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Confronting Climate Change

Taking the ocean into account is critical for successfully addressing climate change, and addressing climate change is critical for the future of the ocean


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An Ocean and Climate Agenda for the New Administration

The Biden administration can take 20 actions in its first 100 days to leverage the power of the ocean in the fight against climate change.

January 14, 2021
By Jean Flemma, Miriam Goldstein, and Anne Merwin

Climate change is having profound effects on the ocean, as scientists have extensively documented. Coral reefs are dying, rising seas are flooding coastal communities, and fishermen are seeing their livelihoods threatened as fish seek cooler water. The ocean, however, provides opportunities to fight back. Globally, ocean-based climate solutions have the potential to provide up to one-fifth of the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions necessary to limit the world’s temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, which scientists say is necessary to lower the risks associated with warming.

The next administration should take the following 20 steps in its first 100 days in order to recommit to climate leadership, reduce emissions and improve the United States’ climate resilience, decrease pollution and increase fuel efficiency, and protect marine life and the national ocean economy.

Numerous proposals from various organizations and Congress, listed at the end of this column, have detailed how the Biden administration can take ocean-focused climate action. They provide much of the inspiration for the following recommendations.

Recommit the United States to climate and ocean leadership

1. Rejoin the Paris Agreement

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions—especially ocean-damaging carbon dioxide—is one of the most important ways to protect the ocean and ensure that it continues to support life and livelihoods in the future. Rejoining the Paris Agreement immediately, to which President-elect Joe Biden has already committed, and formulating an ambitious national strategy to drive down carbon emissions in this crucial decade for climate action are the first steps toward rebuilding U.S. climate leadership.

2. Renew the U.S. commitment to international ocean leadership

The new administration should join world leaders who are working toward leveraging the power of the ocean in the fight against climate change. The Friends of the Ocean and Climate group of countries, for example, has been working to integrate ocean issues into the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). At the next U.N. climate summit, countries will have an opportunity to adopt a decision that creates an ongoing ocean forum in the UNFCCC to promote ocean-based climate solutions. Meanwhile, international leadership coalitions, such as the Pacific Rim Ocean-Climate Action Partnership, are dedicated to ambitious emissions reductions and are working together to maximize the potential of ocean-based mitigation and adaptation.

3. Establish a climate council in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The six line offices of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) all have a role to play in addressing the climate crisis. Establishing a NOAA climate council would reestablish NOAA’s scientific leadership on climate and facilitate collaboration across line offices. Directing them to develop climate change rapid-response plans would allow NOAA to leverage its full power in the fight against climate change.

Reduce emissions

4. Limit offshore oil and gas drilling

President-elect Biden has already committed to banning new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters. He can direct his secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior to discontinue the Trump administration’s draft five-year plan for oil and gas development. To the maximum extent possible, both the president and the secretary should exercise their authority to place an immediate moratorium on all new offshore oil and gas leases while relevant federal agencies develop a strategic plan to achieve net-zero emissions from federal lands and waters by 2030 and ensure a just transition for communities affected by and dependent on fossil fuels.

5. Promote the expansion of offshore wind and other renewable energy

The president-elect has already committed to doubling offshore wind energy by 2030; at the same time, states have also collectively committed to bringing just under 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy capacity online by 2035. To help make this vision a reality, the new administration should establish an ambitious national goal for offshore wind energy production, recommend improvements to the regulatory process that would increase certainty for wind developers while also ensuring ecosystem conservation, increase permitting staff, and develop a master plan for the transmission of wind power.

6. Reduce emissions from shipping

Greenhouse gas pollution from shipping is significant and on the rise. Between 2012 and 2018, total greenhouse gas emissions from the sector increased by nearly 10 percent globally. Shipping now accounts for nearly 3 percent of global greenhouse gas pollution per year—a figure that rivals the annual emissions of Germany. If advances in technology and low- or zero-carbon fuels are not adopted, emissions from shipping could continue to grow up to 50 percent from 2018 levels by midcentury. The new administration should establish national goals to reduce emissions from shipping and ports. It should also lead the U.N. International Maritime Organization to decarbonize the international shipping sector so that it can reach zero emissions by 2050.

7. Invest in reducing carbon and toxic air pollution at ports

Expediting port electrification will reduce harmful emissions in communities disproportionately exposed to air pollution. As part of an infrastructure or stimulus bill, the Biden administration should support funding for a ports infrastructure program that would reduce carbon and toxic air pollution by replacing diesel-burning cargo-handling equipment, trucks, and other port equipment with zero-emissions equipment and technology. The program would also install shore power for docked ships and electric charging stations.

Improve the United States’ climate resilience

8. Protect the ocean

President-elect Biden has already committed to a process to protect 30 percent of U.S. lands and the ocean by 2030. The process should include meaningful input from Native American tribes and respect tribal sovereignty; it should also engage states, local communities, “existing interagency planning and coordination bodies” such as Regional Ocean Partnerships, as well as regional fishery management councils and other ocean stakeholders.

9. Go big on coastal restoration in a stimulus bill or an infrastructure package

Congress has proposed $3 billion in shovel-ready coastal restoration projects in Sec. 83101 of H.R. 2, the Moving Forward Act, and the Biden climate plan commits to coastal restoration as part of a resilient infrastructure economy. This investment will restore coastal habitats that store carbon and benefit fisheries, create tens of thousands of jobs in coastal communities, and support natural infrastructure that protects coastal communities from rising sea levels and storms. In allocating funding, the administration should prioritize communities of color, low-income communities, and tribal communities that face disproportionate risks from climate change.

10. Increase funding for existing coastal restoration and resilience programs

Upon taking office, the new administration should seek increased funding for existing programs such as the National Oceans and Coastal Security Fund, the Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program, the Coastal Zone Management Fund, and tribal adaptation programs. This would enable the administration to support coastal restoration and natural infrastructure projects that deliver multiple benefits, including enhanced natural flood buffers for communities, improved habitats for birds and other wildlife, increased recreational opportunities, and sequestered carbon pollution. As in the proposal above, the administration should prioritize investments in communities of color, low-income communities, and tribal communities that face disproportionate risks from climate change.

11. Map coastal blue carbon and protect coastal carbon areas of significance

Capitalizing on data from numerous government agencies, NOAA should map and inventory blue carbon ecosystems in the United States, such as wetlands, seagrass beds, and mangroves, to assess existing and potential carbon sequestration opportunities. It should also develop criteria for and designate “coastal carbon areas of significance” (CCAS)—areas that both sequester carbon and provide other key ecosystem services such as habitat or storm protection—and establish policies to conserve CCAS using existing legal authorities and resources.

12. Manage flooding and sea level rise

The Biden administration should create a Sea Level Rise and Flood Management Task Force that works across federal agencies and engages government agencies representing states, localities, tribes, and U.S. territories on opportunities to support and remove federal legal barriers to sea level rise and flood-risk adaptation efforts. It should also conserve flood-prone undeveloped coastal areas to reduce the impacts of sea level rise and storm surge events and direct federal agencies to adopt stricter siting and building standards, similar to those mandated during the Obama administration.

13. Leverage the Coastal Barrier Resources Act system

The Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA) protects designated coastal barriers such as islands and wetlands by preventing federal expenditures for development, although private development in these areas is still allowed. Toward this effort, the Biden administration should bolster the protections offered by the CBRA system by prohibiting sand mining in designated areas, ensuring that all federal agencies comply with the system, and evaluating options for expanding the system to the Pacific coast in order to buffer against storms and protect upland areas from tsunami, storm, and sea level-rise impacts. The administration should also evaluate undeveloped areas that are upland or adjacent to system units and otherwise protected areas that could be protected under the CBRA due to their resiliency and habitat benefits.

14. Implement strategic climate relocation and managed retreat

The administration should establish a Strategic Climate Change Relocation Initiative to coordinate federal agency relocation activities and ensure that federal assistance is concentrated in communities that express an affirmative interest in relocating development as part of efforts to adapt to the health, safety, and environmental impacts of climate change, such as hurricanes, flooding, sea level rise, and wildfires. The administration should prioritize assistance for tribal communities, communities of color, and low-income communities already threatened by rising seas and land loss.

Reduce pollution and improve fuel efficiency

15. Act to phase out the production of unnecessary single-use plastics and decrease pollution from plastics

Climate change and plastic pollution are interconnected, with 99 percent of all plastics derived from petrochemicals made from fossil fuels. Plastic is one of the most visible and prolific threats facing the U.S. ocean, and unnecessary single-use plastics require the most urgent attention. Removing or reducing this stressor will help the ocean become more resilient. The Biden administration can lead the United States toward a fundamental transformation of the plastics economy, one that begins to phase out unnecessary single-use plastics and shifts responsibility for pollution onto plastics manufacturers themselves, protecting front-line communities from the industry’s toxic emissions and the ocean from plastic pollution.

16. Use loan guarantees to incentivize fishing vessels’ fuel efficiency

The Biden administration should update regulations for several of the federal loan programs it administers in order to ensure that loans are provided to operators that build, retrofit, or rebuild vessels that have enhanced fuel efficiency or convert to alternative fuels or electrification.

17. Combat ocean acidification and poor coastal water quality

Ocean acidification and poor coastal water quality, particularly harmful algal blooms, are devastating for coastal communities and economies. The new administration should increase NOAA and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency funding for research and quality monitoring, as well as prioritize investments in wastewater, stormwater, and drinking water infrastructure to limit pollution inputs that are exacerbated by climate change.

Protect marine life and the national ocean economy

18. Prioritize the elimination of fisheries subsidies through trade agreement negotiations

Upon taking office, Biden should direct his negotiators to use international trade discussions to eliminate subsidies that contribute to excess fishing capacity; overfishing; or illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. All of these activities force fishing vessels to spend more time at sea, which means they consume more fuel and generate more emissions to catch a dwindling number of fish while also creating unfair competition for U.S. fishermen.

19. Increase protections for marine habitats

The Biden administration should designate any area with deep-sea coral that is already protected under the Magnuson-Stevens Act as a deep-sea coral marine conservation area in order to augment the protections that have been adopted by fishery management councils with protections from other activities that are outside their jurisdiction.

20. Ensure that fisheries are climate-ready

The new administration should direct federal fisheries managers to integrate climate science and information related to the impacts of climate change on fisheries, ecosystems, and communities into climate-responsive guidance for fishery management councils and their scientists; this would facilitate the consideration of climate change in the management process. It should also establish a task force to guide decisions regarding jurisdiction, allocation, and fisheries management to minimize the risk of overfishing and maximize stock and ecosystem resilience in the face of climate change.


The United States is poised to take bold action on climate after four years of moving in the wrong direction. As the new administration and Congress prepare to pursue an ambitious agenda to tackle the climate crisis, they should look to the ocean for solutions. The ocean is not just a victim of climate change; it is also a hero.


Jean Flemma is the director of the Ocean Defense Initiative and a co-founder of Urban Ocean Lab. Previously, she worked for the House of Representatives on environmental policy for more than two decades. Miriam Goldstein is the managing director for Energy and Environment Policy and the director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress. Anne Merwin is the vice president for Conservation at the Ocean Conservancy.

This column was co-authored with the Center for American Progress and is also available here.

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