An Ocean Climate Action Plan For A New Blue Economy

By David Helvarg and Jason Scorse

As we enter another hurricane season in the midst of a global pandemic, there are growing calls to respond to the climate emergency at the scale we’ve responded to COVID-19. Yet many climate solutions being proposed fail to address the 71 percent of the planet that’s blue. In early 2019 our organizations began developing an Ocean Climate Action Plan (OCAP) to identify ways we can use ocean resources to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions while helping coastal communities to adapt to impacts already underway.

The plan focuses on five key areas in need of government investment and innovative new policies: Coastal adaptation and financing, fisheries, aquaculture and biodiversity conservation, offshore renewable energy, and shipping, and ports and the maritime industries.

What would it do?

1.  Improve Coastal Adaptation and Resilient Infrastructure Financing

With Arthur and now Bertha, the first named storms of 2020 forming before the official June 1 start of hurricane season, coastal adaptation and financing reform is timely.  OCAP calls for expanding the living shorelines industry to employ many thousands of workers across the U.S. in shovel-ready (and diver ready) projects to rebuild threatened coastal ecosystems including salmon rivers, salt marshes, seagrasses, mangrove forests, oyster reefs, and coral reefs that provide proven urban infrastructure benefits in addressing sea level rise naturally.  Living shoreline projects on a larger scale are working in New Jersey, on the Chesapeake Bay, San Francisco Bay, and along coastal Louisiana.

Improved stormwater management to reduce flooding and pollution is another solution, as is support for low-income communities that are at risk and need to build climate resilience or relocate from unstable shorelines.   None of this is likely to happen, however, as long as FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program continues to encourage people to build and rebuild in harm’s way on flood plains and atop barrier islands.  The Ocean Climate Action Plan calls for flood insurance policies to be priced based on accurate actuarial rates with support for low-income homeowners facing rate increases and with the use of science-based flood maps updated every 5 years. Among other reforms, the plan calls for buyout programs like New Jersey’s Blue Acres that pay willing sellers pre-storm prices to help make them whole again after a disaster and then replaces these high-risk residential and commercial properties with living shorelines and parks.

2.  Reform Fisheries For The New Climate Realities

Climate change poses unique challenges to the fishing industry, as species change their migratory patterns due to warming and acidifying waters that also threaten shellfish.  This has turned the shellfish industry into an indicator species for ocean acidification (OA). Among the Ocean Climate Action Plan’s proposals to address these challenges are amending the federal fisheries law, to incorporate climate change impacts in the rules and regulations for sustainable fishing, and providing incentives to help fishermen and women transition their boats, engines, and refrigeration systems in the direction of zero carbon emissions.

3.  Increase Aquaculture and Habitat Conservation

OCAP envisions regulatory and policy actions to grow a more sustainable U.S. aquaculture industry that can create new well-paying jobs while reducing our need for carbon-intensive and often illegal seafood imports. Also key is expanding the U.S. system of marine reserves, including the National Marine Sanctuary system while incorporating new climate adaptation standards for their management and long-term research.  This will provide biological refuges and knowledge for species and habitat protection in our rapidly changing climate altered ocean.

4.  Develop Renewable Ocean Energy

Once we emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, there’s no better way to get our economy going again than to embrace a clean energy future. OCAP calls for, among other actions, developing offshore renewable energy targets in coastal states and setting a national target for the production of 30 GW of offshore wind power by 2030 (the equivalent to what the EU presently has). It also calls for renewing federal participation in regional Ocean Planning bodies that bring state, federal, and tribal agencies together to develop and promote effective, ecosystem-based decision-making. And it would commit federal R&D and establish public-private partnerships to test the commercial potential and ecological impacts of a range of other renewable ocean energy systems, including wave, current, tidal, and ocean thermal power.

5.  Green Shipping and Ports

Ships transport over 90 percent of globally traded goods and also account for some 3 percent or more of greenhouse gases.  The U.N.’s International Maritime Organization has committed to reducing emissions 50% by 2050 but science indicates that it needs to be 100% by mid-century. Most commercial ships still run on bunker fuel—the dregs of petroleum processing but at a recent OCAP webinar, cruise operator Hurtigruten proudly showed off pictures of the Norwegian company’s two large hybrid electric cruise ships, the first of a new class of vessels that makes a significant leap towards the zero-emission ships of the future.   The ports themselves must also become more climate-ready by creating the electric infrastructure for dockside power and incorporating living shorelines, plus we must mandate that ships become quieter and reduce speeds in critical habitat areas.

The Next Wave of Conservation Leaders

OCAP will continue to be shaped by our Youth Advisory Council representing the population most invested in turning the tide because it’s their future.  As youth activist Franceska De Oro of Guam, explains:

“I grew up swimming in the ocean every day and have seen first hand the effects that climate change have had just on the small reef I grew up across the street from,” she told us.  “We are navigating through waters no other humans have ever seen before.  We’re all in the same boat together.  This boat holds our very existence as a species, as people.  We are all part of this crew for a reason.  Climate change is the biggest storm this ship will ever see…We must remember our purpose on this journey, what we owe one another especially those people with the wisdom to guide us forward and the children who will take our place in the future.”

For more on the Ocean Climate Action Plan go to:

David Helvarg is an author, host of ‘Rising Tide – The Ocean Podcast’ and Executive Director of Blue Frontier, an ocean conservation group. Jason Scorse is Chair of the International Environmental Policy Program and Director of the Center for the Blue Economy at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

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