American Leadership for a Sustainable Future

It’s Election Day in America. While we don’t yet know who our new president will be, it’s clear that our next leader will need to tackle the world’s most pressing environmental challenges. How the president responds to these issues will ultimately determine the fate of our nation—and of the world—for decades and centuries to come.

Opinion by Jonathan Foley

Dear Madame or Mister President-Elect,

Congratulations on your victory today.

Now that you have won this hard-fought—and, at times, ugly—election, the time has come for all of us to pull together and get to the real work of steering our country, and our world, toward a brighter future.

We will be looking to you for leadership. Please don’t disappoint us.

Job One: Sustainability

While your administration will face many daunting issues in the coming years, the challenge of global environmental sustainability will be the one that most clearly defines your presidency in the eyes of future generations and historians.

Issues like climate change, biodiversity loss, water and food security, emerging diseases, and environmental disasters are becoming the defining issues of our time—and, indeed, of all time. Nothing else will matter more in the long run.

Our society has a choice to make, and your leadership will play a crucial role in guiding that choice—and acting upon it.

Will we be the first generation in history to leave our descendants a poorer, severely degraded world—and to do so knowingly, while largely sitting on our hands? Or, will we step up, lead, and boldly build a better future for our children, grandchildren, and beyond?

That’s still up to us—and to you—but time is running out. We need bold actions, not flowery rhetoric and worthless pieces of paper. Politicians have already wasted precious decades talking much, but doing little, while scientists have been issuing ever-more-dire warnings.

There’s no time left to waste. This is it.

Reinventing Our Food, Water, and Energy Systems

While climate change receives most of the headlines, the environment is facing a number of big problems. Our atmosphere, oceans, land, and biosphere are all being degraded in several, interwoven ways. In fact, scientists now talk about how we are crossing multiple “planetary boundaries”—areas in which we’re pushing the planet beyond its ability to recover, and beyond anything seen in human history. This is particularly true in terms of biodiversity loss, land use, water consumption, large-scale environmental pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels, deforestation, and agriculture. It’s a perfect storm of environmental degradation. And it’s now happening on your watch.

This might seem intractable, a long list of impossible problems to solve. But it’s not impossible at all. In fact, most of these problems can be traced back to a few core issues—largely tied to how we use and produce food, water, and energy—issues that can be tackled together.

Today, many aspects of our food, water, and energy systems are recklessly unsustainable, and together they are imperiling our planet’s future. For our civilization to endure and thrive, we have to reinvent all of them.

Fortunately, there are abundant solutions to these challenges, and many are at our fingertips. We just have to reach out and take hold of them.

Solutions Require a Systems View

Not surprisingly, quite a few smart people have spent years seeking solutions to our food, water, and energy challenges. And we can build on their efforts. Unfortunately, too many of the “solutions” that have come out of Washington have focused on the wrong targets, while conveniently ignoring many of the underlying problems.

This seems particularly true in energy, where federal tax dollars still massively subsidize fossil fuels, directly or indirectly. At the same time, the government funds such ill-conceived energy “solutions” as corn ethanol, next-generation nuclear power, and so-called “clean coal.” We also subsidize incredibly destructive agricultural and water practices, while funding supposed “solutions” in agricultural technology and water that never seem to go anywhere.

How can we say we’re making any serious effort toward tackling climate change while still subsidizing fossil fuels? How can we even pretend to be serious about sustainable food and water while supporting agricultural policies that harm our wildlife, soil, and watersheds, while providing little or no nutritional benefit to society?

More effective, systems-level solutions to our food, water, and energy challenges simply aren’t getting the attention or funding they deserve from Washington. We need to pay more attention to so-called “soft paths” to fixing our food, water, and energy problems: tackling food waste, reducing deforestation, shifting away from inefficient diets and poor biofuel practices, massively improving water efficiency, making bigger strides in energy efficiency, and deploying more of today’s renewable technologies at scale.

Focus on Leverage Points

I would strongly urge your administration to put forward a more effective and comprehensive set of sustainability solutions. There are many ways to do this, but given the number and magnitude of the challenges, I encourage you to focus on highly effective leverage points: areas in which we can achieve tremendous environmental benefits for relatively low cost and political complication.

Here are some areas worth focusing on:

  • Reduce deforestation. Tropical deforestation is the single greatest threat to biodiversity worldwide, and is one of the largest contributors to climate change (rivaling impacts from the world’s transportation or electricity sectors). Because tropical deforestation is largely concentrated in a few countries, and linked to a handful of global commodities, including soy, beef, palm oil, and timber, it’s a perfect place to focus our effort.
  • Tackle food waste. While it receives very little attention and funding from the government, food waste is one of the single largest environmental problems (and opportunities). With something like 30 to 50 percent of the world’s food going to waste—not to mention the land, water, and chemicals that go into growing this unused food—there are tremendous opportunities to do better. Let’s deploy much more funding, policy action, and R&D to tackle this massive problem.
  • Shift our diets and biofuels. We need to take a comprehensive view of federal subsidies and policies as they relate to our diets and biofuels, and see how we can re-align them to provide the greatest public good—for nutrition, health, rural economies, and the environment—not just political windfalls.
  • Dramatically improve efficiency. There is much progress left to make in efficiency, especially in food production, water use, transportation, heating, and electricity. Let’s deploy the best of American innovation to take major leaps forward in these areas, and become the world’s leading pioneers in such things as high-efficiency transportation, 21st-century manufacturing, advanced lighting, drip irrigation, precision agriculture, and revolutionary heat pumps.
  • Deploy more existing renewables. While we need to continue to improve renewable energy technologies, we can already do a great deal to fix our energy system through advances in efficiency and scaling up the deployment of renewables that exist now. Let’s incentivize the deployment of today’s technologies while continuing to develop the technologies of tomorrow.
  • Focus on non-CO2 greenhouse gasses. To effectively tackle climate change, we can’t forget to address outputs of other greenhouse gasses, like methane (from landfills, fracking, and agriculture), nitrous oxide (from overuse of fertilizers), HFCs, CFCs, and other “exotic” gasses. While these might play a smaller role in the climate solution, they all add up, and some of these gasses can be reduced now, in ways that are cost-effective and politically feasible.
Measure the Things That Matter

I also strongly urge you and your science advisors to track your progress in sustainability by measuring things that actually matter in the real world—things based on our planet’s biology and physics—not on speeches, unsigned bills, and meaningless political games.

We should have an annual sustainability “report card” that measures things like:

  • How much carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and other heat-trapping gasses did the U.S. emit this year? And is it falling quickly enough to achieve targets (80-percent reduction from 1990 levels) by 2050?
  • How much water are we using in the nation, and where is it still being drawn down faster than nature can replenish it? How are American water systems performing in terms of the overall social good produced and the environmental damage caused?
  • How are we closing the gap between the stuff farmers grow, and the nutrition that is actually delivered to people, especially those in need? How are American farms doing if we measure the delivery of nutrition relative to the environmental damage caused?

We need to be better at measuring the right things. If we don’t, we’ll fail to make any meaningful progress.

A Future Based on America’s Best Ideals

Finally, call me sentimental, but I still believe in the American Dream, and I would encourage you to embrace it too.

I’m not talking about the relentless pursuit of personal wealth. I mean the old American Dream, the one that most of our immigrant ancestors had: Work hard. Play fair. Contribute to the community. Stand up for the values you believe in. Build a better future for everyone. And, above all else, make sure that our children have a better life than we did.

It’s the dream that saw America through the Depression and two World Wars. It was the spirit behind forging our nation’s great institutions and accomplishments. It’s the dream that many of our great-grandparents and grandparents had, and I think it might be the key to charting a sustainable future for our nation, and the world.

Working together, we will be able to achieve real prosperity for people and the planet, prosperity that will endure across the generations, ensuring the opportunity for a meaningful life for all.

I would be so proud of a country—and a president—that did that again.

Image credits:
Earth glowing against dark sky: Loops7
Mosaic of green fields: @SelimAzad
Maze of roads: Thomas Northcut
Bavarian solar plant: Westend61
River delta: Sunset Avenue Productions

Jonathan Foley

Dr. Jonathan Foley is the Executive Director of the California Academy of Sciences, where he oversees the institution’s programs of scientific research, education, and public engagement. A world-renowned scientist, Foley has made major contributions to our understanding of land use and climate, global food security, and the sustainability of the world’s resources. In addition to recognizing their importance for answering big scientific questions, Foley thinks the 46 million specimens in the Academy’s collections are just plain cool, and getting to explore them is one of his favorite job perks. Follow him on Twitter @globalecoguy.

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