Senator Elizabeth Warren has a plan for just about everything, including the oceans. The presidential candidate announced this week the introduction of her Blue New Deal, a version of the Green New Deal focused entirely on the ocean. It makes Warren the first candidate to announce a comprehensive environmental plan for the two massive bodies of water on either coast of the country. The plan includes efforts to convert algae into a functional fuel source, extended protections along the coast to cut off offshore drilling while expanding renewable alternatives and clean up the emissions and waste caused by shipping ports, among other things meant to protect one of our most precious resources.
Warren's surprisingly comprehensive plan, which she has apparently been kicking around for months since first toying with the idea during the CNN town hall on climate change, would streamline the process of setting up off-shore wind farms to harness renewable energy — something the Trump administration currently restricts. It would also restore offshore drilling bans that were first put in place by the Obama administration but lifted by Trump. Warren also plans to limit emissions caused by global shipping — the sixth-largest cause of pollution — by pushing for electric ports that are more energy friendly. than the fossil fuel dumping diesel ports that we currently utilize. Additionally, a President Warren would enable the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to establish protections for "Blue Carbon Zones," or areas that are particularly effective at naturally sequestering carbon.
Warren's plan couldn't have come at a more opportune time. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP25) is ongoing in Madrid, Spain at the moment, and the focus has largely been on addressing the effects of climate change on the oceans. While Warren's plan is largely focused on how to address the health of the oceans that touch America's shores, her Blue New Deal may provide additional guidance for other countries to adopt and modify to fit their own needs. It also extends the conversation about climate change and pollution beyond our borders — a necessary shifting of the lens to acknowledge that our actions have significant effects on planet, even if we don't actively see waste building up or water levels rising.
The ocean has been one of the hardest-hit victims of climate change, and we're just starting to understand the damage that we have done to the bodies of water that cover the vast majority of the planet. A recent report from the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — one of the first in-depth looks at the effects that climate change has had on parts of the planet not occupied by humans — suggested that we may have already reached a tipping point when it comes to our oceans. Essentially, we have already allowed the armor on the oceans to crack. Our ability to prevent that crack from worsening depends on how seriously we take the threat of climate change and work to limit the global temperature rise.
According to the report, in the last 25 years, our oceans have absorbed more than twice the amount of heat in that they did in the 25 years prior. That heat has caused the top 200 meters or so of the bodies of water to warm faster than deeper areas, a process known as preferential warming. That little change — something that is largely unnoticeable to humans without measuring for it — has caused significant disruption to the upwelling process, which would typically push cooler, nutrient-rich water toward the ocean surface while replacing warmer, nutrient-depleted water. Now, because the top water is significantly warmer, it is no longer being replaced. Instead, it is acting like a lid on the cooler, denser water, locking necessary nutrients below the surface. That is disrupting ocean ecosystems, leading to interruptions in the food chain and reducing biodiversity.
It's not just the surface of the seas that is hurting because of human action, either. Our impact travels all the way down to the ocean floor. A paper published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last year that human-caused carbon emissions have thrown the ocean's processes out of sync and produced negative effects in areas that humans can't even reach. According to the study, excess carbon dioxide has started to push its way to the farthest depths of the ocean because the natural system that would typically process it is overwhelmed by the sheer amount it is faced to deal with. When the CO2 reaches the bottom of the ocean, it damages the calcium carbonate that has been built up there, causing it to dissolve. The outcome is ocean water that is considerably more acidic — a problem that has also presented itself near the surface.
It's harder to say how exactly the increased levels of acidity are affecting ecosystems operating near the ocean floor, but suffice to say that it likely isn't helping anything. At the surface level, ocean acidification has been devastating to some sea life — particularly coral reefs. A study published in Nature last year found that the Great Barrier Reef had been irreparably harmed by increased acidity and warmer water temperatures, with as much as half the reef being killed off over the course of two years.
It is unfortunate that plans like Warren's likely won't help to reverse any of the damage that we have already done to the ocean. Much of that cannot be undone, and future geologists will be able to look at ocean sediment cores to track the exact point where humans mucked up a naturally occurring system that worked without fail for millions of years before we showed up. But the plan should play a worthwhile role in limiting the amount of future damage we do. By protecting our shorelines from harmful, wasteful drilling projects and cleaning up shipping ports that have become hubs of carbon emissions while also investing in renewable energy sources, Warren's plan provides a path to a future where we take some stress off the already overworked oceans. It is unlikely to keep the ocean levels from rising or water temperatures from creeping upward as the planet continues to warm, but it could play a vital role in capping the amount of damage that we do. At this point, mitigating the negative is about as good as it gets.