A "Blue New Deal" Would Benefit More Than Just the Oceans

Clean oceans could have major psychological benefits.

blue, ocean, man, swimming

During Wednesday’s Climate Town Hall, presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren spoke in favor of a “blue new deal,” a plan to protect the Earth’s oceans in the face of the worsening climate crisis. Conserving our oceans could have vast implications for rapidly rising global temperatures, but it can also pay off in the brain.

This idea of a blue new deal borrows language from the “Green New Deal” but is hyper-focused on protecting the oceans. Despite the major role oceans play in a sustainable future, they are a secondary focus of the Green New Deal’s proposals. In response, some marine biologists have written about the “blue gap” in the Green New Deal.

And even though it hadn’t gotten much attention before, the phrase “blue new deal” took off after the Climate Town Hall. Now #bluenewdeal has its own Twitter conversation, as well as an endorsement from Warren.

“If you want to call it a blue new deal, count me in,” Warren said, after she heard the phrase used by a New England oyster farmer whose farm was destroyed by two hurricanes.

Oceans are important for moderating the Earth’s climate because they capture roughly 25 percent of the CO2 released into the atmosphere. But the oceans also suffer for our climate sins: They’re losing that carbon-capturing ability, acidifying, and changing color. As the ocean has less and less ability to help get climate under control, health concerns become particularly salient, from disease, to poor mental health been linked to climate change.

Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, Ph.D., an expert on healthy urban living at Barcelona Institute for Global Health (also called IS Global), tells Inverse that protecting our oceans comes with benefits for our brains too. Just being exposed to the refreshing sight of the deep blue — sometimes called “blue space” — has shown benefits for mental health.

“I think like green space, blue space has an impact on stress reduction and restoration and improves mental health. We don’t know exactly why though and more research needs to be done,” he tells Inverse.

Oceans and Mental Health

A recent wave of mental health research has focused on the impact of nature, sometimes called “green space.” Green space exposure in childhood can predict rates of depression later in life. Spending time in “tree canopy” is linked to lower rates of psychological distress and better self-rated health.

Nieuwenhuijsen is working on a project with sponsorship from the European union that specifically focuses on how “blue space” influences human health. Oceans count as blue space, but so do ponds, lakes, or rivers.

Up to this point, blue space has only been examined in a handful of studies. But a 2017 review in the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health found that current studies on blue space show its strongest effects are on mental health and physical activity, but not obesity or cardiovascular conditions. Green space, for its part, has shown some impacts not just on mental health but also on blood pressure.

oceans, mental health, blue space
Early research indicates that spending time near blue spaces can boost mental health.  

Right now, Nieuwenhuijsen says it’s hard to disentangle the effects of green or blue space but that mental health benefits seem to be the most powerful effect so far.

“We expect similar benefits but we see them mainly for mental health,” he says. “Other outcomes such as premature mortality show more mixed effects. The exciting part is that there still few studies, but the few that there are regularly show health benefits.”

A Call to Protect Oceans For Human Health

Politically, a blue new deal is just a concept for now. But this year, scientists have also raised concerns that if the global community doesn’t work to protect oceans, we might not get a chance to fully understand the benefits they can have for health, both mental and physical.

The United Nations has designated the decade between 2021 and 2030 as the “Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.” Amongst other goals, this initiative is supposed to help create an atlas of the ocean and workshop solutions to help countries manage the health of their marine environments. Right now we’re in the “planning phase” of this program, and some scientists are already worried that we’re not acting fast enough.

In March, an editorial in The BMJ argued that public health experts and marine scientists need to accelerate their efforts to protect the ocean as more and more work shows just how much it’s tied to human health. For a particularly visceral example of this connection, just look at microplastic pollution. As these tiny plastics spread around the globe, wreaking havoc on marine environments, we’ve also found evidence of it in human stool on multiple continents.

In other words, what starts in the ocean often ends up impacting our health, as these scientists added in their editorial:

The current and future state of the global ocean will in large part determine the current and future sustainability, health, and wellbeing of everyone. Although coastal communities are on the front line, ultimately we are all affected by the seas around us.

Nieuwenhuijsen, from his standpoint, agrees that the ocean is “extremely important for health.” But his very early research points to one huge reason why, one that many scientists haven’t even considered.

Blue spaces may hold even more power over our brains that we thought, and it’s time to do something about that.