By David Helvarg
Sylvia Earle likes to say ‘No Blue, No Green’ in explaining the role of the ocean as the incubator and cradle of life on earth, also the driver of climate, weather and rain, the generator of over half the oxygen we air breathers consume and the salty home of some of the deepest, widest, weirdest habitats and marine critters from eel grasses to methane seeps, sarcastic fringeheads to narwhales.
Incredibly, after four billion years of ocean evolution, all of this has now been put at risk by our own species’ thoughtless and greedy actions over the last fifteen decades or so. We’ve been ignorant about the impacts of many of our activities failing to adopt the precautionary principle, “First, do no harm.” That’s just thoughtless. But when we’ve come to scientifically understand that what we’re doing – overfishing marine wildlife, clear-cutting forests, burning fossil fuel – is also degrading the ecosystems that sustain us and yet some of us continue to do so for short-term gain, that’s just greedy.
Earlier in this century when I wrote my first ocean book, Blue Frontier and then founded an ocean conservation group of the same name (because environmentalists recycle), the cascading impacts of overfishing, pollution, loss of habitat and climate change were already being felt. But now we’ve reached not just a historic, but geologic moment of crisis where climate change is measurably altering the physical nature of the ocean; its circulation, temperature, chemistry and color.
Even if we were to end overfishing and pirate fishing, find ways to eliminate oil, chemical, plastic and nutrient pollution and begin to restore degraded habitats such as salt marshes and seamounts, we might still see the collapse of our living ocean due to climate disruption. After all a warming more acidic ocean also holds less dissolved oxygen, which is fine if you’re a marine jelly or microbial mat but less so for bony fish, marine mammals and many of the algae that give us our oxygen.
That’s why I’d amend Sylvia’s axiom to say ‘No Blue New Deal, No Green New Deal.’
Last year the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, made up of the world’s leading scientists in the field, warned that global carbon emissions have to be cut by at least forty-five percent by 2030 (just over a decade from now) if there’s any hope of keeping planetary warming at a dangerous but less than catastrophic level.
One response to this dire warning was the launching of the Green New Deal that calls for a rapid transition to non-carbon renewable energy with a strong focus on the links between the environment, economy, and equity. This was first proposed in the U.S. in the form of a congressional resolution by Senator Ed Markey (D MA) and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D NY) and has quickly brought the climate crisis front and center in the national debates leading up to the 2020 U.S. elections.
As each of us seeks to find our own way to act responsibly my organization Blue Frontier has teamed up with the Center for the Blue Economy at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies in Monterey California to launch an Ocean and Coastal Climate Action plan (AKA ‘Blue New Deal’).
Our report, published in the environmental science news journal Mongabay outlines eight priorities for making the coasts and ocean more resilient.
We call for a complete reformation of the National Flood Insurance Program, major coastal infrastructure investment with a focus on protection and restoration of natural barriers and coastal habitats, new guidelines and systems for expanding offshore renewable energy production, a network of marine protected areas in the sea, new forms of assistance to ports and fishing communities, increased aquaculture investment and research and a revised National Disaster Recovery plan, including creation of a new combatant command within the Department of Defense.
Let’s take just one of these ideas, a network of marine protected areas or what Sylvia Earle calls, “Hope Spots”
The United States has been a leader in the establishment of marine protected areas (MPAs) that act as nature reserves for the ocean, much like our national parks do on land. These areas provide essential habitat for ocean and coastal wildlife, areas for scientific study and education, tremendous opportunities for recreation and a recreation-based economy, as well as measurable resilience in the face of climate impacts such as ocean acidification. Among the largest in the world is Northwest Hawaii’s Papahanaumokuākea, established by President George W. Bush and expanded by President Barack Obama, which contains 70 percent of U.S. coral reefs along with rare and endangered species such as the Hawaiian monk seal. MPAs help to restore depleted populations of ecologically and economically valuable fish and habitat. Protected habitats also act to protect water quality and buffer coastal communities from storms, sea level rise, and coastal erosion.
An Ocean Climate Action Agenda could help to create a national framework in the design, regulation and management of new MPAs specifically created to mitigate and adapt to climate change and act as blue carbon depositories tracking the ways whales, fish and marine plants sequester excess carbon out of the atmosphere.
Strong U.S. leadership at home and abroad could also bolster global efforts to establish new MPAs in places such as Antarctica’s Ross Sea or the Arctic Ocean, where many nations’ jurisdictions overlap. U.S. leadership could also be valuable in the developing United Nations Treaty on the High Seas, which is in the process of considering the protection of two-thirds of the ocean beyond any nations’ jurisdiction.
But it will take all of us working together, the emerging youth activist movements around climate and plastic pollution, established environmental and ocean conservation groups, leaders in the maritime trades and industries, and millions of citizens who love the ocean and just want to give something back in order to turn the tide. It’s not too late to add our voices, to vote the coast and ocean and to make a difference in our daily lives and workplaces from mountain to coastal communities and from sea to shining sea.