More blue is needed in the Democrats' Green Plan

More blue is needed in the Democrats' Green Plan
© Greg Nash

The House Democrats’ report, “Solving the Climate Crisis,” is the most comprehensive response to the climate emergency in the history of Congress and no doubt was closely read by the Biden campaign before the release of their plan. The Democrats have taken up the mantle for what was once a bipartisan issue, reminiscent of the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Acts of the early 2000s. 

Unlike the original 2019 outline of the Green New Deal, this report takes coastal and ocean issues seriously. There are significant policy recommendations for electrifying U.S. ports, expanding offshore wind power and promoting living shorelines — like green infrastructure — in coastal areas, both to sequester carbon dioxide and promote climate resilience. 

This is a great start, given the pivotal role our public seas will play in addressing climate change and post-COVID-19 economic recovery (our current ocean economy is $373 billion). While the select committee was working on its report, our organizations were focused on bluing up the Green New Deal, working with maritime industries, ocean conservationists, communities-at-risk, youth activists and others to model the legislative and policy initiatives needed to restore the blue in our red, white and blue.

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We have just released our Ocean Climate Action Plan (OCAP), which examines in detail how ocean and coastal resources can both mitigate greenhouse gases and help coastal communities — where most people live and most economic activity takes place — to adapt. We see our work as complementary to the Democrats’ efforts.

However, in digging deeper into the challenges, we found that economic forces are often not the bottleneck preventing climate solutions. For example, while the plan, authored by the House Select Committee on Climate Crisis, wants to expand renewable energy tax credits to the offshore wind industry (a laudable cause), the economics of offshore wind are already quite favorable; it is the lowest cost source of power in many parts of the country (and the world). What is preventing its widespread adoption is not a lack of financial incentive, but the difficulty in getting permits and the regulatory uncertainty over which parts of our public seas will be allowed to have large offshore installations. Decreasing this bureaucratic uncertainty and streamlining the permitting process as the European Union has done, would do much more to scale offshore wind than extending tax credits.

Ocean climate action such as this is critically overdue. Even as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that climate change has intensified hurricane intensity 8 percent per decade for at least 40 years, our National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) continues to provide incentives to build and rebuild in harm’s way. This program is also financially unsustainable. The Democrats’ ideas for NFIP reform are solid, but fall short when it comes to “planned retreat” from the most dangerous flood zones and barrier islands. That’s why we call for dramatic increases of federal buyouts, such as New Jersey’s “Blue Acres” program, to remove the riskiest properties where there are willing sellers. All purchased land can be restored as living shorelines and parks that improve biodiversity and protect inland properties. The key is structuring the buyouts so that they help the most vulnerable communities and not turn into a windfall for wealthy landowners. 

The same applies to promoting living shorelines across the U.S. To the extent that economic analysis has been undertaken, natural barriers often provide coastal protection at lower cost than hardened “grey” infrastructure. The reason that this economic benefit has not led to large-scale adoption is because most developers, cities, counties and private landowners don’t have sufficient information and experience to trust that it will work. We recommend that the Army Corps of Engineers begin pilot projects throughout the country, create engineering standards for living shoreline systems and a national database where researchers and developers can compare and contrast different systems. We believe this approach will lead to a much more rapid expansion of living shoreline projects across the country. As people become more comfortable with nature-based systems, they will gravitate to them as they are often win-win-win: better for the environment, more aesthetically pleasing and more cost-effective. In addition, there is tremendous potential for many new jobs in the coastal restoration sector, so we urge federal funding through the U.S. Sea Grant and other public college programs to develop certificate and degree programs in this burgeoning field of ecosystem restoration.

Across the U.S., local fishing communities are under tremendous strain, both because of the collapse in the restaurant business due to COVID-19, as well as warmer ocean temperatures causing species to migrate towards the poles. In our Ocean Climate Action Plan, we suggest a suite of policies to help distressed parts of the fishing industry shift towards lower trophic level species, including shellfish and sea vegetables, which can be carbon negative and improve marine biodiversity. In addition, while the alternative meat industry is getting a lot of attention due to cell-based meat companies such as Memphis Meats, there is also tremendous potential to do more warehouse-based “fish in a box” aquaculture or even grow fish protein in brewery-like conditions. Not only would this take pressure off of wild fisheries, but it could also operate anywhere, providing good jobs where most needed, including the industrial heartland. This is why we call for increased federal research and development into new and alternative seafood. 

The Democrats’ new climate policy is a great splash forward that all Americans should support. With additional recommendations from the Ocean Climate Action Plan, we could both meet our climate targets and revitalize our economy from sea to shining sea.

David Helvarg is an author and executive director of Blue Frontier, an ocean conservation and policy group. Jason Scorse is director of the Center for the Blue Economy at Middlebury College.