Leading up to last week's World Water Day, there was a sea of water-related news floating around.
From, good news like billions of U.S. dollars invested in global water security and millions put into hydropower modernization to not-so-good news, like the United Nation’s conclusion that our global water crisis could ‘spiral out of control,’ there was a lot to keep up with.
But amidst the waves of news, the Biden Administration released the United States’ first-ever Ocean Climate Action Plan (OCAP), which the President said will “harness the tremendous power of the ocean to help in our fight against the climate crisis.”
“We know and you all know we can reduce emissions by building offshore wind farms, and better protect our coastal and fishing communities from worsening storms, changing fisheries, and other impacts on climate change,” Biden said at the White House Conservation in Action Summit,
The new plan takes a robust look at ocean conversation, technological and economic opportunities for climate adaptation and mitigation, and environmental justice particularly for coastal and Indigenous communities.
As many of the oceans’ problems, from marine heatwaves, pollution, and overfishing to coral bleaching, marine-life extinction, and oxygen-depleted “dead zones” have direct links to the climate crisis, the plan recognizes that America’s ambitions of carbon neutrality are not possible without healthy oceans. Like many marine relationships underwater, it's symbiosis because now, ocean health also depends on our climate action.
“The ocean area of the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone is one and a half times the area of the continental U.S., and our waters are not immune to the impacts of climate change,” Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory and White House Office of Science and Technology Policy director Arati Prabhakar wrote in the introductory letter announcing the plan.
“From the Arctic to the Mariana Islands, and the Great Lakes to Puerto Rico, our ecosystems, coastal communities, and the ocean economy are already experiencing tremendous change.”
Despite threats to the oceans, the plan highlights how ocean-based renewables, seabed carbon sequestration, zero-carbon maritime shipping, and marine ecosystem preservation can “keep climate change below catastrophic levels and make the Nation more prepared for the challenges that we already face.”
The ocean covers 70% of the Earth’s surface, generates 50% of our oxygen, sequesters about a third of human emissions, and absorbs more than 90% of excess heat which keeps greenhouse gas emissions and global warming at bay.
Based on the annual Global Climate Report produced by the National Centers for Environmental Information, the globe’s five warmest years have occurred since 2015 and nine of the 10 warmest years have occurred since 2005. Without ocean protection, warming will continue despite efforts on land.
As a whole, the OCAP is a huge effort to make progress on Biden’s 30 by 30 initiative, which like the United Nation’s vision for the entire globe, aims to protect 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.
As a part of this initiative, Biden announced at the press conference that among the handful of new terrestrial protections, he is directing the Secretary of Congress to “immediately consider designating 777,000 square miles of the Pacific Ocean southwest of Hawai'i a new national marine sanctuary.”
“That’s an area larger than Alaska and Colorado put together and three times the size of Texas,” he said, throwing his arms up with a smile. “That’s no small amount of land. Look around! It would make it the largest ocean area on the planet with the highest level of protection and it will help us meet our goal of conserving — the goal I set when I got elected — of protecting and conserving 30% of our oceans.”
“It’s a network of islands and reefs where waters are filled with the most diverse marine life on the planet: sharks, rays, marlins, tunas, turtles, whales, ancient coral forests, many that are threatened and endangered right now. They won’t be,” he added, thanking the representatives who helped get this issue to the forefront, and native Hawaiian leaders “who have worked tirelessly to protect our oceans.”
This area will not be the only new protection, as the plan calls for more strictly protected marine sanctuaries, as well as connecting them all through a network to improve resilience.
In addition to increased ocean protection, key highlights of the plan include the Justice40-era promise of designating 40% of its Federal investment to disadvantaged communities that have been historically marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution; offshore and floating wind efforts; opportunities for nature-based solutions to climate change; and working with the International Maritime Organization to reach net-zero international shipping no later than 2050.
Within its environmental justice action items, it focuses on ocean health and stewardship in all Federal ocean activities, which it acknowledges is dependent on engaging with Tribal Nations and Indigenous communities, stating that it will have formal consultations with these communities, consider Indigenous knowledge to advance the OCAP’s actions, and explore, what it calls “innovative funding mechanisms” to improve access to Federal funds for Tribal Nations and Indigenous Peoples.
Moreover, the plan includes actions of Federal scientific research throughout the oceans with a clause to consider and apply Indigenous knowledge.
The plan also reiterates the ambition to deploy 30 gigawatts (GW) of energy from offshore wind by 2030 and 15 GW of energy from floating offshore wind platforms by 2035.
Together, that’s enough to power 15 million homes, and while both of these goals were announced in 2021 and 2022 respectively, the actions in the OCAP expand efforts to consider all users of the land, coasts, and waters, publish periodic evaluations, and looks at offshore wind and floating power applications in and beyond the sustainable economy.
While renewables expansion is required to fully transition away from fossil fuels, it’s important to note that it will need to be what Inside Climate News columnist, Bob Berwyn, calls a “delicate balancing act,” because it “puts pressure on some of the very marine resources that the administration wants to protect.”
On its surface, the plan seems to strike that balance with its promise of periodic environmental responsibility reports, as well as the plethora of conversation and stewarding action items.
This plan is the “first comprehensive approach that the U.S. has taken to leveraging the power of the ocean in the fight against climate change,” Jean Flemma, director of Ocean Defense Initiative said via ICN, “Still, a plan is only as strong as its implementation. We look forward to working with the Biden Administration to ensure strong ocean climate action policies are adopted across federal agencies and help the communities that need it most.”
On top of ocean protection, OCAP includes strong initiatives for developing a new marine geologic sequestration program for the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf, which would advance research, monitoring, and management of ocean carbon capture, enhancing the ocean's ability to store carbon forever in its seabed.
Additionally, the OCAP directs action for marine carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and aims to, by 2030, procure sufficient knowledge to guide deployment decisions and create a “robust regulatory framework” around it, which currently, the U.S. has no domestic regulations for.
As scientists in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science said in an article published last year, marine CDR research “presents the risk of uncertain impacts to human and environmental welfare,” thus laws are needed to ensure its safety and efficacy.
Another highlight of the report is its ambition to accelerate nature-based solutions or solutions to climate change that enhance the abilities of nature.
One opportunity it looks at is blue carbon, which is a term for carbon captured by the world’s ocean and coastal ecosystems. It leverages blue carbon and the benefits it has for biodiversity as a reason for funding, and habitat protection, as well as research, exploration, and mapping of blue carbon potential throughout the ocean and along the nation’s coasts. Like CDR, the OCAP also aims to develop standards, adding to existing efforts for formal regulation.
CDR, wind turbines, and blue carbon aren’t the only new-age innovations in the plan. It also includes actions for the development and adoption of low-emission and green technologies for ocean observations, as well as the commitment to create a U.S. Ocean Acidification Action Plan for nature-based solutions to combat the reduction in the ocean’s pH, which not only hinders its ability to capture carbon but has extreme effects of the marine life that call it home.
Finally, the OCAP includes measures that implement climate-informed management of fisheries and aquaculture which is necessary for the endangered species near the country’s fisheries, the increased threats coral reefs face, aquaculture decarbonization, and the resiliency of the U.S. seafood industry in the face of climate change.
On top of all of these actions, it plans to prepare coastal communities for resilience efforts through the National Coastal Resilience Fund.
All of that sounds like a lot. And it is, but as, Mallory and Prabhakar wrote in the letter, “This plan should not be viewed as an exhaustive list of ocean activities, but rather a plan focused specifically on ocean climate action.”
“We have a narrow moment to pursue action in order to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of the climate crisis and to seize the opportunities that tackling climate change presents.”
Many of the actions throughout the plan may be enacted through executive order, though most will likely be delegated to federal agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Department of Energy (DOE) to oversee and distribute funding.
At the end of his speech announcing the OCAP, Biden quotes pioneering conservationist, marine biologist, and author Rachel Carson, who wrote: “Those who contemplate the beauty of the Earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”
“I’ll share with all of you here today,” he said “the enduring reverence of that power and the promise of the country’s extraordinary natural wonders.”
“Our country’s natural treasures define our identity as a nation. They’re a birthright we have to pass down to generation after generation. They unite us. That’s why our conservation work is so important. It provides a bridge to our past and to our future, not just for today, but for all ages.”