Building Climate Resilience Through Ocean Justice

Promoting ocean justice and equity in coastal communities

Speaking in October at the National Adaptation Forum (NAF) in Baltimore, Gullah/Geechee Nation Chieftess Queen Quet (recently Ocean Conservancy’s cultural ambassador for promotion of environmental justice and insight into the culture and preservation of the Gullah/ Geechee Nation) shared that there’s no word in Gullah for “collaboration” because working together is completely ingrained in the Gullah/Geechee culture. The NAF, meeting biennially, brings together leaders in the public and private sectors to share ideas on strengthening climate resilience across the nation. 

Queen Quet is the recipient of the Order of the Palmetto in 2021 and more than 300 awards of environmental justice; she is the embodiment of a lifetime of achievement of being a steward of the land and sea. Chieftess’ oral storytelling centers the spirit of collaboration as it relates to solving climate change, the greatest global issue facing us today, and build up resilience and solutions to its growing impact. The ocean’s critical role in climate change—both as a victim and an essential part of the solution—has received more attention, as is its due, in the past several years. One issue extremely important to Ocean Conservancy is the advocacy of ocean justice and equity, too long ignored, in developing ocean policy. 

This year’s NAF was especially important to our organization as it afforded the Ocean Conservancy Ocean Justice team the opportunity to meet with peers in the Ocean Justice Advocacy Group (OJAG)—a terrific representation of the collaboration espoused by Queen Quet. OJAG was born out of the 2021 Capitol Hill Ocean Week and a shared desire to advance ocean policy in a way that better includes the perspectives of coastal Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) communities, increases representation and creates more equitable outcomes.

Since then, the OJAG member organizations have focused on partnering with community-led groups and influencing policy at federal, state and local levels to protect the ocean and coastal communities. Ocean Conservancy defines ocean justice and the mission of our ocean justice work as the fair and equitable distribution of both the benefits of the ocean’s bounty and the burdens of its complex care. Inequalities accelerate ocean harm, strain people’s relationships to the ocean and undercut innovation. Our success depends on our ability to address multiple challenges and remain agile in our work.

Gathering at NAF gave us an occasion to reflect on our efforts to build up climate resilience. Climate change threatens the ocean, our world’s biodiversity and human wellbeing. However, the ocean itself is an immensely powerful resource that can help us protect our world and ensure a safe future. Together, we’re working alongside community-led organizations to advance equity and justice. We’re committed to using community-centered solutions that we share with these groups. And we’re working to ensure our partners get access to directly shape ocean policy. 

Ocean Conservancy’s Ocean Justice team, in this first year of inception, is proud to lead efforts that support climate resilience and is enthusiastic to grow further in this work. A manifestation of our efforts is the recent launch of the Ocean Justice Community Grants program. We acknowledge that there are gaps in funding for local community-led organizations that we can help fill. We’re working to ensure these organizations get the resources they need as these partnerships are invaluable in our shared efforts.

These grants support frontline coastal communities. Our goal is to prioritize the ongoing work in these communities around fishing sustainably, advancing ocean innovation and developing new ocean leaders, all of which will support efforts towards climate adaptation. 

As we continue to embed justice and equity in all our conservation work, one important focus is on our Climate Policy team which tracks the climate resilience work and federal funds in Justice40. This federal initiative aims to address inequities in how federal funding and benefits of federal programs reach marginalized or disadvantaged communities. The goal of Justice40 is to see at least 40% of the overall benefits from federal investments in climate and clean energy realized in disadvantaged communities. We’re focusing on Florida, a state with huge economic and community ties to the ocean and where coastal communities will face threats to drinking water, stormwater and wastewater systems from climate impacts like sea level rise and storms. In its initial phase we will work with local officials and community members to understand how federal funds can benefit the communities facing these threats and those who need them most. Ocean Conservancy’s work in Florida is helping bring new voices to marine conservation and support ongoing work that will equally benefit communities and the marine environment.

We all want a thriving ocean that centers and protects both people and nature as we work to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Achieving that goal depends on building trust with our community partners, including by learning more about the communities we’re all serving, remaining transparent with information we’re gathering and valuing community expertise as much as any other expertise. Our Ocean Justice team and our entire staff at Ocean Conservancy understand the importance of building community, and that’s why our work with OJAG is so meaningful. We are working towards breaking down silos within the conservation space to better address the issues at hand, harnessing collective action as we work toward a healthier ocean protected by a more just world. Just as Queen Quet advises, we’re working to make collaboration in advancing equity and justice part of our DNA.

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