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The ocean’s heroic potential could be realized under Biden

Together, Congress and the new administration can simultaneously jump-start ocean protection and economic recovery.

A road-closed sign tells motorists not to pass through the floodwaters at an intersection as a king tide rolls into Charleston, S.C., in November.Mic Smith/Associated Press

Days after Joe Biden became president-elect, Subtropical Storm Theta became the 29th named storm of 2020, breaking the record set in 2005. As the warming ocean continues to fuel extreme weather, Americans have elected a man who ran on the most ambitious climate plan of any presidential candidate to date, and reelected 92 of the 93 representatives who cosponsored the Green New Deal Resolution. Meanwhile, Biden has appointed former secretary of state John Kerry, a champion for the ocean throughout his career, as his special presidential envoy for climate. And the international Ocean Panel, representing 14 world leaders, recently announced a new ocean action agenda.

As these political and oceanic events collide, now what? As the Biden transition team nominates political appointees and lays out their plan of action, where does opportunity lie? One answer is found in the fundamental role the ocean plays in the planet’s climate system. The ocean’s heroic potential is being embraced by the newly introduced Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act of 2020. Sponsored by Representatives Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, Kathy Castor of Florida, and 37 of their colleagues, the bill provides a road map to harness the power of the ocean to reduce carbon emissions, protect front-line communities, restore coastal and ocean ecosystems, and create new jobs in the “blue economy.” Congress should pass this bill, and the Biden administration should take inspiration from it to immediately use executive authorities to advance ocean climate solutions.

For example, instead of the vast expansion of offshore drilling pushed by Trump, Biden has committed to block new oil and gas permitting off our coasts — something he can do quickly. Additionally, Biden has established a goal for doubling offshore wind energy production by 2030, which could create tens of thousands of blue jobs. That will necessitate a suite of actions from federal agencies and Congress — from added capacity for permitting and research, to a comprehensive grid integration and transmission strategy, to funding for R&D and job training. With 40 percent of Americans living in coastal counties, this is an opportunity to provide clean energy right near areas of high demand.


Instead of refusing to participate in international dialogues, the Biden administration has committed to rejoining the United Nations’ Paris Agreement and working with the international community. As pertains to the ocean, this is an opportunity to address the urgent need to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that come from shipping, which, left unchecked, could total 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. It is also a chance to lead the charge to create protected areas on the high seas, giving ocean ecosystems a chance to adapt to the impacts of climate change.


To limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius, the administration should also look to protect and restore “blue carbon” ecosystems — salt marshes, seagrasses, and mangroves — that can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sequester it in soils at a rate of up to four times that of forests on land, buffer coastal communities against flooding and storms, and provide critical habitat for fish and other ocean life. The administration can facilitate this restoration and protection by directing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to identify all potential blue carbon habitats in the United States, supporting increased funding for programs that restore degraded habitats, and establishing policies to ensure federal agencies do not undermine protection and restoration efforts.


Even if we reduce emissions, draw down atmospheric carbon, and institute habitat conservation measures, the ocean and coasts are facing unprecedented stress from a changing climate. Biden has committed to protecting at least 30 percent of our land and waters by 2030 to protect wildlife habitats and biodiversity, slow extinction rates, and grow America’s natural carbon sinks. This ambitious goal will require a reliance on the best available science and a process that includes meaningful input from states, local communities, stakeholders, and tribes.

Together, Congress and the Biden administration can simultaneously jump-start ocean protection and economic recovery by directing billions of dollars of government investment to shovel-ready coastal restoration projects to provide jobs for communities of color, as well as low-income, tribal, and fishing communities, and enhance our natural buffers against storms and rising seas. Coastal restoration projects funded during the last recession were an important aspect of our larger economic recovery, so it makes sense that Biden identified them as a priority in his plan for a new “resilient infrastructure economy,” given the multitude of co-benefits they provide.

These ocean-climate policy proposals are a logical extension and urgently needed acceleration of major initiatives of the last few years, such as the ocean-focused UN Sustainable Development Goal, Senator Elizabeth Warren’s Blue New Deal, the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis’ groundbreaking report, as well as the new Ocean-Based Climate Solutions bill. Meanwhile, there is strong support for climate action, including from conservatives — a Fox News poll found that 70 percent of their viewers are concerned “about the effects of climate change” and 68 percent favor “increasing government spending on green and renewable energy.” Nationwide, climate denial is now at 7 percent, an all-time low.


As the new administration and Congress prepare to pursue an ambitious agenda to tackle the climate crisis, they should look to the ocean for solutions. The ocean is not just a victim of climate change, it is also a hero.

Jean Flemma is an independent consultant for nonprofits and foundations, the director of the Ocean Defense Initiative, and a cofounder of Urban Ocean Lab. Miriam Goldstein is managing director for Energy and Environment and the director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist, cofounder of the nonprofit think tank Urban Ocean Lab, cofounder of the climate initiative the All We Can Save Project, and cohost of the podcast “How To Save a Planet.”