Interview: Joe Cunningham Talks on South Carolina's Blue Economy

Joe Cunningham
Joe Cunningham

Published Aug 21, 2019 9:21 PM by David Hume

Only nine of the 535 Members of the 115th U.S. Congress have professional backgrounds in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM). In this article one of those unique few, South Carolina Representative Joe Cunningham, talks about how his background as an ocean engineer flavors his policy and South Carolina’s blue economy.

You studied ocean engineering in university and then worked in the field for a little while after graduating, can you briefly describe what attracted you to the sector?

I’ve always loved the water, ever since I was a little kid. I grew up on a lake, but there is nothing like the vastness and beauty of the ocean. Even now, if I have free time, the first thing I’ll do is head to the beach to swim, fish, surf, or dive – you name it, I love to do it. I went in to ocean engineering because I figured it was a great way to spend my time on the water and get paid to do it!

Plus, thanks to the hard work of my high school teachers, I was halfway decent at math and science. A STEM degree felt like a natural fit.

Now as a Representative in the House, how does your background in ocean technology influence your policy? Do you leverage your past experiences very often? More broadly, where do you consider the role of science and engineering in crafting good policy?

I absolutely believe that my STEM background has been incredibly helpful in this job and I rely on my past experiences often. I am used to brokering in facts and data, which shapes the way I view and make legislation. Frankly, I think if there were less people working through a partisan lens and more people dealing with objective analysis, we would probably get a hell of a lot more done.

Science should have a fundamental role in the crafting of good policy. I find it incredibly alarming that facts have taken a backseat to political and partisan rhetoric in recent years. It is crazy to me that we are still arguing about whether or not the climate is changing, whether sea levels are rising or whether the temperature of our ocean is increasing. The science is very, very clear.  The fact that we can not even agree on a baseline of truth makes solving these problems all the more of a challenge. 

South Carolina has a strong maritime heritage, what do you see as the most important blue economy sectors in your region?

Tourism is a 22.6-billion-dollar industry in our state, and the vast majority of that comes from the Lowcountry. Our thriving recreation, fishing, and hospitality industries make the Lowcountry the incredible place it is.

Lowcountry fishermen work hard and play by the rules but illegal fishing undercuts their efforts and damages the ocean’s ecosystem. I’m proud that the House passed my amendment to HR 2740, which will help USAID combat illegal fishing and lead to a more sustainable Blue Economy in both South Carolina and abroad.

My office also has a great relationship with the Port of Charleston, a major part of our Blue Economy in South Carolina. Recently we took U.S. Virgin Island Rep. Stacey Plaskett, chair of the New Democrat Coalition Infrastructure Task Force to the Port so she could see firsthand some of the infrastructure investment that’s needed there.

You introduced The Coastal and Marine Economies Protection Act earlier this year which was just recently passed by the House Committee on Natural Resources. The act seeks to ban offshore drilling in the coastal waters off the U.S. East Coast and around Florida. It sounds like you may not be a huge supporter of offshore oil and gas development, but what are your thoughts on offshore energy development in those areas using marine resources such as offshore wind, wave and ocean currents?

I introduced the Coastal and Marine Economies Protection Act, bipartisan legislation that would permanently ban offshore drilling and seismic airgun blasting off the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts. Here in the Lowcountry, we know that offshore drilling would ruin our economy, vibrant natural resources, and unique way of life. That’s why opposition to offshore drilling isn’t a partisan issue and I’m proud to work with Democrats and Republicans to get this done. 

My bill will have a vote on the House floor early next month. Thanks to the support and hard work of concerned South Carolinians and folks across the country, I fully expect the bill to pass. From there, it is on to the Senate, where I hope Senators Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham will listen to their constituents and support legislation that will benefit all of South Carolina. When you drill, you spill, and our vibrant natural resources are too valuable to risk.

Bigger picture, I believe it is vitally important that we transition away from dirty energy sources. Investing in clean and renewable energy like solar or wind will promote job growth and create a high-tech, green economy that preserves our vibrant natural resources for generations to come. 

South Carolina has numerous coastal and island communities, including in your District around Charleston. Do you worry about the effects of climate change affecting these communities? 

I believe that climate change is the greatest non-military threat facing our nation. I am especially concerned since living in a coastal region like the Lowcountry, we see the impacts of rising sea levels and harsher storm systems firsthand. 

Climate change also poses serious threats to military readiness in my district, and in districts across the country. In the Lowcountry, Parris Island is one of the only two bases that makes enlisted marines and studies show that by 2050, Parris Island could be flooded over a third of the year. Next door, at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, the only base where pilots for F-35Bs are trained, they face a similar fate. I introduced an amendment that passed the House that would ensure future military construction projects meet climate resiliency standards.

Your path from ocean engineer to politics is not what many would call a traditional career trajectory, do you have any advice for how other blue-minded folks can get into politics?

Run! It’s that simple. When I first ran for Congress, no one gave me a chance. But I love the Lowcountry, and I was sick and tired of the way things were being run in Washington. I believed that Congress didn’t need to be defined by partisan gridlock and dysfunction. You can govern by finding common ground and consensus – maybe not on everything, but certainly on some things. If you have a vision for change, throw your hat in the ring. Your community could benefit from your commitment, passion and courage.

Source: The Liquid Grid

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.