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Donald Lawson: If I can sail around the world, we can combat the climate crisis

Feb 24, 2021

Donald Lawson

This opinion piece was originally published in the Capital Gazette:
If I can sail around the world, we can combat the climate crisis

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The first time I steered a sailboat, I was 9 years old. Even with the limited worldview of that age, I knew that the freedom on the water was unique and was determined to see the world in its purest form.

Sailing through our majestic oceans for the last 28 years, I’ve been shocked by how much has changed — and how much is our fault.

The epicenter of climate change is our oceans. Those who spend their lives around the ocean can see the damage: coral reefs devoid of color and life, fish migrating toward the poles, tons of plastic in the water ensnaring marine life, and the disappearance of our coastlines — all impacting when, where and how we can sail.

During the current Vendee Globe Solo Around the World Race, no less than five boats were damaged by trash they hit. It’s easy to feel cowed by the magnitude of this challenge, the same way I find myself humbled time and again by the vastness of our ocean.

But in this immense challenge lies immense opportunity.

While I’ve made it my mission to do my part to protect the waters I know and love — including by powering my sailboats almost entirely with clean energy and installing solar panels, hydro-generators, a wind vane and a biodiesel engine — we know that individual actions alone will not be enough. It will take ambitious policies to transform the ocean from a victim of climate change into a powerful source of solutions.

Thankfully, we now have a president and an administration that believe in science and are already prioritizing this fight. Critically, Joe Biden’s administration is prioritizing environmental justice, ensuring that Black, Indigenous and People of Color are at the decision-making table and benefiting from the solutions implemented. Our communities have faced disproportionate harm from climate change and environmental contaminants for decades, and it is past time to address this environmental racism.

President Biden has a mandate to act on climate, and I’m thrilled that he has begun his presidency with bold actions to take a whole-of-government approach to defeating climate change. On his first day in office, Biden signed executive orders reversing dozens of Donald Trump’s anti-environmental rollbacks and directing the U.S. to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement.

But he hasn’t stopped there. He paused new leases for offshore drilling, set a goal of doubling the amount of offshore wind power, and committed to protecting 30 percent of U.S. land and ocean by 2030. I’m particularly pleased that Biden established a White House interagency council on environmental justice and directed 40 percent of federal climate investments to disadvantaged communities.

With new pro-environment control of Congress, there is an incredible opportunity to to fight climate change and protect our ocean. Rep. Raúl Grijalva’s Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act offers a suite of policies to comprehensively tackle these challenges. The bill would invest in protecting blue carbon ecosystems that safely store carbon in the ground, restore our coastlines, and address pollution from the shipping sector.

My journey to record-breaking sailing success requires me to find a balance — between navigation, repairs, sleeping, eating, and mental and physical health. We must take the same approach to saving our ocean and planet — a balance that embraces new technology and phases out the old and invests in our communities. We can save our ocean and leverage it to fight climate change while safeguarding our most vulnerable communities.

It’s not too late to find the balance and turn this ship around. But the action must start now.

Donald Lawson was the first African American man to attempt 12 sailing world records, including the fastest person to sail around the globe, solo. A Baltimore native, he is a former Naval Academy instructor and the two-time winner of the Chesapeake Bay Multihull Championship. Follow his voyage at and Instagram