How Could The U.S. Withdrawal From The Paris Agreement Affect Our Oceans?

San Diego Coastkeeper's Matt O'Malley on the major concerns of environmental groups

Cloudbreak wasn’t the only reason Fiji crossed into your newsfeed this week. On Tuesday, Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainiramara — this year’s President of the United Nations’ conference on climate change — joined California Governor Jerry Brown in Sacramento to sign an international agreement that sets new collective goals in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. The event was an emblematic reaction to President Trump’s decision on June 1st to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Paris Agreement, described in terms and language that still, even weeks after America’s exit, makes many scratch their heads as to what the agreement was all about. What did our involvement mean in the first place? Would participating countries face consequences if they missed their environmental goals? Maybe most pressing for surfers and other ocean-goers: how did the agreement impact the health of our global waterways? What could the agreement erasure mean for our oceans now?

We called San Diego Coastkeeper Executive Director Matt O’Malley last week to hear his thoughts on what could follow from the national decision, how the news measured up to past U.S. environmental policies, and the plan of action moving forward for environmental groups like Coastkeeper.

How did The Paris Agreement’s goals affect the health of our oceans?

The agreement itself wasn't strictly enforceable. It did have goals and measures as to what participating countries would have to achieve over time. It really aimed to have all participating countries doing their best to curb carbon emissions, to work toward renewable futures, to keep climate change in check. Of course, that had impacts on not only our land-based environment, but our coastal environment, as well.

After the withdrawal, what are the implications for our oceans now?

It's interesting. The first thing to figure out is where other people will step up, even if the current administration isn’t involved. You're starting to see that. But if America, as a large emitter of carbon emissions, falls back and doesn’t adequately adjust, you could see some pretty drastic things come about. In the ocean environment, you'd probably see coastal infrastructure inundated by flooding and sea level rise. That can lead to poor water quality associated with wastewater on the coastlines, so you'll most likely end up with more polluted beaches. Some beaches might even disappear over time. Here in California, especially in Southern California, any rise in sea level is going to impact those beaches because they're not being re-nourished at this point.

From a strictly surfing standpoint, sea level rise will lead to higher tides and beach erosion, so it will certainly change some, if not many, surf breaks. Some reef breaks could completely disappear from sea level rise. It could be pretty drastic. If we don't do anything, some major ramifications could result from inaction. What we hope to see in the absence of national leadership here, and what we are seeing, is the response of leadership among major cities. Mayors throughout the country, like in San Diego, Atlanta, Chicago, and Boston are coming together and committing to doing something about this, despite what the national government is saying. The issue is so important to local and statewide decision makers.

Set against the backdrop of American history, how does this kind of environmental decision stack up in significance?

It's huge. Personally, I don't think I've seen a national leader be so adverse to environmental interests or to positive environmental movement, I think that's safe to say. It's such a monumental issue that all of us are going to face, not only for our coastal states, but throughout the whole country and throughout the entire world. For national leadership and the Trump administration in DC to turn a blind eye to the future of our communities is ridiculous, and it's something that our groups and other groups won't let stand. It's a betrayal of the environment. But beyond that, it's a betrayal of our future.

What does the withdrawal means for your mission at Coastkeeper, and for other like-minded organizations?

Since the election, we've seen a lot of erosion, if not outright attack, on environmental policy, addressing climate change, water quality, air quality — things of that nature. It’s maybe one of the biggest slaps in the face you can receive. But it's mobilizing Coastkeeper and other groups across the country to continue to do our mission, to continue working harder. We continue to advocate being activists locally, whether it's through pressure through the local community, whether it's throughout the state in California, or in other states – there are other Coastkeepers and other Waterkeepers around the world talking about this. Two days from now, I'll be going to the Waterkeeper Alliance Conference [in Park City, Utah] where one of the first things we're going to discuss is Trump's impact on the environment, and how we're going to combat it. You're seeing that happen all over the place. We're really galvanized. We're finding, and it's amazing, that there's a lot of support among the public to work toward pushing against the administration and continue the environmental progress we've made to date. So it's caused us to work double-time, yes, but we're built to combat this type of thing, through education, advocacy, science, and litigation, if we need to. We're prepared and willing to do that to keep us on the right path moving forward.