Building political will for a more sustainable America

BY REP. YVETTE CLARKE (D-N.Y.) AND DR. MICHAEL SHANK

This post was originally published on TheHill.com

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This country desperately needs a positive vision, some goals for where we’re going. Instead, it’s all negative all the time; a daily slashing and burning of hard-fought protections. Take the environment, for example. In this month, the Trump administration officially notified the United Nations of America’s exit from the Paris climate agreement and federal scientists leaked a key climate report to avoid Trump censorship. The offensive has been non-stop. Thanks to six months of regulatory rollbacks, we can expect more coal waste in our water, methane leaks in our air, and species endangered. How’s that for vision.

But the response to these rollbacks can’t just be defensive. Americans want a vision of where we’re going. An offensive strategy, then, is equally essential.

Playing offense, from any rational planner’s perspective, must raise the looming specter of an unsustainable America. What we’re doing – on water and food fronts, for example – isn’t sustainable. (Just look at this month’s ranking of American cities by sustainability to see how much work is needed.) Americans are already speculating where we’ll be in 2020, at the end of Trump’s terrifying tenure, but we should be looking further, at 2030, if we care at all about our survival. And we should be setting short, medium and long-range goals to get there.

Americans goal-set in almost every aspect of our lives. We goal-set at a personal level (e.g. wrist-worn Fitbits), we goal-set our careers, and we goal-set internationally (e.g. Nationally Determined Contributions, which comprised the carbon-cutting Paris climate agreement). And yet, as policymakers, we too-infrequently envision where we need to be, as a country, in ten, fifteen, or twenty years, which leaves us in constant reaction.

Building political will for a more sustainable America won’t be easy, however, since we’re always chasing the latest buzz feed. But let’s start with what’s key to our survival first – in other words, water and food – and build out from there.

On sustainable water usage, for example, we’re nearing a crisis in terms of access to and availability of water. The United States currently faces medium-to-high water stress as droughts becoming more prevalent. Most Americans don’t know that 80 percent of the country was found to be abnormally dry this decade. And thanks to the increasing number of hottest years on record – including 2016 – this problem is not going away. Forty out of 50 state water managers expect water shortages this decade as America nears “peak water”. This is when freshwater is consumed faster than it’s replenished. Some argue that we’re already there.

Shorter showers won’t cut it. Since agricultural and thermoelectric energy industries use the most freshwater in the U.S., we must goal-set to reduce water intensive foods and water intensive energy. Let’s take a lesson from New York, for example, which committed to a 50 percent renewable energy goal by 2030, as did California. They did so because these goals will save lives: Fossil fuel-based air pollution is killing 200,000 Americans annually. It’s time for equally explicit goals around industry water usage.

On sustainable food, similarly, planning will be essential to ensure basic resilience and food security. At the farm, let’s cut back on the pesticides and herbicides going onto and into our food. Toxic chemicals aren’t keeping our crops secure (super-bugs are adapting quickly), and these pesticides and herbicides are fossil-fuel intensive and harmful to our health. We can’t sustain this resource-intensive practice.

Boosting organics, which continue to witness double-digit sales growth, from their 4 percent market share to at least 30 or 40 percent by 2030, would be a meaningful step in a healthier direction. Not only are organics six times less likely to have pesticide residue, they capture more carbon than conventional farming, which will be key in keeping the planet cooler.

At the table, let’s reduce by half the number of Americans living in food insecure households (currently over 40 million). Food insecurity in the U.S. is a burgeoning crisis that’s keeping too many Americans from contributing at their maximum potential and costing taxpayers too much in healthcare upkeep. Let’s ramp up plant-based protein intake, too. Americans eat, on average, 270 pounds of meat per year and one pound of beef requires 1,799 gallons of water. A leaner approach, then, improves our water security.

The co-benefits of this abound. By ramping up plant-based diets and reducing processed foods, we’ll also make a dent in the obesity epidemic in America. Over one-third of the population is obese, due, in part, to decades of agricultural subsidizes that made less nutritious foodstuffs cheaper and healthy food out of reach for much of America. Lowering that obesity rate to 10 percent will be a massive improvement to American health, our workforce, and our economy.

These are just a few of the frontiers needing American vision and goal-setting. The water and food examples above represent some of the most salient problems in America as they’re essential for our survival. Our whole of society needs 2030 goals – America’s Goals – at the federal level, for our industries, our infrastructure, our graduation and labor force participation rates and more.

In the void, others will act. But we need Washington to set ambitious goals and we need to plan for it, before another drought occurs, another city reports contaminated water, another mad cow disease erupts, or another oil rig spills. If we want to be alive and kicking in 15 years, it’s time for an American-sized Fitbit and fast.


Clarke represents New York’s 9th District and is a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, the Committee on Small Business, and the Ethics Committee. Shank teaches sustainable development at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs and is head of communications at the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

 

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