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Two Steps Forward

How a Blue New Deal charts a course for a sustainable sea change

Happy fisherman

Shutterstock / GreenBiz photocollage

Last week, a group of activists, scientists, academics and others issued a report calling for policies and other initiatives to generate prosperity while addressing inequity and the climate crisis.

They called it the Blue New Deal. Its focus: an ocean-based blue economy.

The problem, these experts said, is that the much-ballyhooed Green New Deal doesn’t adequately address the many environmental and social challenges that lie along the world’s shorelines and into the deep blue: industrial overfishing; coastal flooding; declining biodiversity; plastic waste; irresponsible tourism; unsustainable aquaculture; oil and chemical pollution; invasive species; and a range of other issues, many affecting the lives and livelihoods of coastal communities.

Yes, provisions in the Green New Deal address fisheries and fishing communities, but that’s only a drop in the ocean, say blue-economy experts.

The Ocean Climate Action Plan (OCAP), produced by the Center for the Blue Economy at the Middlebury Institute and the nonprofit Blue Frontier, aims to fill the shortcomings of the Green New Deal, offering a four-part set of policy recommendations that, it says, "contains both conservative and liberal economic philosophies that are mutually reinforcing."

There's a pool of insights for companies, too.

"There's been a lot of stovepiping between the marine conservation community and the climate community," David Helvarg, executive director of Blue Frontier, explained to me last week. "There's kind of this feeling that the environment ends with the shoreline."

Suffice to say, it doesn’t. Indeed, says Helvarg, 14 of the 20 biggest U.S. cities are coastal, which he and others regard as those adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes. That’s also true for eight of the world’s 10 largest cities, according to the U.N. Atlas of the Oceans. These communities face a wide range of environmental, social and economic challenges that extend well beyond their terrestrial-based boundaries.

There's kind of this feeling like the environment ends with the shoreline.

The OCAP report is the result of "dozens of conversations" with leaders and experts, culminating in October in a meeting in Monterey, California, attended by 60 leading ocean and coastal experts across disciplines. It was followed by a virtual meet-up in April, attended by more than 750 people.

The group is quick to distinguish the "blue economy" from the "ocean economy." The latter includes all ocean-based economic activity, including fishing, shipping, mining, port operations, oil and gas exploration and energy generation.

"When we talk about the blue economy, we're talking about sectors that are sustainable and that maintain the health of the ocean that support our economies and communities, both human and wild," said Helvarg. "We're looking at how you build and expand economic activity in ways that benefit both the sustainable ecological systems and the health of the ocean that sustains us and that benefits ocean-dependent communities and businesses." That includes providing opportunities for marginalized and disadvantaged communities, including communities of color, that tend to be at greater risk of pollution and climate impacts.

According to the report:

One of OCAP’s core premises is that our ocean and coastal economies suffer from pervasive market failure; many externalities from industry are not properly priced in the market, many offshore industries are currently being stymied due to regulatory uncertainty over property rights, and large gaps in information lead to inefficient decisions about ocean and coastal resource use. Correcting these market failures in order to spur rapid innovation in the blue economy is one of OCAP’s top priorities. Ensuring that markets function efficiently is a deeply conservative objective.

The Blue New Deal laid out in the OCAP report is a policy framework that aims to achieve two key objectives:

  • use ocean and coastal resources to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and draw atmospheric greenhouse gases down to safer levels; and
  • enable coastal communities to more effectively and equitably adapt to climate impacts.

No wish list 

To accomplish these things, the report lays out four key issue areas along with policy recommendations for each:

  • Coastal adaptation and financing: helping vulnerable communities retreat from unstable shorelines; catalyzing a "large-scale dynamic living shorelines industry"; creating jobs that rehabilitate coastal ecosystems; reforming flood insurance; improving coastal wastewater management.
  • Clean ocean energy: catalyzing large-scale deployment of offshore wind power; ensuring the protection of critical offshore habitats; creating robust programs to assess additional renewable ocean energy systems such as wave, current, tidal and thermal.
  • Ports, shipping and the maritime sector: accelerating the decarbonization of ports and the shipping industry, including dramatically improving air and water quality in adjacent communities.
  • Aquaculture, sustainable fisheries and marine biodiversity conservation: helping U.S. fisheries adapt to climate impacts; catalyzing the growth of a "new sustainable seafood industry," including aquaculture, mariculture and plant- and cell-based seafood alternatives.

It’s not just a wish list. The report offers a gap analysis of how current U.S. congressional legislation aligns — and doesn’t — with Blue New Deal objectives. Example: I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the report’s recommendation to fund state governments to pilot living shoreline projects in at-risk coastal counties is addressed in seven congressional bills.

As with most other sustainability-related matters, there’s a takes-a-village aspect of all of this, along with a sense of urgency as climate impacts become increasingly evident, particularly along coasts.

"It's triage at this point," Helvarg explained. "I mean, we're fighting to preserve the last 10 percent of the world's tropical corals. We're fighting to minimize the impacts of sea-level rise and intensifying hurricanes, where NOAA just put out a report that hurricane intensity increased 8 percent a decade over the last 40 years. That means we're going to have a more-than-normal active hurricane season on top of the pandemic this year, and if a hurricane comes ashore this year it's going to be a third more intense than one that would have come ashore in 1980."

Given U.S. legislators’ decidedly somnolent approach to addressing the climate crisis, it likely will take a few more devastating hurricanes or other natural disasters before the Blue New Deal — and the Green New Deal, for that matter — garner a sense of urgency. It’s also possible that market signals could drive many of these notions forward without policy action.

"We think that the crisis is an opportunity for almost every maritime sector and industry to engage and work with other stakeholders in turning the tide on this," Helvarg said.

Our aim is to restore the blue in our red, white and blue.

Helvarg’s group works with a wide range of industries, but not with the oil and gas sector — "they're the problem, not the solution," he said — but there’s good news even there. "There's a lot of potential lateral movement for the roughnecks and roustabouts" — skilled and unskilled workers on oil rigs, respectively. "They have all the skill sets to immediately transition to be wind turbine technicians and linesmen and ocean engineers, which have the potential to be at least as significant in terms of U.S. domestic energy as offshore oil."

Can ocean and coastal health become part of a "new deal" — green, blue or any other hue? This is yet another arena where equity and environmental issues align, creating opportunities for leadership companies and communities to uplift the 40 percent of Americans living in coastal regions. And help thwart the worst impacts of what may well be a future national crisis.

As Helvarg quipped: "Our aim is to restore the blue in our red, white and blue."

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