Climate policy has an ocean-sized hole in it. My legislation would change that.

Arizona representative Raúl Grijalva on his ambitious plan to bolster blue carbon and coastal economies.

The world’s oceans have until recently been an overlooked piece of the climate policy puzzle — a serious omission, since oceans cover more than 70 percent of earth’s surface and absorb approximately a quarter of humanity’s annual carbon dioxide emissions. Steps as simple as switching to cleaner shipping fuel would have tremendous climate benefits, but the impetus to take them has been lacking.

On June 8, I introduced the Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act to put marine health and ocean management front and center in our climate policy efforts. The bill, which runs nearly 300 pages, is Congress’s first comprehensive legislative package of ocean climate policies.

One of its main goals is protecting and restoring “blue carbon” resources like seagrasses, marshes, mangroves, and coastal forests. Although they don’t cover as much area as terrestrial forests, scientists estimate they absorb 10 times as much carbon. We should invest more in their health and proliferation as soon as possible.

These ecosystems store thousands of years of carbon emissions, which are released when they are disturbed by coastal development. When it comes to healthy coastal habitats, it’s essential to restore what’s been lost and protect what we’ve already got. The bill allocates close to $1 billion a year to provide grants to landowners and fund federal land and water agencies to do just that, as well as to increase research and collaborative work across agencies. 

The bill also creates a mitigation program to ensure the safety of whales and other marine mammals at risk from climate change. In addition to the need to protect whales in their own right, we need to understand that their behavior contributes to the climate solution. Whales are quite literally carbon sinks. Many species eat enormous amounts of plankton and plant matter during their long lives, and when they die, that carbon sinks to the bottom of the ocean with them. Whale feces are the perfect fertilizer for carbon-capturing phytoplankton. The bill gives federal agencies more authority to limit the speed of vessels that threaten these animals and improves technology for private shipping and the Department of Defense to ensure whale safety.

The bill establishes a federal program, modeled after a Southern California initiative called WhaleSafe, to fund real-time monitoring of populations and their migration routes. The bill calls on agencies to start using this information to develop climate-mitigation strategies that we can begin implementing now, based on up-to-the-minute data.

This entire effort is as much an economic improvement bill as a climate bill, and it should appeal to people regardless of political persuasion. It sets a national offshore wind-energy production goal of 30 gigawatts per year by 2030 — the same goal set by President Biden — which is enough to power about 9 million homes and create 44,000 offshore wind jobs and 33,000 indirect jobs. The bill will modernize our energy economy by banning new leases for offshore fossil fuel drilling except in a few areas where it already occurs, a step that enjoys widespread bipartisan support.

The bill offers other much-needed post-pandemic stimulus, including $10 billion for shovel-ready restoration programs. During the 2009 recession, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration administered a wildly popular coastal-restoration grant program. My bill would fund similar projects to restore ecosystems such as coral reefs, oyster reefs, and kelp forests, and make communities more resilient, all while helping people get back to work in good-paying jobs.

The bill also authorizes the Tribal Climate Resilience grant program, which helps tribes address climate change-related impacts on their lands and coastlines.

Part of the funding for the programs in the bill will come from a proposed excise tax of 5 cents per pound on single-use virgin plastic. My team and I conservatively estimate this would create $3 billion annually while reducing emissions from manufacturing, incineration, and plastic pollution. To our knowledge, no other country has taken this step.

Even with our best efforts, some communities along our coasts — where 40 percent of Americans currently live — will be forced to consider relocating due to rising seas and flooding. The bill directs the White House Council on Environmental Quality to coordinate efforts among the multiple federal agencies involved in climate relocation. Residents tell me what’s most important to them is that relocation is entirely voluntary and community-led. My staff and I worked hard to make sure this bill puts community needs first.

I first introduced this bill last year during the 116th Congress. While that version of the bill didn’t receive a House vote, pieces of it have since become law. For instance, on Dec. 31, 2020, Congress reauthorized the Integrated Ocean Observing System, which employs a network of buoys along our coasts that provides real-time ocean observations and collects long-term data to understand how climate change impacts our oceans.

Also in December, Congress passed and the president signed a bill formally codifying the NOAA’s Digital Coast program, helping guarantee funding for a crucial one-stop online platform for communities to visualize sea-level rise at the neighborhood level, how the ocean is tied to their economies, and what impact climate change might have so they can plan for future resilience. 

On June 22, the House Committee on Natural Resources, which I chair, held a hearing on the Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act. We hope to pass it out of the committee soon and move it expeditiously through the House of Representatives.

Addressing the climate crisis is not a matter of passing what we used to think of as strictly “environmental” bills. This is an infrastructure and jobs bill. Restored coastal environments provide economic value through tourism and fishing, and they protect inland communities from destructive storms.

We’re not yet out of time to address this crisis, and science makes clear what we need to do. We must stop relying on fossil fuels, transition to renewable energy, and make sure ocean ecosystems can function adequately to capture carbon dioxide. Taking these essential steps will mitigate some of the worst impacts of climate change and create economic value for millions of Americans living in communities and regions that have so far been left behind. 

By:  Chair Raul M. Grijalva
Source: Grist