Why a Green Climate Deal Needs More Blue

Credit: David Helvarg

By David Helvarg and Jason Scorse

From Texas to Alaska, Saipan to the Florida Keys, sea level rise and intensified hurricanes are making our coastlines more dangerous and unstable. At the same time, most of the U.S. population and the majority of the nation’s economic activity is now located in our coastal states. This is why we need to put the “blue” front and center in any major climate action plans, such as the proposed and widely discussed Green New Deal (GND).

For most of our nation’s history the shoreline was viewed as a chaotic and unpredictable place, best fit for fishing (and whaling), shipbuilding, trading ports, and the poor. Some of today’s most iconic coastlines were once populated almost exclusively by immigrants, including the Italian fishermen and Mexican cannery workers of Monterey California or the traditional African American Gullah Geechee communities of the South Carolina and Georgia sea isles.

When, in the late 19th and early 20th century, the wealthy were attracted to living by the ocean, including on storm barrier islands, followed by coastal land rush developers whose hotels, second homes and rental units were subsidized by the 1968 National Flood Insurance Act, a process of ecological decline began. Today our coast’s natural protections including dunes, salt marshes, coral and oyster reefs, mangroves and sea grasses are extremely fragmented and less resilient to the growing impacts of climate change.

That’s why any Green New Deal must be built on opportunities around coastal adaptation, mitigation, and habitat protection. A focus on the blue economy can improve the quality of life for millions of Americans in coastal states and territories, while also providing powerful benefits in terms of jobs, environmental improvement, and social equity for the entire nation.

Our report, published in the environmental science news journal Mongabay outlines our top eight priorities for making the coasts more resilient and developing the blue economy. We call for a complete reformation of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) administered by FEMA, major coastal infrastructure investment with a focus on protection and restoration of natural barriers and coastal habitats, new guidelines and systems for expanding offshore renewable energy production, new forms of assistance to ports and fishing communities, a network of marine protected areas like National Parks in the sea, increased aquaculture investment, and a revised National Disaster Recovery Framework, including creation of a new combatant command within the Department of Defense.

Credit: David Helvarg

The most recent U.S. National Climate Assessment, a report produced by 13 federal agencies including the Department of Defense, suggests that up to 50% of projected coastal damage from climate disruption in this century can be mitigated through good planning. The agenda we’re proposing could yield even greater returns on our nation’s investment.

Without major reforms, however, the threat from climate change will continue to devastate our most vulnerable populations. Whether it be low-income communities of color in coastal Texas and Louisiana, Native Alaskans currently losing their villages in northern and western Alaska, or urban and island communities from Far Rockaway, New York to Puerto Rico whose people are still recovering from 2017’s Hurricane Maria, our proposals will promote justice and equity, while also strengthening the national economy.

The challenge is not in coming up with practical solutions to the climate threat but in mobilizing the political will to enact them. In order to address the existential threat of climate change to our coasts, our public seas, and the larger society, we need to elect leaders who are willing not only to implement a Green New Deal, but to restore the blue in our red, white, and blue. 

David Helvarg is an author and executive director of Blue Frontier, an ocean conservation and policy group. Jason Scorse is chair of the International Environmental Policy Program and director of the Center for the Blue Economy at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

Read the full report at Mongabay.

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