for long-term success.  He recognized that for environmental progress to be sustainable, it had to be achieved in parallel with economic gains and job security. And he knew that policy durability depends on the opposition sharing the victory – and feeling bought into the path set forth.  As we have witnessed too often in recent years, one-party victories invite the dismantling of the program as soon as the other side takes power.

By governing from the center, however, President Bush (backed by a creative and committed environmental team including White House Counsel Boyden Gray, OMB Deputy Director Bob Grady, EPA Administrator Bill Reilly, and many others) made real change happen. The 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments – the last major piece of environmental legislation adopted in this country – reflects a series of political horse-trades, but it launched a breakthrough SO2 emissions allowance trading system that has dramatically reduced acid rain across North America. It cut air pollution from cars by 40-80% (depending on the pollutant), and it set up a system for controlling toxic air releases that remains critical to American air quality today. Moreover, on the key issue of our time, the Bush Administration’s commitment to a comprehensive approach to controlling greenhouse gases with emphasis on market-based policies to reduce emissions, particularly acid rain pollution that had nearly destroyed parts our northeast, has been wildly successful.

It is hard to imagine government working that well now — so many people have lost faith in our institutions. Even as we collectively desire for our government to make progress, we are locked in partisan battles that increasingly make that prospect more remote. I often shock my students by asking them what they think the final Senate vote on the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments was.  As none of these 20-somethings can remember a day when environmental politics was other than a wedge issue around which bitter partisanship swirls, the “B” students are sure that the vote was a bare 51-49 majority.  The “A” students, aware of the Senate filibuster requirement, suggest a 60-40 margin. The actual vote was 89-11, reflecting a degree of consensus that is unimaginable today. In a similar display of bipartisanship, the 1992 Climate Change Treaty cleared the Senate with the required 2/3rds majority so plainly evident that no roll call was undertaken.  I also think back to President George H.W. Bush’s “no-net-loss” of wetlands policy, that the Trump Administration rolled back this past week. President Bush was willing to work across the aisle with Democrats to secure fundamental environmental protections for the public.

Thinking ahead to January, when the Government pushes the re-start button with the House of Representatives in the hands of Democrats, all our political leaders in both parties should keep in mind that in order to win political battles, compromise is necessary. But the one thing the American people do not wish to see “compromised” is our natural environment – the goal of clean air and clean water in the United States. President Bush understood that fundamental principle and led a bipartisan group of leaders who made it happen.

Daniel C. Esty is the Hillhouse Professor of Environmental Law and Policy at Yale University, and from 2011 to 2014, Esty served as Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.


Deputies Rising

Photo: Andrew Harrer, Bloomberg News

by Monica Medina

With the nomination of Andrew Wheeler to lead the Environmental Protection Agency now before the Senate, and David Bernhardt likely to ‘act” for many months and then be nominated as Secretary of Interior, these two agencies are poised to “make the most” of the next two years of the Trump Presidency. As former Deputies of their respective agencies, they have the contacts, the inside-baseball knowhow, and the drive to achieve much more than their high profile former bosses.

The Trump Administration has shaken up Washington, and ignored or broken many of the city’s traditional ways of doing business. But one “norm” that they did not abandon was the typical practice of pairing a Cabinet Secretary who was coming out of elected office or the private sector having only limited experience in the executive branch, with a Deputy who knew the ins and outs of agency-land. Typically, the Deputy’s role is to be a “Sherpa” for the Cabinet lead – to guide him or her through the agency maze, manage the day-to-day operations of a behemoth bureaucracy, and take on the gnarly problems that if mishandled can derail any administration. Until now, they have worked quietly behind the scenes but wielded tremendous power even in the “supporting actor” role. But they are about to get their star turn.

First, these Deputies actually know the laws their agencies implement – so they know exactly what they can do – or not do — to advantage powerful industry groups like big oil, mining and big agriculture. Contrary to what the President and his White House staff may believe, the law matters. And the people who know what it says have a distinct advantage in making regulatory policy, which is the job of the executive branch. These laws have lots of discretion built into them for agencies to work with — Congress could not include that much detail. But you must know what they say in the fine print. And these Deputies do because they helped to write them. Wheeler was a fixture in the Senate from 1995-2009, working for the Chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, which oversees his current agency. And Bernhardt spent time working in the House of Representatives early in his career and then was a key player at Interior for the entire Bush 43 Administration, where he rose to be the agency’s top lawyer.

Second, these Deputies know people – and I don’t mean people at the White House. I mean they know the people in their agencies and on the Hill who actually get the work done. Agencies and Congressional staffs are huge organizations, but often it is individual public servants who make or break the success of a law, policy or regulatory initiative. As important as mastering the substance is, it is even more important to know the person who knows that substantive issue even better than you do. Moreover, it is also critical to know who to trust in the “deep state” bureaucracy to carry out your instructions faithfully. If you have to do all the legwork yourself, you cannot be nearly as effective. You need allies in the trenches, and both Wheeler and Bernhardt know dozens of people across each agency after working with them for decades. You can’t just walk in and instantly have the trust with the staff that is needed to deliver lasting political “wins.” It has taken these men years to build those networks and now they are in a position to take advantage of them.

Finally, these Deputies are in it for the long haul.   They have made it to the top by working their way up — not because they had been elected to office or made millions in business — but because they have studied government from the inside and out. Their legacies will be the policy successes they achieve that stand the test of time. Unlike their former bosses, and the President and White House staff for that matter, they are not interested in doing permanent damage to the institutions of government. These men will follow the process rules of government closely so that courts or the next Democratic Administration won’t easily undo their achievements. They have real skin in the game. They will be working in Washington for decades in the future and they understand that this stint as a Cabinet Secretary is the ultimate ticket to influence in D.C. Just look at Bill Barr. One of them might even come back and serve as a Secretary of their agency again some day, as long as they play by the traditional rules.

The skills that make Andrew Wheeler and David Bernhardt good at their jobs, in my view, are not inherently bad. Substantive legal expertise, a widely dispersed and time-tested network of contacts throughout Washington, and a long view of their role in government are traits we should encourage in the political class of public servants. What makes them highly objectionable are their political views – their bias toward industry and powerful interests, and their lack of empathy for the innocent Americans who are harmed by their willingness to unleash harmful pollution and natural resource extraction, and their failure to safeguard our health, public lands and wildlife. And that is why we must be afraid, very afraid, of all they will have the chance to achieve in the next two years after they are confirmed by the Senate.

A Millennial’s Call for Bold Climate Action

A photo from a hike this past summer in Mt. Tamalpais State Park

By Miro Korenha, Founder and Publisher of Our Daily Planet

To baby boomers and older generations concern for the environment might seem like an admirable quality, but to Millennials like me, it’s a life or death matter. To me personally, it means that aside from all the broader geopolitical implications, my precious small hometown of Sonoma, California will become uninsurable and people I know will continue to become housing insecure.  It also means feeling a sense of panic when I see my mom calling me at unusual times during California’s fire season because in the back of my mind I’m thinking “not again,” something I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

I’m 31 years old and for at least two-thirds of my life I have been acutely aware of the threat that climate change poses to my existence. As a 10-year-old I remember reading about the signing of the Kyoto Protocol for a class assignment and first learning about the extent of how much humans were contributing to the warming of our planet. It seemed obvious back then (even to a child) that the United States would join the rest of the world in reducing emissions to protect the only home we have. As a kid growing up in Northern California this point would become especially salient as that winter we experienced an El Niño so potent that some of my classmates missed extended periods of school because their neighborhoods would flood so badly.

Later as a teen in the Bush 43 era, I couldn’t understand why the adults in charge were suddenly refusing to do anything about global warming and worse yet, beginning to spin the narrative that scientists had some sort of agenda to mislead the American public. I was perhaps too naïve to realize that a president and vice president who made their money in oil would be reluctant to support a national strategy that would hinder the massive profits their buddies still in the industry were receiving.

When I got to DC as a hopeful young intern it was in the immediate aftermath of the BP oil spill and that same summer the Waxman-Markey climate bill died in the Senate, never to be talked about again. For those of us in the environmental NGO world, climate change was a dire issue but for many others, it was barely a blip on the radar. I remember asking Republican staff working for prominent members of Congress how their bosses could refute so much incontrovertible evidence that our planet was warming at an alarming rate and they’d reply that if their bosses acknowledged the threat, then they would have to do something about it (an act that hardly any Republican member is willing to pursue to this day).

What’s most unconscionable to me about inaction on climate change is that it’s a blatant statement that the plight of my generation and those behind us doesn’t matter. It signals that holding a political office comes above the duty to protect American lives from extreme weather events that are becoming more frequent as a direct result of climate change. It means a near certainty that young American troops will be sent to fight and die in parts of the world that are becoming increasingly destabilized also as a direct result of climate change. The excuses for lawmakers to sit by idly and gamble away our future are tired, we’ve heard them all, and they cannot continue.

Not only has the old guard in Congress amassed a nearly insurmountable national debt that my generation will be forced to sacrifice in order to repay but they’re also ignoring the fact that climate change poses the single greatest risk to the U.S. economy. My peers will have less economic opportunity than our parents and grandparents but we will be tasked with paying the billions (eventually trillions) of dollars that it costs to clean up and recover after the massive hurricanes and wildfires that ravage our nation year after year. To make matters worse, many Republican leaders want to stymy government support of solar and wind energy—the industry with the fastest growing jobs in America—in favor of subsidizing the fossil fuels industry which employs far fewer people than renewables.

There is no other way to look at it, climate change is an existential crisis and while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Trump will not be around to see the worst of it that doesn’t absolve them of their duty to protect my generation. It’s also why gradual action on the part of Democrats isn’t a viable path either. There must be bold action on climate change that focuses on jobs, infrastructure, and opportunities for struggling Americans to find gainful employment in green sectors of the economy. The Green New Deal that the freshman class of Democrats in Congress are proposing is the best chance we have to make an impact before it’s too late—a date that’s only 12 years away according to the world’s scientists.

It’s for this reason that image of our president walking through the charred remains of homes where human beings were incinerated in Paradise, CA while completely denying the underlying causes of the fire wasn’t just upsetting, it was infuriating. I feel this same anger reflected when I hear anyone refusing to acknowledge anthropogenic climate change as it will be my generation who will be around to cope with a planet irrevocably altered by willful ignorance.

50 years after Santa Barbara oil spill, the call remains: ‘Get oil out’

Photo: nbcnews.com

Special to ODP from David Helvarg, first published in the San Francisco Chronicle, January 25, 2019

Fifty years after a California oil spill launched the modern environmental movement, we may finally be moving beyond the age of oil, and none too soon.

In October, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, made up of the world’s leading climate scientists, warned that global carbon emissions would have to be cut by 45 percent by 2030 if there’s any hope of keeping planetary warming at a dangerous but less than catastrophic level.

Luckily, job-generating renewable energy now has become competitive with or cheaper than most forms of fossil fuel. Progressive Democrats are also calling for a Green New Deal that aims to transition the U.S. to a clean-energy economy, addressing both climate change and inequality.

For those who think a rapid energy conversion is not feasible, consider how in 1850 whale oil was the lubricant of the machine age and the light source for many of America’s finest homes, public buildings and streetlights. Thirty years later, rock oil (petroleum) had completely displaced it as a source of both energy and economic expansion.

Soon the demand for petroleum had taken to sea, with the world’s first offshore oil-drilling piers built in Summerland (Santa Barbara County) in 1896. It would take more than half a century to persuade Californians living just north of Summerland in the city of Santa Barbara that offshore drilling had become a safe technology.

It hadn’t.

On Jan. 28, 1969, just a year after the federal government leased offshore drilling tracts in the Santa Barbara Channel, and after it issued waivers allowing Union Oil (now part of Chevron) to reduce the length of its standard pipe casing from 500 to 15 feet, a crew drilling their fourth well hit a snag. Oil and gas exploded up the pipe string. When the blowout was capped, the oil began leaking below the shortened casing. Within days some 3 million gallons came ashore, covering 35 miles of sandy beaches with a viscous black coating of crude 6 inches thick. The oil slick gave the ocean waves a sludgy pulse and filled the air with an odor akin to gasoline.

When President Richard Nixon made an appearance after the spill in March, he was met by thousands of silent, angry residents, some carrying signs reading “Get oil out!”

The sight of Santa Barbara’s dying, oil-covered seabirds was followed five months later by TV images of the polluted Cuyahoga River in Cleveland catching fire. These events horrified Americans: The modern environmental movement was born.

After bipartisan actions in the 1970s to clean our air, water and protect wildlife and human health, environmental stewardship evolved from a social movement to a societal ethic, although one that, like “love thy neighbor,” was often ignored in practice.

The Trump administration’s ongoing push to open up more U.S. waters to drilling and acoustic oil surveys that can kill fish and whales has sparked opposition all along the eastern seaboard as well as in California, Oregon, and Washington.

Of course, in the wake of the Santa Barbara spill of 1969 and subsequent major spills, including Ixtoc in the Gulf of Mexico in 1979, Exxon Valdez in Alaska in 1989, Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 and another Santa Barbara spill in 2015, the focus remained on energy versus pollution.

Only now we know drilling for hydrocarbons is also a product-liability issue. Used as directed, fossil fuels spill carbon dioxide into our atmosphere, heat our air, alter our weather, dry our forests and soils and acidify our seas.

The first steps in transitioning to more abundant renewable energy should include the early elimination of the dirtiest and most dangerous forms of fossil fuel in terms of worker safety, pollution and carbon emissions. That would be coal, tar sands, and offshore oil. In terms of protecting jobs for those energy workers, the easiest part for the Green New Deal would be to retrain roughnecks and roustabouts from offshore rigs for similar jobs such as offshore wind turbine technicians and line handlers.

Growing numbers of citizens are mobilizing around these creatively disruptive ideas, updating the Santa Barbara spirit of 50 years ago with demands that our elected officials get in line with market trends and entrepreneurial opportunities to Get Oil Out!

David Helvarg is an author and executive director of Blue Frontier, an ocean conservation group. His books include “The War Against the Greens” and “The Golden Shore — California’s Love Affair with the Sea.”