Obama's Chance For a Blue Legacy

By Vikki Spruill
Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Today, President Bush will begin for the ocean what President Theodore Roosevelt did when he created the National Park System. The administration is announcing plans to create a national monument that will protect 195,000 square nautical miles of the Pacific Ocean -- bigger than the size of California and almost 50 percent larger than all U.S. national parks combined. Sweeping areas of the ocean's most pristine treasures, including spectacular corals and the deepest canyon in the world, will be protected by law and given the chance to become stronger.

Yet what is most significant about this move is the opportunity it creates for President-elect Barack Obama.

Covering 71 percent of the planet, the oceans are our life-support system. They provide most of the oxygen that we breathe and much of the food that we eat. As the engine that drives our climate, the oceans are the front line of the global climate challenge, absorbing half of the carbon dioxide we've pumped into the atmosphere and more excess heat from greenhouse gases than all the rain forests combined. Indeed, the oceans are the unsung hero in the climate change battle -- but they are also the most vulnerable victims.

And while today's designation and protection represent major progress, there is still much to be done. The effects of climate change on the oceans are widespread; higher air and water temperatures alone have produced changes including the loss of sea ice, shifts in ocean circulation, rises in sea level, extreme weather events and harmful changes to fish and other marine wildlife. The increased concentration of carbon dioxide has led to acidification of ocean water, threatening the crucial base of the food web. The need to build ocean resilience is all the more critical since the 27-year moratorium on new oil and gas drilling offshore was lifted last year, threatening further harm to the marine environment while, ironically, doing little to resolve the nation's energy crisis.

We at the Ocean Conservancy urge the Obama administration to build on President Bush's step forward by strengthening ocean protections that ensure the health of our planet. Obama could begin building a truly blue legacy with the following steps:

· Mandate that every action on climate change include consideration of its impact on our oceans. The executive branch's No. 1 impediment in responding effectively to the impacts of climate change on the oceans is lack of authority and guidance. The president should direct his team to determine how best to manage for increased ocean resilience and adaptation to the effects of climate change and how to strengthen the needed science.

· Focus on the Arctic. The Arctic, Earth's air conditioner, is already experiencing some of the most severe effects of climate change. Not only is sea ice melting, but coastal communities have been dislocated. Despite the profound fragility of many marine ecosystems in the Arctic, the Bush administration has set out to open 77 million acres for oil and gas development -- exploration that will, ironically, increase greenhouse gas emissions that cause the melting. Any industrialization of the Arctic must be preceded by a comprehensive scientific assessment of the consequences of carrying out industrial activities. As the relevant Cabinet member, the interior secretary should immediately suspend any further planned lease sales and commence a multiagency public review and assessment of the Arctic, its peoples and its resources.

· Bring order to the oceans. Like urban sprawl, we have marine and coastal sprawl, as the oceans today face a wealth of unprecedented activity. Wind farms and other energy facilities, commercial fishing, diverse recreational uses, offshore drilling and shipping superhighways are all competing to stake their claims. We urgently need a comprehensive plan for the oceans' many uses, in a way that sustains our oceans' resources. For example, in the production of seafood, the administration has the opportunity to ensure that commercial fishing and aquaculture are both pursued sustainably. As president, Obama should issue an executive order stating the national responsibility to manage America's waters for long-term ocean health and to make smart decisions for our shared ocean future.

These initial actions, in addition to fulfilling Obama's promise to combat climate change, would set the stage for a blue presidential legacy -- one that Teddy Roosevelt would envy and of which Obama could be proud.

The writer is president and chief executive of Ocean Conservancy.

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