Comment: The Green New Deal has a big blue gap

Only passing concern is shown for the world’s oceans and ignores their part in confronting climate change.

By Ayana Elizabeth Johnson / For The Washington Post

Our nation has more than 95,000 miles of shoreline, home to 40 percent of Americans who live in coastal counties. Our blue economy, including fishing, ocean farming, shipping, tourism and recreation, supports more than 3.25 million American jobs and a $300 billion annual contribution to our gross domestic product. And, for many, our cultural heritage is tied to the sea.

These communities are threatened by rising sea levels, eroding coasts and climate change-fueled storms. Yet the Green New Deal resolution, designed to transform our economy to a 100 percent clean energy future and address astronomical social inequality along the way, makes only a single passing reference to the world’s oceans. There is a big blue gap in the Green New Deal.

That’s why I helped advise Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, in developing a Blue New Deal for our oceans, to expand the vision of the Green New Deal. The plan aims to restore and protect coastal ecosystems, invest in renewable offshore energy and support good jobs in the Blue Economy. This plan recognizes that we must include the ocean as a key solution to the climate crisis.

As a marine biologist, I know the ocean is a hugely important part of our climate system. The ocean has absorbed more than 90 percent of the excess heat trapped by greenhouse gases and around 30 percent of the carbon dioxide we’ve emitted. This has made the ocean hotter and more acidic. It is driving fish toward the poles, frying corals in place and fueling stronger storms.

We are woefully unprepared for the sea level rise and stronger storms that come with a changing climate. But it’s important to recognize that the climate mitigation and adaptation solutions we need are already here. These include renewable energy, replanting ecosystems, regenerative farming, retrofitting buildings, electrifying transportation and reducing waste.

We don’t need to wait for new technologies; we just need to get to work. We need federal, state and local governments to act. We need corporations to stop spreading misinformation and start doing their part. And we need to leverage the power of the ocean — a resource overlooked for far too long — to help us take on our climate crisis.

Such a Blue New Deal is overdue. Never before has ocean policy received such a spotlight in a presidential election, let alone (to my knowledge) in a primary race.

This plan proposes to both end offshore drilling and streamline permitting for offshore wind, while ensuring wind energy develops in a way that benefits local communities. This is key because right now there is only one small wind farm in U.S. waters. Others have been blocked by wealthy coastal property owners (on both sides of the aisle) who don’t want their views ruined or to live near transmission infrastructure. The need to act rapidly to ramp up clean energy leaves no time for selfish concerns, and this proposal would eliminate aesthetics as a reason to deny permits.

Additionally, the plan includes an emphasis on increasing protections for and restoring coastal ecosystems — to both sequester carbon and buffer the impacts of sea level rise and storms — including by fully funding NOAA’s Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program, creating a domestic blue carbon program to value marine carbon sequestration and expanding marine protected areas. It would also support the scaling of regenerative ocean farming of seaweed and shellfish to absorb carbon and provide nutritious food.

Warren’s plan also looks upstream and intends to take on big polluters, such as the petrochemical industry and big industrial agriculture, as well as to shrink production and expand recycling of single-use plastics in order to reduce pollution that is damaging marine ecosystems and contaminating our seafood.

The plan includes principles of managed retreat, to help people and communities move out of harm’s way. Many coastal areas are increasingly unsafe; rebuilding in the same places despite ever-increasing disasters makes no sense.

All these measures are important, but the most unexpected and visionary proposal is to halt all new construction of federal buildings and public housing within 1.5 meters (about 5 feet) of current sea level. While this may seem extreme, it is, in fact, logical and prudent given scientific projections that sea level could rise even more than this by 2100 if emissions keep rising. This policy would facilitate sound investments and protect some of our most vulnerable neighbors.

The longer we wait to enact strong ocean and climate policies, the more vulnerable people of color and low-income people in coastal communities will become. Our solutions must be grounded in environmental justice and create good jobs in the Blue Economy.

I’m encouraged and relieved to see our oceans finally getting a spotlight in federal politics. Because, yes, our oceans are in crisis, and we need to use every tool at our disposal to protect this underappreciated and valuable resource.

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist, founder and chief executive of the Ocean Collective, and founder of the nonprofit think tank Urban Ocean Lab. She has advised the presidential campaign of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, on ocean and climate policy.

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