Summer beckons—and with it, the season’s first trip to the beach, which remains the number-one outdoor recreational activity for Americans of all classes and ideologies. It may be one of the last truly nonpartisan activities we do together. But thousands will come out of the water on June 9 for the first ever March for the Ocean—and that should be nonpartisan too.
True, the Trump administration has proposed expanding offshore oil drilling to more than 90 percent of our public seas while at the same time eliminating many of the safety measures on oil-rig blowout preventers and offshore operations that were put into effect after the BP/Deepwater Horizon disaster of eight years ago, which killed 11 oil workers and became one of our most protracted environmental nightmares.
But this proposed drilling has sparked widespread opposition from citizens and elected officials across the political spectrum—beach-state governors are almost unanimous in their opposition, whether they’re burned red by the sun or chilled blue by the early-season water. Equally unpopular is the Trump proposal to shrink marine sanctuaries and national marine monuments if they limit access to oil, even though these sites act as both great wilderness parks in the sea and biological reserves for the future in a changing ocean.
The opposition comes because everyone knows that oil spills follow offshore drilling as surely as seagulls follow ferries. And more and more are figuring out that even when the oil makes it safely onshore, the carbon from its combustion spills into the atmosphere, acidifying the ocean, warming it, and raising it to the point where barrier islands and beaches are beginning to disappear. That’s why the March for the Ocean is promoting a rapid transition from test-blasting, drilling, and spilling to clean, job-generating renewable energy.
June will also mark the beginning of the 2018 hurricane season, which could be as active as 2017, which brought us the serial storms Harvey, Irma, and Maria, with their terrible loss of life and property. The estimated price tag now tops $260 billion. Harvey, with its unprecedented rainfall, was the second most costly US storm ever, after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. Now the Hawaiian island of Kauai just got hit by 50 inches of rain in 24 hours, another unprecedented disaster that has become our new normal.
In past decades we were always given the caveat by scientists that no single weather event could be attributed to human-caused climate change, although the trend line was clear. However, two studies were recently able to attribute 15 to 38 percent of the “rain bomb” and flooding during Harvey to fossil-fuel-fired climate change. It’s clear that we need to leave the oil safely under the seabed.
The key fossil fuels, coal and oil, were admittedly innovative energy systems for, respectively, the 16th and 19th centuries. Offshore energy meant whale oil until the first offshore oil wells were drilled atop wooden piers in Summerland, California (in Santa Barbara County), in 1896. “The whole face of the townsite is aslime with oil leakages,” reported the San Jose Mercury News five years later.
The history of offshore drilling is one of exploring new frontier waters and then polluting them. The modern environmental movement can be traced to two emblematic events—the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969, with its images of oil-covered shorebirds, and the Cuyahoga River catching fire in Cleveland that same year. Of course, in 1969 the offshore-oil debate was still framed as marine pollution versus energy. Today it’s also become a product-liability issue—this product, used as directed, overheats your planet, supercharges hurricanes with pools of abnormally warm ocean water, inundates your low-lying cities, and acidifies your seas.
In visiting offshore deep-water platforms and meeting the roughnecks and roustabouts working the drill decks, you can’t help but be impressed by the work they do—as challenging as any carried out by American whalers, who risked their lives killing the leviathans, whose oil we used as the lubricant of the machine age. But as we eventually did with the whalers, it’s time to honor the offshore oil workers’ contribution to our maritime heritage and move on—maybe to new and equally challenging jobs, such as offshore wind-turbine technician.
The ocean and the climate system are intimately linked. The ocean is the driver of climate and weather. It generates half our oxygen and all the rain that feeds our crops and slakes thirst, and it absorbs 90 percent of the heat and a third of the carbon dioxide generated from our burning of fossil fuels—but at a terrible price.
We know what the solutions are to sustain ourselves and our blue marble planet; all we lack is the political will to implement those solutions faster than the problems that confront us. A basic organizing principle, of course, is that you must protect what you love. That’s why this June, we’ll be going to the beach, getting wet and salty in the sea, and then drying off long enough to march for the ocean.