The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), announced in late July by Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., includes $369 billion in tax incentives to boost wind, solar and other clean energy. Although a step in the right direction, the bill will not by itself be enough to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050. To make bigger gains more quickly, we’ll need to directly remove carbon from the atmosphere.
We can start by focusing on the world’s largest carbon sink: our ocean, which absorbs over 90% of the heat generated by the burning of fossil fuels. If not for the ocean, the earth’s average temperature would rise from 57 degrees to 122 degrees.
The United States has begun to address ocean issues such as overfishing and pollution in its Exclusive Economic Zone, which stretches 200 nautical miles (230 miles) off the nation’s coastline. But sea level rise, saltwater intrusion, ocean acidification and other climate change impacts already threaten the ocean’s ability to capture carbon. In 2019, for example, scientists found that 95% of Northern California’s kelp forests had died off, due to a marine heatwave that led to a population boom for a species of kelp-eating sea urchin.
The IRA, of course, does benefit the ocean. The billions it would invest in speeding up the green energy transition, including offshore wind, will undoubtedly have a ripple effect on ocean health. It also contains provisions that are more directly targeted at coastal repair, such as $2.6 billion in grants to states and tribal governments to help restore kelp beds, mangrove forests, salt marshes and sea grasses, each of which are critical to carbon sequestration.
Additionally, the bill sets aside $3 billion for cities to electrify their ports and reduce air pollution for “fenceline neighbors” of toxic industrial sites, which tend to be low-income communities of color. And more than $700 million would go toward new funding for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, improving its efforts at climate and atmospheric forecasting.
Despite these positive investments, Manchin insisted that the bill include concessions for the oil and gas industry. Key among these accommodations is a stipulation that the U.S. Department of Interior must lease at least 60 million acres of offshore ocean waters for fossil fuel drilling every year in regions including the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska before allowing offshore wind leases to go through. And yet, this may not be as bad as it sounds: The oil industry is showing little interest in new ocean drilling while the offshore wind industry is booming.
The reality is the IRA could be the biggest investment in climate policy in U.S. history so far, and get America back in the game as a global climate leader. However, it will still be less than what’s needed.
To more fully address the climate crisis, President Joe Biden can also follow through on his commitment to create a national Ocean Climate Action Plan. This would help maximize federal efforts at ensuring our public seas contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, while also helping buffer communities from the growing climate impacts that are already hitting our shores.
The good news is the tide finally seems to be turning.
David Helvarg is the executive director of Blue Frontier, an ocean conservation group, and co-host of the Rising Tide Ocean podcast. Jason Scorse is director of the Center for the Blue Economy at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. This column was produced by Progressive Perspectives, which is run by The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.
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