A critical role

How Presidential Candidates Can Make Public Lands Part of the Climate Solution

Bob Wick, BLM

Platforms must recognize public lands as part of a national climate solution

By Jamie Williams, President of The Wilderness Society Action Fund

Our public lands play a critical role in addressing climate change. Elected leaders, especially candidates for the highest office in the land, should be telling the American people how they intend to manage these shared lands and resources to help tackle the defining challenge of our time.  

The federal government manages huge swaths of the country—an area larger than California, Texas and Alaska combined. These lands contain iconic national parks and some of the best recreational opportunities, hunting and fishing spots, and awe-inspiring places on earth, as well as irreplaceable cultural and sacred sites.  

But the federal government is also one of the largest energy asset managers in the world. In 2017, federal lands and waters contributed 42 percent of total U.S. coal production, 24 percent of total U.S. oil production and 13 percent of total U.S. gas production. The fossil fuels extracted from public lands contribute heavily to climate change. The emissions they produce equal more than 20 percent of all U.S. carbon pollution.   

The president has authority to determine how our shared lands and mineral resources are managed. They should ensure our public lands and waters are at the leading edge of climate progress.   

As elected leaders and candidates for the highest office develop their plans to address climate change, The Wilderness Society Action Fund encourages all to offer robust and visionary public lands policies that transition our public lands from a major part of the climate problem to an important part of a national climate solution.     

Here are the most important goals of a climate plan for public lands: 

1) Aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions connected to public lands and waters to net zero by 2030 while strengthening local economies. The science is clear that we have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by mid-century to avoid irreversible warming, which gives us just over a decade to take bold action to reshape the way we produce energy and manage our land. The next president will have the power to ensure our public lands lead the transition away from fossil fuels by setting an ambitious goal to reach this target ahead of schedule – net zero emissions by 2030 from public lands and waters. To reach this goal the next administration must: 

  • Drastically reduce needless methane pollution, eliminate production subsidies for fossil fuel polluters, and require fossil fuel developers to mitigate climate impacts.
  • Rapidly phase down development consistent with a carbon budget set by leading climate science.
  • Make investments to increase the health, resilience and carbon storage potential of public lands and waters.
  • Honor the communities and workers who rely on jobs and revenue from fossil fuel projects through investments in programs, incentives and partnerships to diversify and strengthen local economies and ensure community vitality.  2.

2) Unlock the power of public lands to help power a clean energy future. Some of the nation’s best solar, wind and geothermal resources are found on public lands, yet less than five percent of renewable power is generated there. We can significantly expand deployment, creating jobs and new revenue for states, while protecting our most sensitive wild lands and wildlife habitat. The next presidential administration should prioritize responsible expansion of renewable energy by setting a bold target and incentivizing development in low-conflict places that avoids sensitive areas and minimizes impacts.  

3) Protect and connect large landscapes to help nature adapt to climate change. Protecting more of our public lands and managing them to sustain wildlife and natural systems is our best chance to avoid the worst impacts of climate change and ensure we leave a livable world for future generations. This means ensuring that public lands play a critical role in meeting the goal set out by renowned scientists, conservationists and indigenous leaders to protect 30 percent of lands by 2030. This includes conserving culturally significant and sacred places that are put at risk by climate change, drilling, mining and other threats. It also includes putting people to work healing the land to make forests and parks more resilient to climate impacts, improving habitat quality for species already stressed by climate change. 

4) Help ensure everyone has access to nature. Access to green space is a human essential, and research continues to document the importance of nature in maintaining physical and emotional health. More parks and open space are needed to help cool large urban areas, and transit options must better connect the most vulnerable to natural areas. Public lands should help ensure equitable access for all people, especially communities on the frontline of climate impacts and those feeling the brunt of pollution from the fuels driving climate change.    

The federal government, and especially the president, has authority to determine how our shared lands and mineral resources are managed. As both the largest single land holder and energy asset manager in the nation, the federal government should ensure our public lands and waters are at the leading edge of climate progress.