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Steward Natural Resources and Address Climate Change

As the nation’s industry and population grow, it is critical that the public, nonprofit, and private sectors effectively steward natural resources and protect the environment for ourselves and future generations.

America’s natural resources—including our public lands—are a rich heritage that has made enormous contributions to our economy, health, environment, and society. And yet, the nation continues to grapple with how to sustainably steward the nation’s forests, lakes, rivers, wildlands, mineral deposits, and fossil fuels. As demand rises for rare earth minerals and lumber, communities throughout the United States must reconcile strongly held, but sharply differing, views regarding jobs, habitat protection, private property rights, open space, recreation, and cultural values. Similarly, climate change and pollution are having negative impacts on oceans and their ecosystems.

In addition to protecting natural resources, the nation must address new and emerging environmental issues, especially pollutants contributing to climate change. Since the passage of major federal pollution control laws in the 1960s and 1970s, the United States has reduced the release of many pollutants to our air, water, and land. Despite this progress, new health and environmental threats have emerged that must be addressed. For example, while domestic greenhouse gas emissions have generally decreased, this decline is insufficient to avoid significant future adverse effects on public health, ecosystems, and infrastructure due to climate change. Other key emerging issues include the rising levels of microplastics and pharmaceuticals in our food and drinking water from oceans, rivers, and lakes.

As issues related to sustainability, proper use, and the intrinsic value of natural places have become more complex, we must move beyond business as usual to develop new solutions to natural resource management, pollution control, and clean energy development and utilization. Public agencies and administrators have a critical role to play in addressing these issues:

  • Nearly 15,100 public agencies and nongovernmental organizations manage over three billion public land and marine acres found in 200,000 separate parks and protected areas. The federal government itself owns and manages about 650 million acres (30 percent of the nation’s landmass), mostly in the Western part of the country. These lands can help combat climate change—for example, forests, parks, and grasslands can absorb millions of tons of carbon—but also contain valuable minerals, energy resources, and other industrial opportunities.
  • Federal, state, and local environmental organizations develop and enforce regulations for water; chemicals and toxins; land, waste, and cleanup; health; and lead, mold, and radon. They are responsible for shaping, executing, and enforcing myriad federal, state, and local laws that govern everything from how we generate electricity to what chemicals we put on our crops.
  • Public agencies at all levels of government have a role in funding clean energy R&D and spinning new technologies off to the private sector. These technologies can help reduce carbon dioxide emissions and mitigate climate change risks.

As part of the Grand Challenge to “Steward Natural Resources and Address Climate Change,” the Academy will work with stakeholders to address how to:

  • Ensure consideration of ecosystem impacts on human health in policymaking and administration;
  • Improve the management of public lands;
  • Mitigate and adapt to climate change and extreme weather events;
  • Protect marine life, animal health, and ecology;
  • Increase clean energy development and utilization; and
  • Identify improvements to regulatory frameworks, policies, and implementation to protect the environment and steward natural resources more effectively and efficiently.

This is an illustrative list of topics. As the Grand Challenges campaign kicks off and progresses, other issues can and will be addressed based on stakeholder feedback about critical needs and opportunities.

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