Ocean conservation was once a goal for Democrats and Republicans alike. In Congress, they collaborated to ensure that U.S. fisheries would be sustainably managed, to protect imperiled marine creatures by banning the use of driftnets and shark finning, and to set aside large areas of the ocean for special protection. While he was president, George H.W. Bush designated six National Marine Sanctuaries, more than during any previous administration, and President Bill Clinton convened America’s first National Oceans Conference. President George W. Bush used the Antiquities Act to establish what was then the largest marine protected area in the world, Papahanaumokuakea, in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. And President Barack Obama quadrupled the extent of protected U.S. waters.
Despite ocean waters warming and sea levels rising, in recent years this bipartisan tradition has waned. Now, the White House has committed to an ambitious economic program with climate action at its center. President Joe Biden and his climate team want to rapidly scale offshore wind energy production, cut shipping and port emissions, and protect ocean habitats and coastal communities.
But a return to progress will require a revival of bipartisanship in Congress. The president can take significant steps though executive action, but if ocean-climate policy is to be durable, Congress must back it up. Members of Congress have put forward innovative policy proposals from the Blue New Deal to the Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act, but so far they remain just that — proposals.
Consider Biden’s approval of the first commercial-scale offshore wind farm off the coast of Massachusetts. It’s the beginning of his push to produce 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030 (enough to power around 10 million homes and create an estimated 77,000 jobs). To make the president’s commitment a reality, Congress should expand tax incentives for new wind projects and for improvements to the power grid. These incentives should be conditioned on local hiring, investment in workforce development and family-sustaining wages, as the state of New York has done with Climate Jobs New York.
Lawmakers should also directly invest in training for green jobs, and in bolstering the domestic supply chain for manufacturing wind turbines. They must also fund the scientific research needed to assess and minimize wind farm impacts on fishing grounds and wildlife, such as the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale.
Then there is the need to protect special ocean places and coastal communities. Biden’s plan is to conserve 30% of the ocean by 2030, and invest in protecting and restoring coastal and ocean ecosystems to guard against sea-level rise and storms, improve habitats, and absorb carbon emissions. These are important goals. Now Congress must provide the resources that federal agencies will need to work with stakeholders and scientists to identify the places that warrant protection.
There is already bipartisan support in Congress for a program that would spend $10 billion on coastal restoration projects, but this needs to be authorized as part of a larger infrastructure package soon if the backlog of projects is to be cleared fast enough to minimize the risks from rising seas.
The president’s proposed Civilian Climate Corps, if authorized and funded by Congress, could be one avenue for putting people to work restoring these ecosystems.
And as Congress considers spending hundreds of billions on infrastructure on land, it should stipulate — as an Obama rule once did — that construction paid for with taxpayer dollars should not be approved in areas that rising seas will soon put underwater.
In declaring a commitment to scientific integrity and the need for better climate data and predictions, Biden has called for a historic 25% budget increase for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But it is Congress that will need to authorize the spending.
The American people broadly support maintaining clean and healthy coasts and oceans. They want government to curb pollution, expand protected areas and invest in clean, renewable energy infrastructure. The White House has laid out the right policy vision. Congress must make it a reality.
Jean Flemma, a former senior policy adviser for the House Natural Resources Committee, is the director of the Ocean Defense Initiative and a co-founder of the think tank Urban Ocean Lab. Miriam Goldstein, an oceanographer, is the managing director for energy and environment and the director of ocean policy at the Center for American Progress. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a marine biologist, is a co-founder of the think tank Urban Ocean Lab, a co-founder of the All We Can Save Project and a co-host of the podcast “How to Save a Planet.”