Protecting and revitalizing dense and diverse ocean ecosystems can help reduce the impacts of climate change and secure a more sustainable future for New England and beyond, said Andrew Sharpless, CEO of Oceana, the world’s largest climate advocacy group focused on the seas.
Speaking at a pre-recorded panel during this year’s Globe Summit, Sharpless said increased focus on ocean agriculture could be one path to “feeding people in a way that’s climate safe and in reducing the pressure in biodiversity loss on the land.”
Kicking off the second day of virtual events Wednesday as part of the second annual, three-day Globe conference, Sharpless was joined by actor and Oceana board chair Sam Waterston, for an interview by the Globe’s climate reporter and producer, Dharna Noor.
Waterston, a New England native born in Cambridge, said when he grew up along the coasts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, “it was still respectable science to talk about the inexhaustible sea.”
After decades of plentiful fishing following World War II, Waterston said, he found himself on a beach in Rhode Island reading about the collapse of cod fishery, once a staple of the Atlantic coast.
He and Sharpless called for an end to offshore drilling, which Waterston called “dirty and dangerous” and prone to accidents that wound workers and surrounding ecosystems.
“Well, you can’t even really call them accidents,” he said. “They are to be expected. If you drill into oceans, they will happen.”
Sharpless said the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill — in which 210 million gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico — was “the worst environmental catastrophe in American history,” and efforts to curb global reliance on fossil fuels need to start by eliminating ocean oil and gas production.
Looking toward the future, Sharpless said he hopes to see a complete halt in new offshore drilling permits within the next ten years. The federal government offers drilling leases about every five years.
Biden’s $700 billion Inflation Reduction Program includes $369 billion for green energy and climate projects, but environmentalists have criticized it for mandating continued fossil fuel lease sales. Sharpless said Oceana was “happy overall” with the law, but disappointed by the commitment to new leases.
Sharpless said the Biden administration has given “very strong reassurances” that there would be no new offshore leases offered on the East and West Coasts or in the Arctic, although some were likely in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska.
At the least, Waterston said, the act sends a global message that the United States is committed to addressing climate change in a tangible way.
As for offshore wind farms, which still pose some risk to underwater habitats, Sharpless said the state of climate change is “catastrophic enough that the oceans are going to have to contribute some wind power.”
He said Oceana supports responsible development of offshore wind, which aims to minimize the potential impact on local fisheries and habitats.
“The short answer is everything depends on how it’s done,” Waterston said.
The conversation also touched on the threat of plastic pollution to the world’s oceans. Sharpless noted the exponential growth of plastic production and use since the 1980s.
“If you don’t like the plastic pollution that you see on the beach or in the water, get ready,” he said.
Less than 10 percent of plastic waste ends up being recycled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Sharpless said the solution includes returning to traditional materials: glass bottles, cloth bags, paper packaging.
The panel ended on a note of shared optimism by Sharpless and Waterston, who emphasized that ocean conservation is more than a hollow hope.
Sharpless said, rather than with an abstract appeal to the global good, coastal countries can be swayed to conserve their oceans by highlighting their own self-interests: higher productivity, more food to eat and export, more jobs for fishermen.
“You were asking before how I got involved in the ocean, but this is why I stayed,” Waterston told Noor. “Things can really be changed by sensible action.”