America’s public lands can help solve the climate crisis instead of contributing to it
The Green New Deal resolution—the grandest gesture Congress has made toward climate action in decades, even if it is largely symbolic—is astonishing in its boldness. It calls for no less than weaning the country off fossil fuels within ten years, while ensuring a “just transition” for coal, oil, and gas workers into clean-energy jobs. Critics on both sides of the aisle have derided the resolution, which maintains that everyone should have “clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food and access to nature,” as naive, overly ambitious, and vague. But some energy-policy experts see another, little-discussed shortcoming: while about a quarter of U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions come from federal lands, the resolution barely mentions them; the closest it comes is in a trio of short declarations, one that calls for “ensuring that public lands, waters and oceans are protected,” another that calls for “restoring and protecting threatened, endangered and fragile ecosystems through locally appropriate and science-based projects that enhance biodiversity and support climate resiliency,” and a third that advocates “restoring natural ecosystems through proven low-tech solutions that increase soil carbon storage” to pull more carbon out of the air.
If the goals of the Green New Deal are to be met, public lands will need to play a central role while the resolution’s concepts are turned into detailed, actionable blueprints, energy-policy experts say.
“The Green New Deal should be about replacing fossil-fuel energy with clean energy, and the public lands are an essential tool for doing both,” says David Hayes, who served as deputy secretary of the Interior Department during the Obama administration and is now a law professor at New York University. “One-third of the land mass in the U.S., and all of the offshore [land], is in federal hands. So the federal government is uniquely situated to lead.”
Federal lands hold tremendous untapped potential for unleashing a renewables boom and sucking down the carbon dioxide that’s warming the globe, Huntley and other energy-policy experts say. While federal lands hold significant oil, gas, and coal reserves, they also have some of the nation’s best solar and wind resources. MORE