John Podesta served as chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and counselor to President Barack Obama.
Over the past year, the movement to ban plastic straws has seen tremendous success. Major companies including Starbucks have decided to eliminate them in their stores, and some metropolitan areas have passed citywide bans. This consumer and environmental trend has been an encouraging example of collective action on an economy-wide scale and has no doubt helped keep plastic out of our oceans and out of marine life. But ultimately, these actions are small steps toward solving a massive problem. To truly save the ocean, we must take serious action to halt climate change on a global scale — and soon.
Our oceans are critical to every part of our lives — they feed us, transport us, secure our borders, employ us, give us oxygen and inspire us — but week after week, headlines reflect gloom and doom. Coral reefs around the world are dying; rising seas are flooding coastal communities and threatening to overwhelm some of the world’s busiest airports; fishermen from New England to Alaska are hauling in empty nets; and intensifying storms threaten not just our coastlines but inland communities as well. Climate change is a major contributor to all these problems, and yet the ocean is far too often left out of conversations about climate solutions.
If we as a nation want to survive and thrive on a warming planet, that has to change. At this week’s Global Climate Action Summit in California’s Bay Area, oceans are finally part of the agenda. This summit provides an opportunity for nonfederal actors to come together to discuss how we as a nation and world can mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change by leading from a local level — notably, without commitments or leadership from the U.S. government, which announced its intention to withdraw our country from the Paris agreement more than a year ago.
It’s certainly important to document the damage that climate change is doing to the ocean, but a major topic of discussion at the summit will be also be how to unlock the ocean’s climate solutions, which have many additional benefits. Creating and enforcing marine protected areas means fish stocks can recover even amid warming oceans, providing increased food security and additional fishing jobs. Improving our coastal infrastructure and making it more resilient to sea-level rise and extreme weather means not only stronger communities but also increased trade opportunities. Restoring “blue carbon” ecosystems, such as sea-grass beds and mangroves, would mean the oceans can continue to work hard to absorb our excess carbon, clean our waters and protect our communities. The oceans may be under deep threat from climate impacts, but they can also be the basis of a new blue economy.
However, the hard reality is that the subnational action being touted at this week’s Global Climate Action Summit, while thoughtful and hopeful, is not enough on its own to create the real change we need to avert disaster. A recent study found that the commitments to cut emissions from cities, states, regions and companies are significant but are “still not nearly enough to hold global temperature increase to ‘well below 2 degrees C’ and work ‘toward limiting it to 1.5 degrees C’ ”—the Paris agreement threshold for triggering dangerous warming. And at the national level, the Trump administration has not just been inactive — it has been on a rampage to warm our planet and harm our oceans, such as rushing headlong into increased onshore and offshore drilling.
We can’t let a president who doesn’t believe in science or care about climate change stop us. As small an action as it may be, banning straws shows that Americans are paying attention. Will Americans continue to use their voices and their wallets to make real change for our oceans? I believe that they can, and they will, and that making oceans a part of the climate solution conversation — at the subnational, national and global levels — will lead us to a more sustainable future.