The Big Blue Gap in the Green New Deal

By Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a marine biologist, founder and CEO of the consulting firm Ocean Collectiv, and founder of Urban Ocean Lab, a think tank for coastal cities, Dr. Chad Nelsen, CEO of Surfrider Foundation, the largest grassroots organization dedicated to coastal and ocean protection, and Bren Smith, founder of GreenWave and author of Eat Like a Fish: My Adventures as a Fisherman Turned Restorative Ocean Farmer (Knopf). Originally published at Grist

In February, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey introduced a resolution to Congress calling for an ambitious re-imagining of the U.S. economy — one that would tackle both climate change and inequality. Now with 94 co-sponsors in the House, 12 in the Senate, and broad support among Democratic presidential hopefuls, this vision is called the  Green New Deal.

The Green New Deal resolution spans energy, transportation, farming, health care, and employment. But there’s a key piece that’s been overlooked: the ocean. The ocean is one of our nation’s greatest resources — not just for recreation and seafood, but also for mitigating climate change.

A marine biologist, a conservation leader, and an ocean farmer, we all believe that the ocean can go from unsung solution to policy cornerstone. To make that happen, the United States will have to do four things: 1. restore and protect coastal ecosystems; 2. invest in renewable offshore energy; 3. bolster the “blue economy;” and 4. vastly expand regenerative ocean farming.

Let’s run through that list in more detail:

First, re-plant and re-green our coastlines. This should be core to the Green New Deal’s goals of lowering climate risks, reducing pollution, and removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Marshes, wetlands, seagrasses, and mangroves can absorb up to five times more carbon per acre than terrestrial forests. These ecosystems also provide better and less expensive flood and storm protection than seawalls — wetlands prevented $625 million in damages during Hurricane Sandy. Every dollar spent now to reduce risks from disasters will save around seven dollars in damages later. Plus, these investments help protect poor communities and communities of color that are often hardest hit by climate change-strengthened storms.

We could start by fully funding the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program, and creating a Climate Conservation Corps that includes an emphasis on coastal resiliency projects.

Second, invest in technology that generates electricity from offshore wind and waves. This will be key to achieving the goal of generating all of the country’s electricity with renewable, zero-emissions technology. Offshore wind projects can generate more energy than turbines on land — and more reliably — due to stronger and more consistent winds at sea. Wave and offshore solar energy can also help meet our energy needs. This makes good sense geographically, given a large portion of Americans live near the coasts. When sited carefully, this industry can also create job opportunities without conflicting with existing ocean uses.

Supporting regional ocean planning and funding technology research and development are key to advancing this green energy opportunity.

Third, bolster and modernize ocean industries from fishing, to shipping, to tourism. Reaching the Green New Deal goal of creating millions of good, high-wage jobs is only possible with a thriving blue economy. This sector is worth over $352 billion in the United States annually, and employs over 3.1 million people. Commercial fishing must be managed more dynamically as fish migrate toward the poles, away from warming waters. Shipping is in need of a major transformation – if it were a country, it would be the sixth largest greenhouse gas emitter globally. Coastal tourism and recreation — which requires a healthy ocean for surfing, swimming, and fishing — is responsible for 72 percent of blue economy employment and 31 percent of its GDP.

One important step here is to pass the Keeping America’s Working Waterfronts Act, to ensure local communities have the coastal access and infrastructure needed to fuel this economy.

Fourth, expand eco-friendly ocean farming. The Green New Deal aims to provide good jobs and to feed our growing population, while drawing down atmospheric carbon. So it’s great that the resolution mentions sustainable agriculture, but it should not overlook regenerative ocean farming. Growing seaweeds, oysters, clams, and mussels near the coast would absorb millions of tons of carbon and buffer the impact of storm surges on local communities. And what isn’t consumed by people can be turned into potent organic fertilizers and animal feeds. Researchers at the University of California at Davis found that adding dried seaweed to a cow’s diet can reduce their methane emissions by nearly 60 percent.

Regenerative ocean farming could create millions of jobs, and should be supported under the Green New Deal’s aims of transitioning to sustainable farming and ensuring all Americans have access to healthy food. Federal support should include creation of a blue carbon fund, administered by NOAA, that rewards ocean farmers for carbon and nitrogen sequestration, and inclusion of shellfish and seaweed in the Federal Crop Insurance Act.

Of course, there are other reasons that the ocean and coasts should be a priority as we tackle climate change. According to the National Climate Assessment, sea level rise could be around 6 feet in the next few decades, which would “reshape the U.S. population distribution, with 13.1 million people potentially at risk of needing to migrate… by the year 2100.” According to Surfrider Foundation’s State of the Beach Report, nearly 75% of coastal areas are not prepared for future sea level rise.

We can’t hold back the ocean; we must proactively plan for and adapt to sea level rise. Infrastructure investments must not be made in places that will be inundated, and we must overhaul flood insurance to stop funding reconstruction in high-risk areas, and instead help people move out of harm’s way. If we ignore this science, we risk wasting huge amounts of funding and further entrenching inequality, instead of ensuring resilience for future generations.

While rising seas represent material threats to coastal communities, the ocean can, and should, be a big part of the solution — it can catapult us toward the Green New Deal’s vision of simultaneously improving our environment and economy, while reducing inequality. With over 40% of the U.S. population (and rising) living in coastal counties, ensuring the ocean is included in Green New Deal policies is not about directing funds to protect “coastal elites,” but about protecting tens of millions of Americans of all classes and races where they live. Our food security, jobs, economy, and safety, not to mention cultures, depend on the ocean.

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  1. Steve H.

    We know the Green New Deal has taken hold as an idea when the discussion has reached the point of dumping the flyover states.

    That comment is a strawman. Straw is a major product of the Central time zone.

    It’s like with Bernie saying No to private plans. If someone wants to waste money on something unnecessary, let’em. The fact that the conversation is happening within the boundaries of the policy outline is what Others it from the status quo.

  2. Rod

    If we ignore this science, we risk wasting huge amounts of funding and further entrenching inequality, instead of ensuring resilience for future generations.

    Having been groomed to accept waste, as part of modern life, without direct consequence, how to develope the
    ‘Immediacy’ necessary to engage now?

    1. Amfortas the hippie

      i figure it’s at least in part a question of habit.
      my wife and boys all report consistently that they feel weird when they’re someplace else and there’s no “chicken bucket”(which is really a compost bucket), and when the toilets contain clean water, instead of leaves.
      similarly with meat scraps and bones….here, we toss them out the front door to give the coons, etc something to do(which lessens the chance that they’ll search out the odd duck or guinnea who has refused to go into the house for the night); at my brother’s house in Kingwood, this is…frowned upon.
      Too, about 15 years ago, our one town county went all in on recycling…built a whole sorting facility, diverted yard waste into giant compost piles at the landfill, etc(and turned a blind eye to my experiments with graywater when we lived in town.)
      Took education, and a sort of engineered taboo on tossing recyclables, but these small c conservative people embraced the whole shebang…enough so that now that the US/China trade war has upset the recyclable applecart, they are upset about it.
      If habits can be changed out here to mainstream Hippie Ecomorality, I reckon they could be changed elsewhere.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        What if part of what deters mainstream people from making that change is the horror and ridicule and aghastitude of the neighbors?

        What if the wannabe lifestyle-change-engineers were able to make some changes in semi-secret, without alarming the neighbors too soon?

        What if 50 million suburban households were to install 50 million waterless composting toilets for themselves somewhere semi-well hidden toward the back of the house . . . while maintaining the standard bathrooms with standard toilets for any guests and relatives to see and use and naturally assume are the only toilets and bathrooms in the house?

        A lot of pee and poo would be handled without wasting water while not scaring society into suburbia-wide bans on waterless pee poo processing.

        1. Amfortas the hippie

          we worried about what our kids friends would think…especially the girls…but have been surprised that all of them think it’s cool(once it’s explained), and see the need for it. the water angle seems to sell itself with them, and since the entire system, graywater and all, is included in my now standard introductory/instructional speech,that’s not surprising. we sometimes give today’s youth far less credit than they deserve. I have the boys follow up later, and the universal is “that’s so cool!”.
          my brother and mom and dad are another story,lol.
          dad especially is apparently telling himself that its all due to poverty, even though i keep insisting that that’s only a part of it($8k for a regular septic, due to narrowness of our part of the place).
          one day, this sort of thing will be the norm, because the current norm is counterproductive and silly.
          at least dad gets graywater.

  3. Susan the other`

    We know a lot. The Ocean has lots of advocates. Everyone, in fact. But it isn’t getting the attention it needs. These guys (Johnson, Nelsen, and Smith) have given us a good outline for priorities. Regenerative ocean farming and restoration of coastlines and estuaries (we have the know how); proper use of funding for clean energy; stop wasting money on ocean-front developments that will inevitably get swamped – it’s a waste of resources; and a Climate Conservation Corp. I hope AOC is reading this. The Green New Deal can’t ignore the oceans.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      As long as enough ocean front is devoted to eco-recovery and ocean-front based carbon re-capture and bio-sequestration to make a serious difference, I see nothing wrong with letting private fools invest their private money in seaside developments which deserve to get swamped.

      1. ambrit

        The remediation required to remove or ‘neutralize’ those later seaside developments is the “socialized losses” category that waits to bite us all in the backbay. The list of extant toxic sites that will soon have to be cleaned up before being innundated is immense. Heavy lift shipping has traditionally been by water. Thus, many of our industrial sites are by waterways, usually the shoreline.
        I fear that this is a subject where the worst case scenarios must be adopted as baseline starting places. No one can accurately predict the short or medium term sea level rise with any certainty. In such a case, shoreline biocarbon sequestration will have to be a continuous and steady process. As the sea level rises, the projects will have to keep just ahead, a tricky task in the best of times. Our near term future will not be “the best of times.”

  4. mauisurfer

    You say:
    “Researchers at the University of California at Davis found that adding dried seaweed to a cow’s diet can reduce their methane emissions by nearly 60 percent.”
    The seaweed is in that study is not just any seaweed, it is Asparagopsis taxiformis, it is called “limu kohu” in Hawaii.
    It is very expensive, and seldom found in the market. In fact it sells for more than steak or milk. Some people have attempted to grow it commercially, but none have succeeded as far as I know.
    It seems to need the action of waves to grow on rocks in shallow water.
    I have a secret spot where I pick it, and I only take the top couple inches, I never uproot it.
    Unfortunately there are some among us who would take it all if they knew where to find it, and sell it or use it all at one baby luau.
    So I never pick it if anyone is watching.
    Good luck raising it commercially.
    And if you think someone is going to feed it to cows, then your good intentions have overcome your rational mind.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Perhaps these feed-cows-seaweed experiments could be run with various cheap utility mass-producible seaweeds, to see if one of them would work also.

        1. mauisurfer

          this is a common assertion among “city folk”
          and if your knowledge of cows is feedlots, easy to agree
          but if you come to comprehend complete small farming, it is a very different story
          farm animals are an important part of the plan
          my farm would be a failure if I tried to grow commercial vegetables
          my land is OK for some fruit trees
          my sheep and geese eat the grass in the orchard, so I no longer mow with a tractor
          their manure provides most of the fertilizer that my fruit trees and bananas need
          there is no lake of manure as in factory farms
          there is no expenditure for chemical fertilizers
          there is very little usage of diesel fuel or gasoline
          it is shortsighted to blame cows and other farm animals for the conditions in which they are held by corporate agribusiness

        2. drumlin woodchuckles

          The “eliminate the intermediary (the cow)” concept comes from a fake understanding based upon carefully cherry-picked science massaged and selected to sell that fake understanding.

          People who think the cow is a needless “middleman” animal between themselves and the grass in the field should go ahead and try eating the grass in the field themselves. Let them eat grass for a month or a year and then report back to us.

          People who want to ban meat because “methane” should also support banning rice because “methane”.

          Cow-belch methane is a misdirected concern. Methane is only a stronger “warmer-gas” than CO2 for a few years. After that it has oxidized all the way down to CO2 and H2O its own self. It is the CO2 which then becomes a persistent problem, lasting in the air until it is forcibly wrenched back down out of the air by solar powered green plants.

          Here is an article explaining some of that from, the blogsite-arm of the Post Carbon Institute. The article is titled: Unravelling The Science Of Agricultural Emissions.
          Here is the link.

    2. Anon

      Seaweed is a unique form of algae. It doesn’t gain growth nutrients from its “root”, actually a fasthold. Nutrients are absorbed through its floating elements and growth occurs through photosynthesis.

  5. Tyronius

    I couldn’t agree more with this thesis. My concern is for exploitation and degradation but that’s both a solvable problem and one that’s happening already even without a large scale program.

    Moving forward, the ocean has all of the resources humans could need, in abundance; food, space, raw materials. It’s already attractive for all these reasons. With or without a plan, it will continue to figure large in our future. That’s the best reason to implement one I can think of.

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