The future of the ocean hangs in balance. We came up with 11 actions that the current administration must take while there’s still time.
On January 20th Joseph R. Biden was sworn in as the 46th President and many of us breathed a sigh of relief, as if watching Donald Trump fly away wasn’t enough to make us feel the weight lifted that day. Biden’s team faces a world of problems that would challenge the most energetic administration and a bipartisan leaning Congress. But we do not choose the times; they choose us, and the health of our ocean and marine life depend on the new administration making good leadership choices and focusing on the key issues.
Why is what the US does for its ocean so important for the health of the world’s ocean? For one, the US is almost tied with France in having the world’s largest ocean area under its control (Exclusive Economic Zone) with 4.4 million square miles. That’s more than the entire land mass of the US! So what we do in ‘our’ ocean is a big deal compared to what other countries can do. [i]
The new administration has already announced a number of great appointees at the Department of Interior who will make key decisions about offshore drilling, the marine monuments, national wildlife refuges and endangered marine species. Same for a more limited set of appointees to NOAA, the Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who will have critical impact on healthy oceans through fisheries management, marine sanctuaries, and ocean habitat for endangered animals. The choice of key policy makers is looking good. So, what policies should they pursue to make the ocean healthier here and around the world?
Here’s our list of things the Biden-Harris administration should do, divided into three big “buckets.” The first bucket is in the category of “stop doing harmful things to the ocean.” Just like a doctor healing a patient, the first thing is “to do no harm.” The second bucket contains all the clean energy and ocean climate action needed to stop and reverse ocean warming and acidification. The third bucket contains all the actions needed to protect and restore habitats and marine life biodiversity in the ocean.
- Stop Doing Bad Things – First, Do No Harm
- DONE in first Executive Order on climate change, President Biden paused leasing and new offshore drilling for oil and gas.
- Permanently ban more ocean leasing; no more permits for new wells; better enforcement of safety and environmental regulations.
- Buy back leases sold in the US Arctic where drilling is the most dangerous and spills are the hardest to clean up.
2. Attack Climate Change and Promote Clean Ocean Energy
- DONE in first Executive Order on climate change, President Biden rejoined the Paris Climate Accords.
- More importantly, we need to not only stick with our current commitments to reduce greenhouse gases, but we need to stretch for even more ambitious commitments and timeframes in the next global climate meeting in the fall of 2021. The world is watching what we do and how much we accomplish. The US is the world’s second largest emitter, with 15% of global emissions to China’s 28%. And we emit twice as much as the next country on the list– India. What we do has a very large impact on global emissions. If we don’t do our share, what will persuade China or India or Russia to limit their emissions?
- Use the oceans to produce clean energy through offshore wind. The US has a huge capacity for wind energy on its east and west coasts which we’ve known about for years. While the US has barely begun to tap offshore wind energy, Europe has gigawatts in the water and more on the way. We have no good excuse for dawdling on this. The US government should offer to buy offshore wind electricity for its coastal facilities like naval bases to guarantee a market for this new energy.
- Use ocean-based climate solutions to attack climate change. We need to treat the ocean as part of the solution to climate change not just a victim of ocean warming, acidification and sea level rise. One important study shows that through a variety of means, the ocean could provide 20% of the emission reductions we need to slow and stabilize the climate crisis. Support passage of the Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act introduced in the last Congress that does some of these things.
3. Restore and Protect Ocean Habitats and Biodiversity
- DONE in first Executive Order on climate change, President Biden supported the goal of protecting at least 30% of the ocean by 2030 in the US and overseas. This issue will come up in the next Conference on Biological Diversity in 2021, and the US has the opportunity to lead the world in working to make this a critical global objective.
- The world’s nations have spent years trying to update the Law of the Sea treaty at the UN to protect biodiversity and habitats in the ocean areas beyond any one nation’s control, sometimes called the “high seas.” It’s important because the high seas cover almost 50% of our Planet. Without a new mechanism to protect marine life in the high seas, and with no ‘cop’ to watch for illegal activity, the free-for-all for fishing and extraction will continue across vast areas of the ocean. The US needs to exert real leadership on this issue in international negotiations; until now it has not.
- For any state that is interested, the administration should encourage and finance a process akin to the Marine Life Protection Act that resulted in about 10% of California’s state waters being designated for different levels of protection.
- Expand the existing network of US marine monuments created by Presidents Bush and Obama to representative areas around the US to protect at least 30% of US ocean.
- The administration should protect coastal marine habitats which can store carbon, in many cases faster than forests, reducing global warming emissions and making coasts more resilient to climate change and sea level rise. Preventing the loss of coastal marshes, seagrass beds, and mangroves will require an emphasis on preserving or restoring “Living Shorelines” through programs at NOAA, the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal Flood Insurance Program, HUD and other agencies. .
- Work with allies to create 3 critical marine protected areas around Antarctica as a way of preserving unique marine life in the face of rapidly accelerating ocean warming.
- Reduce use of plastics in all federal agencies, especially the Department of Defense, by creating a plastic budget. To go beyond federal procurement, support the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act when introduced again in the 1117th Congress.
Granted, this is a lengthy to-do list of federal action and international efforts. But the ocean is a huge swath of US territory and covers 70% of the Planet. It produces one half of the oxygen we breathe, soaks up our extra heat and carbon dioxide, and feeds billions. An area this crucial—and afflicted with threats from all directions—calls for a comprehensive agenda as we look ahead to protecting ocean places and harnessing their ability to help us combat climate disruption.
We have hope that much of this agenda can be accomplished by the new administration. Will it will be enough? We believe in the ocean’s ability to heal itself. If we devote these critical coming months and years to protecting it more fully, the ocean can and will repair itself as it has for millennia.
[i] The whole ocean is about 140 million sq miles and all EEZs combined total about 53 million sq miles or about one third of the total. The rest is called high seas which are areas beyond any single nation’s jurisdiction.