Climate advocates say the oceans are overlooked in climate change. Biden's new action plan would change that.

President Joe Biden released a first-of-its-kind U.S. Ocean Climate Action Plan on Tuesday, which he said will “harness the tremendous power of the ocean to help in our fight against the climate crisis.

Speaking at the White House Conservation in Action Summit, Biden said: “We can reduce emissions by building offshore wind farms, better protect our coastal and fishing communities from worsening storms, changing fisheries and other impacts on climate change.”

Ocean advocates say it comes not a minute too soon.

By absorbing more than 90% of the Earth's warming in recent decades, the ocean is “already playing an enormous role in the climate crisis,” said Lara Levison, senior director of federal policy for the ocean conservation group Oceana.

“Ocean policy is often overlooked in discussions of climate action and climate solutions, Levison said. "There’s so much emphasis on what’s happening on land and not nearly enough focus on the ocean.”

A pod of Risso's dolphins swims in the Atlantic Ocean over the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument southeast of Cape Cod.
A pod of Risso's dolphins swims in the Atlantic Ocean over the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument southeast of Cape Cod.

Warmer oceans felt around the world

Sea surface temperatures in the global ocean reached a record high on March 16, averaging 69.8 degrees, according to the Climate Reanalyzer at the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine.

In its latest report Monday, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said the window is rapidly closing to rein in the increasing greenhouse gas emissions that are driving warming temperatures. The report noted the impacts of the warmer atmosphere and oceans — including more frequent heat waves, more intense droughts, and extreme rainfall — are being felt around the world.

Earlier in March, the U.N. reached the first High Seas Treaty to protect biodiversity in international waters. That treaty, not yet ratified, also pledges to protect 30% of the world’s ocean areas.

The treaty will be the first international law to offer some protection to nearly two-thirds of the ocean that is beyond the control of surrounding nations, according to a March 15 editorial in the journal “Nature.” It will become law after it’s ratified by the national governments of at least 60 countries.

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What is the Ocean Climate Action Plan?

The Ocean Policy Committee — a White House-level group assigned to manage the environmental and economic health of the ocean — created the plan.

It outlines policies for climate mitigation and adaptation for the ocean, identifies gaps in science and management, and recommends new actions to tackle climate change, the committee stated. The three main goals are:

  • A carbon-neutral future without the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.

  • Accelerate nature-based solutions that protect coastal and ocean ecosystems that can store excess greenhouse gases, reduce climate threat, and protect communities and ecosystems against climate change.

  • Enhance community resilience to ocean change by developing ocean-based solutions that help communities adapt and thrive.

The administration said it addresses previously stated goals, such as:

  • Conserving and restoring coastal and marine habitats that naturally store carbon.

  • Expanding ocean-protected areas.

  • Providing 40% of federal investment benefits on climate change to disadvantaged communities.

  • Producing 30 gigawatts of energy from offshore wind by 2030.

  • Achieving zero emissions from international shipping no later than 2050.

  • Advancing environmental justice and engaging with communities, Tribes, and Indigenous people.

What is 30 by 30?

Last December, nearly 200 countries agreed to set goals to try to conserve 30% of the world’s land and oceans by 2030, and to halt and reverse the loss of biodiversity.

In the U.S., roughly 12% of the nation's land is already protected and 23% of its oceans.

On Tuesday, the Biden administration said it would direct Gina Raimondo, secretary of the Department of Commerce, to consider initiating a new national marine sanctuary designation around the Pacific Remote Islands within 30 days. That would meet the goal of protecting 30% of the nation's ocean.

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What do advocates say?

Conservation groups lauded the ocean action, but fear it gives short shrift to further limiting fossil fuel production in the ocean and plastic pollution.

Levison said Oceana applauds the intention to integrate environmental justice into federal ocean activities but said the non-profit is concerned the plan only includes a footnote about “the single most important thing that should be done" — ending offshore oil and gas leasing.

A responsible ocean economy would empower the nation to tackle the climate crisis and the increasing loss of marine biodiversity, said Vikki N. Spruill, president and CEO of the New England Aquarium. "Now is the time to mobilize around the blue economy of the future: one where the ocean’s resources are used to meet our clean energy and food security needs, while safeguarding marine life and critical habitats, as well as coastlines and communities."

Will it be enough?

When asked Tuesday about the administration’s actions not being enough to avert catastrophic temperatures, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said: “This is why the president has made tackling climate change a priority.”

Biden has taken more actions than any other president on climate change, she said, vowing that he won’t back down from the challenge. “Does more work need to be done? Absolutely.”

Dig deeper

NASA satellites show: Global warming driving more extreme droughts and floods

Algae in the oceans: Big, stinky blob of algae takes aim at beaches

Contributing: White House correspondent Joey Garrison

Dinah Voyles Pulver and Doyle Rice cover climate, environment and weather issues for USA TODAY. They can be reached at and Find them on Twitter at @usatodayweather and @dinahvp.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden releases plan to harness ocean's power to fight climate crisis