The ocean was the hottest ever recorded last year according to a report from a team of international scientists. Half the world’s oceans may experience marine heat waves by September according to NOAA. July 4 was the hottest day in our blue planet’s recorded history.
Those findings are alarming but not surprising given that the ocean absorbs over 90% of the heat and a third of the carbon dioxide generated by fossil fuel fired greenhouse gas emissions. However, rather than despair over these and other climate impacts ravaging our planet, some of us decided to launch a solution-oriented Ocean Climate Action Plan that within a few years helped shape the Biden Administration’s approach to climate.
It’s not an easy process to go from a grassroots initiative to government law and policy, but how it got done could be instructive to others involved in social movements seeking to change our political economy despite the undemocratic influence of paid corporate lobbyists and campaign contributors.
The Blue Economy
While vulnerable coastal counties comprise less than 10% of the U.S. landmass, they generate 46% of gross domestic product (GDP). In California, the world’s fourth largest economy, 19 coastal counties generate 85% of that state’s $3.3 Trillion GDP. A significant part of this activity is driven by the “blue economy.”
This sector, defined by the World Bank as “sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs, and ocean ecosystem health,” includes ocean-dependent recreation and tourism; transportation (shipping and ports); coastal real estate and infrastructure; clean energy (offshore wind, tides, and waves); sustainable fisheries, such as wild Alaskan salmon; and the farming of shellfish and seaweed.
Joe Biden is the first U.S. President to fully recognize the value of the blue economy and promote its equitable and just growth through two major legislative achievements, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). These laws are the nation’s first major commitments to climate action and include billions of dollars for expanding and promoting new technology. The IRA is super-charging manufacturing, with $150 billion in new clean energy investments already announced, as well as helping communities adapt to the climate crisis with over $10 billion in coastal resilience funding.
In addition, the Biden administration has been a strong advocate for the transition from offshore oil and gas to offshore wind energy, although IRA drilling provisions introduced by Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) complicates the process. This spring the White House also announced an Ocean Climate Action Plan to coordinate all its federal efforts.
While only a first step, these actions have been deeply satisfying to those of us who helped launch the citizen-based Ocean Climate Action Plan (OCAP) in 2020. Our plan had two goals: to use ocean and coastal resources to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to enable coastal communities and industries to adapt to climate impacts more effectively and equitably, aims now mirrored closely in the White House’s OCAP.
Beginning of Our Ocean Climate Work
The ocean climate work began in response to another grassroots movement, when in the fall of 2018 the Sunrise youth movement occupied Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) office demanding climate action and were joined by then Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio- Cortez (AOC). Not long after, in 2019 AOC (D-N.Y.) and Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) introduced a Green New Deal resolution in Congress to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and build climate resilience.
Upon reviewing the Green New Deal framework, Blue Frontier, a Richmond, California, based nonprofit advocacy group for “seaweed” (marine grassroots) organizations, and the Center for the Blue Economy, an economics and policy research center based at the Middlebury Institute, realized that while the science is clear that there can be no climate solutions without addressing the role of the ocean, ocean-based solutions were largely absent from the deal.
In March 2019 the two organizaitons’ directors (and the authors of this article) wrote a joint commentary for Mongabay, a global environmental news site titled, “Putting the Blue in the Green New Deal,” addressing eight ocean issues that should be included in any climate legislation, including federal flood insurance, ports and shipping, offshore clean energy, and sustainable fisheries and aquaculture.
Combining the center’s research and academic resources with the media and grassroots strength of Blue Frontier, we launched an Ocean Climate Action Plan campaign starting in California, where both groups are based, and where there is a long history of strong ocean leadership.
In October 2019 we organized a California Summit in Monterey with 60 participants including the state controller and representatives from labor, fishing, conservation, academia, youth, and coastal communities. Out of this initial meeting a consensus was built around four action areas for the Ocean Climate Action Plan:
- Coastal Adaptation and Financing
- Clean Ocean Energy
- Ports and the Maritime Sector
- Sustainable Fisheries, Aquaculture, and Marine Biodiversity Conservation
Plans were then made to hold a larger follow-up meeting of several hundred people in Washington D.C. in 2020 to finalize a consensus draft. This live event was derailed by the global Covid-19 pandemic; moving online, however, allowed for consultations with an even greater number of individuals and organizations. The Ocean Action Climate Plan (OCAP) was eventually supported by over 200 bottom-up (and a few top-down) leaders and organizations, including former Secretary of State (and future Biden Climate Envoy) John Kerry, who became a signatory largely based on OCAP’s inclusion of Marine Protected Areas and his longtime aim of protecting 30% of the land and ocean by 2030 (known as 30 by 30).
Other signatories ranged from former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to longtime antiwar activist and actor Jane Fonda to “the father of Environmental Justice,” Dr. Robert Bullard, along with Indigenous coastal leaders, leaders in clean tech and the fishing industry, and marine scientists such as Dr. Sylvia Earle and future NOAA administrator Rick Spinrad; plus, a member of congress, Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) who would go on to chair the Water, Oceans, and Wildlife Subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee.
Growing Support Around Ocean Climate Action
Yet no single coalition can move policy by itself, especially during a presidential election year when Democrats were busy choosing the candidate with the best chance to defeat President Donald Trump, a climate denier who had taken steps to remove the U.S. from the Paris agreement.
In December 2019 Presidential Candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) announced her own “Blue New Deal” plan as part of her campaign, and her advisor, marine biologist Elizabeth Ayana Johnson, penned a supportive editorial for The Washington Post. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) also pushed hard for a broad range of climate actions with the support of the Sunrise movement and others.
In January 2020 a first consensus draft of OCAP was completed, and in April 2020 over 800 people participated in a five-hour Zoom webinar to vet the ideas in the plan, which was increasingly viewed as a template for future legislation and policy.
Among those participating were insurance, wind, shipping, and shellfish industry representatives, and officials from cities, including Miami Beach, working on the frontline of sea level rise. Participants also reflected regional diversity with Congresswoman (now first Indigenous Secretary of Interior) Deb Haaland of New Mexico saying, “We all need to care about the ocean no matter where we live… that’s why I’ve included elements of the Ocean Climate Action Plan into several of my own bills.”
Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon was even more explicit, telling participants that, “this type of work you are engaged in is so important… we need an outside force and an inside force to make anything happen in Congress and so let’s forge that together, bring the best ideas forward, craft legislation, and help save our oceans and our world.”
In July 2020 the final draft of the Ocean Climate Action Plan was produced and distributed to key policymakers, activists, and the media. At 32 pages it read like Cliff Notes for a legislative package.
During a presidential campaign, a Covid crisis, and a record-breaking hurricane season it also generated articles and opinion pieces in outlets ranging from The Hill,The Nation, and Huffington Post to specialty publications like Alert Diver and SeaTechnology.
In November 2020 Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) then chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, introduced the ‘Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act of 2020’ (HR-8632) with input from Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), which quickly became the new legislative template for ocean climate action.
The OCAP coalition suggested expanding the bill’s commitment for offshore wind from 25 gigawatts (GW) to 30 GW by 2030 and to strengthen the legislation’s already solid commitment to racial and social equity.
After an election that took days to call but resulted in a popular and electoral victory for Joe Biden, the new Biden-Harris administration was sworn in, having already adopted many of the climate proposals of their former democratic rivals, Bernie Sanders and Jay Inslee.
In a February 2020 Hill article we tweaked President Biden’s announcement that the U.S. would double its offshore wind production, pointing out this would still be less than 1% of what the European Union was already producing, and again, calling for 30 GW by 2030, enough to power over 22 million homes and create more than 85,000 jobs (according to the wind industry association).
In late March President Biden announced plans to generate 30 GW of offshore wind by 2030 through executive order. In a 2023 interview with Blue Frontier’s Rising Tide Ocean Podcast, NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad noted that when he now says ‘30 by 30’ some audiences think he’s talking about marine biodiversity conservation and others offshore wind energy, and he sees no conflict in that confusion.
In April 2021 OCAP organized a ‘virtual’ lobby for over 300 people from 30 states and territories. They heard opening addresses by Dr. Sylvia Earle, Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), and Rep. Grijalva who noted that, “If we’re going to meaningfully address the climate crisis, we need grassroots organizers like you weighing in and supporting us every step of the way.”
Meetings were held with 107 members of the House and 33 Senators or their staff. Many of the meetings were led by citizens who had never spoken with a member of Congress or their staff before, and participant leadership ranged in age from 17-year-olds to seniors in their 70s. Additional meetings were held with the White House Council on Environmental Quality and 10 federal agencies to bring them up to speed. That same month the administration committed to promoting living shorelines and decarbonizing the maritime sector (ports and ships) as forms of climate resilience.
Laws Are Established
In November 2021 the “infrastructure week” jokes that had endured during the previous administration ended, and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act became law, including nearly $3 billion over five years for NOAA to work on coastal habitat restoration, resilience, and improved extreme-weather forecasting. In December the administration also officially committed to the other “30 by 30” goal of preserving 30% of US federal waters as Marine Protected Areas by 2030. Then on World Ocean Day, June 8, 2022, the White House announced its commitment to create “America’s First-Ever Ocean Climate Action Plan.”
That same month a coalition of 93 organizations coordinated by the ‘Ocean Defense Initiative’ and including major national environmental, policy, and marine conservation groups put out a “Blueprint for Ocean Climate Action,” which, along with the four areas outlined in the 2020 OCAP, included sections on plastic pollution reduction and ending all new offshore oil leasing.
In March of 2021 President Biden had signed the $2.2 Trillion Covid Relief CARES Act that helped rescue a largely shuttered U.S. economy in a year that saw 425,000 U.S. Covid deaths. Yet, with a razor-thin Democratic majority in the Senate it seemed the follow up $1.75 Trillion ‘Build Back Better’ bill that passed the House in November 2021 was going nowhere in the Senate due to resistance from Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema (then D-Ariz.) plus all 50 Republican Senators opposed it. Within this progressive package’s climate provisions was language from the earlier Ocean-based Climate Solutions Act that Chairman Grijalva had introduced. Negotiations dragged on but seemed to go nowhere.
Then miraculously, following the Congressional summer recess, Senator Manchin suddenly agreed to preserve almost all the climate provisions in the renamed Inflation Reduction Act, with a greatly reduced $370 billion price tag, and it passed 51-50 with Vice President Kamala Harris’s tie breaking vote.
On August 16 President Biden signed the IRA into law, which includes over $10 billion for coastal restoration and resilence, greening ports, offshore wind, and other key elements of the original Ocean Climate Action Plan.
The Work Continues
Like dozens of other climate, labor, and environmental justice coalitions that worked hard to get this law passed, OCAP coalition members were thrilled and gratified while also remaining realistic. The IRA law is a first, important step in responding to the climate emergency, but implementing it will be incredibly complex.
In the 2022 off-year elections the Republicans failed to do as well as expected (in part because of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade) but still won a small majority in the House. OCAP activists saw almost no chance of any new ocean climate legislation. They did, however, recognize that the IRA needs to be the first tronche of billions in new investments if we’re to stabilize the climate and ocean. None of that is likely to happen if IRA spending includes any kind of waste, fraud, or abuse so we have turned our attention to making sure the law is implemented well.
The OCAP authors joined forces with the Ocean Defense Initiative and dozens of other groups to produce a new report tracking progress the administration is making across 10 categories of ocean climate action and identifying priority actions that still need to be taken, in part by using on-the-ground (and in-the-water) examples—the Port of Ricmond California, ‘Cancer Alley’ on the lower Mississippi, North Carolina’s wetlands and seagrasses—of what’s working and what’s not.
That report, Turning U.S. Ocean Climate Policy into Action, was released June 5, 2023, three days before World Ocean Day. It was presented in meetings we organized with the White House Council on Environmental Quality, EPA, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and NOAA that included both ocean advocates and agency leaders. Even the director of BOEM, which has been legally mandated to continue leasing offshore oil and gas under the IRA, asked us to, “keep doing what you’re doing.”
And of course we will, because out of the countless reports, meetings, marches, lawsuits, citizen lobbies, occupations, and rallies we work on, along with civil society activists from sea to shining sea and across the planet, we too deeply believe that when the people lead, the leaders will follow.