The Ocean at the Center of Climate Action

Reflections on my conversation with Vice President Al Gore

Last week I had the privilege of joining former Vice President Al Gore in conversation to talk about our ocean and climate change. I’ve never felt more inspired and energized to solve the climate crisis. Staring down climate change is hard, and “climate grief” is real for many of us. But for 40 years, Vice President Gore has led the charge to tackle the biggest environmental threat to the planet, and his enthusiasm and can-do attitude continue to grow—and are infectious. He and I agreed the ocean is a critical part of tackling the climate crisis.

Here are some of my reflections on our conversation:

What we are experiencing is not normal

Last summer, my family and I stayed indoors in Portland, Oregon, for a week as wildfires burned across the Pacific Northwest, driving our air quality down to the worst in the world. Long predicted by scientists —and compellingly presented by Mr. Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth 15 years ago—extreme and increasingly deadly weather has come to be a regular occurrence. Nearly one in three people in the U.S. experienced a weather disaster in just the last three months. Only two weeks ago, Hurricane Ida brought devastating impacts to the Gulf Coast and unprecedented flooding to New York City and New Jersey, supercharged by climate-driven ocean warming in the Gulf of Mexico.

Climate change and plastics are intrinsically linked

Plastics are widely understood as a threat to the ocean, but what few recognize is that plastics are also a threat to the climate. Most plastics are made of fossil fuels, and their production releases large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. Plastics now provide a growing investment opportunity for the faltering fossil fuel industry as demand for fossil fuels declines and demand for renewable energy grows. To counter this, Ocean Conservancy is advocating for removal of the huge taxpayer subsidies that are propping up fossil fuels and slowing the transition to a low carbon future and a healthier ocean. This is part of the systemic change we need to make. As Vice President Gore said, “Yes, we should recycle—like we should change to better light bulbs—but as important as that is to do, it’s even more important to change the laws, treaties and subsidies that allow the continued production of fossil fuels.”

Environmental Justice must be centered in the climate fight

The climate crisis is the most important issue of our lifetimes and for future generations, but we cannot solve this crisis without directly addressing the way it affects marginalized people, including Black, Indigenous and other communities of color. Racial minorities bear a disproportionate burden of negative health and environmental impacts of climate change. For example, 13% of Black children have asthma compared to 7% for white children. “More than 1 million African-Americans live in areas where toxic air pollution from natural gas facilities is so high that the cancer risk from this industry exceeds EPA levels of concern,” said Vice President Gore, who then asked the question: “How can this be tolerated by people who are in pursuit of a more perfect union, in a country supposedly uplifted by the values of justice?”

Our call to action

As we look toward the upcoming meeting of world leaders at the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow in November, we must keep the pressure on participating countries—especially the United States—to do more. For the ocean to continue to provide the many benefits that humanity depends upon, we need to experience a transformational change away from fossil fuels over the next decade. What was “inconvenient” 15 years ago has now become grave. This is the time to “go big” to implement radical change; incremental change is no longer sufficient.

We can move forward, inspired by Vice President Gore’s relentless and tireless focus on climate change and the inspiration he has provided to countless people around the globe, including me. The world is a better place because of Al Gore’s courage and well-informed hope, a combination of traits that is both rare and essential.

I am deeply honored to have had this conversation with Vice President Gore.

Now it is time for all of us to renew our commitment to our community, our ocean, our planet and each other—and take action for a better tomorrow.

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