National Ocean Month highlights global climate action

On June 8, World Ocean Day, President Joe Biden announced plans to designate the Hudson Canyon — the deep Atlantic submarine canyon that is an extension of New York’s Hudson River Valley — as a marine sanctuary. He also banned the use of single-use plastic, a growing source of ocean pollution, in U.S. National Parks by 2023 and established an Ocean Climate Action Plan.

A week later, on June 13, Biden signed bipartisan legislation, the Ocean Shipping Reform Act, to strengthen U.S. oversight over the container shipping industry that moves some 90% of the world’s trade goods. While this new law is more focused on resolving supply chain issues, both measures highlight how the Biden administration and other world leaders are beginning to recognize the link between the ocean, the economy, and the climate emergency.

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That’s one reason why Biden declared June as National Ocean Month and the U.N. designated the 2020s as the “decade of the ocean.” This blue decade has been launched with several major ocean summits, including the annual Our Ocean Conference, which was hosted in April 2022 by the United States and the Republic of Palau.

The conference, first initiated by John Kerry in 2016 while he was secretary of state, resulted in participating nations and private sector interests committing more than $16 billion to ocean protection this year. In short, a good first step. A similar conference, the inaugural Blue Climate Summit, was held in French Polynesia in May, with the goal of linking a healthy ocean to climate solutions. A few of the solutions brought up at the summit included ocean initiatives ranging from a company in Hawaii producing a species of red seaweed used in feed supplements that reduce cow flatulence (and thus methane emissions) to a wave power project in Fiji to the development of cheaper monitoring devices that can be used for community-level disaster preparedness. There was even a $1 million ocean innovation prize offered to “support innovations that mitigate climate change through ocean-related strategies.”

Another focus was on the need to protect the world’s cool water kelp forests from Northern California to Chile, Australia, Ireland, Japan and beyond. (Kelp is the new coral in terms of being a key marine habitat now at risk.)

Also discussed was how to financially develop and promote “blue carbon,” the living systems and habitats that sequester carbon from the atmosphere such as kelp, mangroves, seagrasses and salt marshes, but also krill, whales and other living creatures. Unlike rainforests, blue carbon is not yet a significant part of the global carbon trading, credit and finance system.

But it’s these kinds of financial methods for getting climate funding where it’s needed that can provide low-income nations with opportunities to generate livelihoods for their people’s continued stewardship of their resources, rather than feeling compelled to sell them off to extractive industries.

The Blue Climate Summit was also exceptional in its incorporation of Indigenous peoples of the Pacific. “We need to link traditional knowledge and science together to find solutions for our ocean, which is our life,” explained Hinano Murphy of the Tetiaroa Society.

While initially limited to several hundred participants, the ambitious goals of the summit were advanced through new collaborations and financial commitments around key needs. The most basic need, however, is strengthening the links between the environment, economy, and equity in order to quickly scale up ocean-based climate solutions that can work for everyone.

These range from sustainable ocean farming and offshore clean energy to mapping and protecting 30% of the ocean by 2030 and financing blue carbon services. Importantly, participants also touched on gaining legal standing (like a person or corporation) for the ocean, which is not only a buffer for 90% of the heat generated by burning fossil fuels, but the source and crucible of life on our blue planet.

David Helvarg is an author and executive director of Blue Frontier, an ocean conservation group.