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Historically, the ocean has been overlooked in the climate debate. That makes no sense. Ignoring the 71 percent of the planet that creates more than half the oxygen we breathe and has absorbed 90 percent of the excess heat created by climate change can hardly lead to a complete set of climate solutions.
In the past year, the tide has turned. Last fall, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its Special Report, confirming that the climate crisis is an ocean crisis. Then, a panel of world leaders issued their report highlighting the ocean as a climate solution and the United Nations 25th annual meeting on climate change (known as COP25) was labeled the “Blue COP” with discussions at the highest levels of government incorporating the ocean into national climate plans, with the expectation that an ocean dialogue will continue at future COPs.
Now, here in the United States, Congress has followed suit. When the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis released their recommendations for tackling climate change and moving toward a just and sustainable clean energy economy, ocean climate action was woven throughout the 500-plus page report.
From generating clean energy to removing carbon from the atmosphere and ensuring that we can adapt and prepare for changes already underway, the Committee’s bold recommendations clearly recognize the role of the ocean. Equally important is the recognition that the needs of low-income and communities of color – who have historically suffered most from pollution and are already suffering disproportionately from climate change – must be addressed.
As long as carbon continues to be spewed into the atmosphere, the pace of ocean and global warming will continue unabated. That is why some of the most critical recommendations focus on the need to reduce emissions.
In the ocean, this includes a ban on any new offshore oil and gas leasing, contrary to Trump’s plan to lease every coast. It also includes reductions in emissions from existing offshore oil and gas platforms and recommendations for ports and the shipping industry to reduce their emissions through investment in alternative shipping fuels, port electrification, and new technologies. Along with the significant emissions reductions that can be achieved in the ocean, clean energy alternatives like wind and wave energy can be expanded, which the Committee recommends being prioritized through tax credits, loan guarantees, and the development of an offshore transmission plan.
The Committee also calls for the identification of and greater protection for “blue carbon” ecosystems such as mangroves, salt marshes, and seagrass beds. These habitats can store carbon at a rate of two to four times greater than forests, protect coastal communities from the storms that are becoming more frequent and more severe due to climate change, and provide important habitats for fisheries and other marine species. The Select Committee report makes clear that protecting existing blue carbon ecosystems and expanding federal programs that can restore those that have been lost or degraded will be a win-win for coastal communities and the planet. They also stress the need to invest in research to better understand the impacts of climate change on ocean and coastal ecosystems, the climate benefits they provide, and the ocean’s natural carbon cycle.
In addition, the Select Committee focused on the need to ensure that our coasts and oceans are resilient to the effects of climate change that are already here. A recent poll found that 95% of Americans support establishing marine protected areas—areas off-limits for commercial use—to protect ocean wildlife and habitats and provide climate refuge and resilience. The Committee agreed and recommended that Congress establish a national goal of protecting 30% of ocean and coastal ecosystems by 2030 that prioritizes areas with high ecological, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration value. Other recommendations for increasing resilience include protecting and restoring coral reef habitats; sustainably managing fisheries and ensuring climate change impacts are incorporated into management decisions; and the expansion of programs to address ocean acidification, low-oxygen “dead zones,” and harmful algal blooms.
Resilience must extend to coastal communities as well. Even if all emissions ended tomorrow, we will continue to face more extreme weather, sea-level rise and warming water – and communities must be prepared. To that end, the Committee recommended investments in natural infrastructure and coastal climate preparedness planning; making flood risk information transparent and available, and reforming federal flood risk and resilience standards; and expanding the Coastal Barrier Resources Act to discourage the development of biologically sensitive areas that are at particular risk of sea-level rise, flooding, and storms.
Finally, the Committee placed ocean-climate justice at the center of its recommendations. That means ensuring that low and moderate-income coastal communities are treated fairly in regards to flood insurance, coastal protections, and relocation assistance. It also means honoring tribal treaty rights to traditional lands and waters, and providing assistance so that they can stay and thrive there. Equally important, recognizing the disproportionate pollution burden borne by environmental justice communities, the Committee mapped specific ways to reduce that burden. They also called for the re-establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps with a focus on hiring individuals from environmental justice communities and other underserved populations.
The Committee’s report could not be more timely. The climate crisis threatens our health, safety, economy, and quality of life — all of which are tied to ocean health. The time to act is now. We are fortunate to have leaders in the House of Representatives that are meeting this challenge head-on. From the expansion of clean energy to the protection of blue carbon and safeguarding our coastal communities and marine ecosystems, the Committee has charted a course to address climate change that flows through our ocean. Congress must show it is serious about the climate crisis, work together, and move these proposals forward before it’s too late.
Jean Flemma is the Director of the Ocean Defense Initiative, and a co-founder of Urban Ocean Lab. She spent twenty years as a staffer on Capitol Hill working on ocean policy issues.
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