The political climate is right for sea solutions.
Thursday, January 10, 2008
It’s easy to give in to the undertow of the status quo – especially when that current is strengthened by the flow of money. But there are moments when science’s overwhelming agreement forces an inconvenient truth into public awareness, and decision-makers are embarrassed into action.
The most obvious example is global warming. You know it when 10 states link hands against Washington, D.C., suing the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant. You know it when a dweeby documentary on climate change grosses $49 million worldwide, and then the former vice president who made it wins the Nobel Peace Prize. You know it when a major gasoline company runs ads touting alternative fuels and nicknames itself “Beyond Petroleum.”
The tide is not turning as quickly when it comes to the crisis facing the world’s oceans. But quietly, the sea stars are aligning for action.
The ocean’s problems became national news during the first-ever National Oceans Summit, held in 1998 in Monterey. The event brought the nation’s top marine experts together with then-President Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, U.S. Representative Sam Farr and Monterey’s own Leon Panetta, a former congressman and Clinton White House chief of staff who took up the cause.
In 2003 and 2004, two committees – the private Pew Oceans Commission, chaired by Panetta, and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy – reached startlingly similar conclusions about the state of the globe’s seas. Not only are glaciers melting and sea levels rising, they reported; oceans also are turning more acidic, with serious implications for shellfish and coral reefs. Overfishing is threatening the future of the seafood industry and throwing sensitive underwater ecosystems out of whack. Coastal development replaces wetlands with cement. Agricultural runoff creates algal blooms and dead zones that leave marine animals gasping for oxygen. Contaminated storm water and industrial waste deliver toxic loads to the sea, while plastic litter builds up into swirling vortexes of trash pocking Earth’s blue surface.
The commissions merged into the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative, signaling a change in the business of ocean stewardship. Reversing the deterioration of the Earth’s biggest feature would require unconventional alliances.
Legislators took the cue. In September 2006, the governors of California, Oregon and Washington signed an agreement to collaborate on strategies to improve ocean health. Early this year, as they release their final action, California’s “Thank You Ocean” campaign – complete with its own MySpace page (and yes, Al Gore is a top friend) – will start letting the public know just how much we need that roiling blue.
The campaign is a reflection of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s pledge to muscle the cause: His 2004 ocean action strategy was the nation’s first statewide response to the two landmark ocean reports. The establishment of the state Ocean Protection Council, the adoption of the Marine Life Protection Act and last September’s unveiling of the nation’s first network of marine reserves underscore the notion that California, with the country’s longest coastline, is in a natural position to lead the sea-saving mission.