Climate change, a divided America, and the need for sustainability policy

Guest blog by Ira Feldman and Matt Polsky (Ira Feldman is former Special Counsel at US EPA headquarters who has led sustainability and climate initiatives in law, policy, standards, politics and academia over the last 20 years. Matt Polsky is a New Jersey-based sustainability change agent and a Ph.D. student in Sustainability at Erasmus University in The Netherlands.)

The U.S. has just dodged a democracy-kill shot with the election of a new President, but we still have immensely difficult problems to solve. Two of the major ones are climate change and the mutual despise often present between those who intensely disagree about politics and values. Our sense is that we can’t solve one without addressing the other – and we may not get another chance at this. COVID-19 has changed the world, unexpectedly giving us a rare opportunity to do things very differently. We need to gear ourselves to think differently, and sustainability can provide us with an overarching, guiding framework by which to do so. 

Post-Trump era, it is critical to bring the country together, to restore our democracy, to move us out of our civil war. Without that it’s unlikely we can meet our climate change goals. And we’re not going to meet those goals without an overriding sustainability perspective. Despite some claims that sustainability can mean everything and nothing, simultaneously, or other criticisms, a more informed appreciation of its robust nature can show that, while it certainly won’t answer all tough questions, it offers a viable guide to policymaking and other decision-making.

Sustainability had a moment just below the limelight about 20 years ago in the U.S., but it never quite got enough attention to gain traction for widespread acceptance as a policy or sufficiently meaningful concept. However, a sustainability framework can help us view most problems, including "wicked" ones, through an integrative environmental, economic and social justice lens. Serious sustainability policy dialogue died with the end of the President’s Council on Sustainable Development (PCSD) in 1999. It was an unappreciated loss.

Even so, sustainability has made surprising progress in the U.S. over the last two decades, but not much in federal law or policy. Some companies, big and small, across many sectors, have embraced or at least started credible sustainable business practices, including sustainability strategies and voluntary sustainability reports. Some in the financial sector are mainstreaming environmental, social and governance (ES&G) factors -- the rough equivalent of sustainability – in investment decision making. Besides business, local sustainability initiatives have become commonplace. Many colleges have established sustainability programs.

Some critics make very answerable charges about sustainability being passé or dead, or replaceable by other terms such as resilience, regenerative, or the circular economy. This reflects less than complete understanding of the term; a bad rap from some business’ misuse of it; the suggestion of an easily accommodated useful new property, such as clarifying the environmental goal is restoration, not maintenance of the status quo; as well as lack of knowledge about cutting edge efforts like the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These hinder efforts to restore a vibrant sustainability discussion in the U.S.

In a divided society, sustainability offers an opportunity to move towards some degree of convergence. Naïve? No, not really. For instance, sustainability thinking can positively shape the relationship between economy and environment, aiming for many more win-wins. Sustainability has elements that can potentially appeal to conservatives, such as love of nature and the importance of community. 

Sustainability does not ignore economic reality – it is “built into” sustainability as one of three core dimensions. The other is social justice. This means we can move beyond considering environmental justice as a sometimes difficult “add on” to environmentalism. Sustainability is the deepening integration of all three usually separate areas. It is not the same as “going green” – another key misconception which has blocked our path towards appreciating the value of sustainability.

While, certainly, all sectors need to go more deeply into sustainability and show more consistency, some of the building blocks are already there for a larger, comprehensive, and aggressive U.S. sustainability approach. Still, many will say we can’t transform existing policies, institutions, and practices or substantively expand sustainability thinking and behavior. We are not suggesting it will be easy. There will be losers such as companies that can’t or won’t see this or adapt. It will take superb facilitators, using innovative techniques. But we can think of no other way to try to solve these two challenges.

For those willing to make the effort, it’s the creative tension and the process used to resolve some apparent contradictions (e.g. re-thinking how necessary regulations can be shaped versus the possibility of using more non-regulatory tools) which could reveal new possibilities for problem-solving, and potentially bring traditional adversaries, or those with different agendas or perspectives together, in surprising ways. Some of the other obstacles are many unexpected mindset barriers, held even among the concept’s friends. For example, we may need to resolve unnoticed inconsistencies between espoused sustainability values and what we do.  

The incoming Biden Administration, while going in the right direction with its newly-designated climate change team, is still missing some creative ideas, including green design, other possibilities for green jobs, and European-centric ideas about transformation, which a sustainability perspective could inspire. More concretely, we suggest a focus on three specific areas to advance sustainability in the U.S. as Joe Biden takes the helm. We should: 

  • Commit to be guided by, and strive towards achieving, the 17 SDGs, as we rejoin the international community; 
  • Create a National Sustainability Strategy through a true multi-stakeholder process that results in a permanent Council or Forum to operationalize its component elements; and,
  • Charter that new body to fill the sustainability policy void left by the PCSD.

The PCSD was actually co-led by, and with participants from, traditional adversaries like business and environmental groups, and reached surprising consensus in a number of areas. So even before the Trump era, at the federal level the U.S. had lost its way on the road to sustainability, and needs to get it back. This time, though, we can inform our efforts by looking at what national sustainability policy bodies in most other developed nations has done over the last 20 years, including their current efforts to align with the SDGs.

We are long time sustainability proponents, within various sectors and scales, personally and professionally pretty beat up from making this case. What we offer here is based upon what we’ve perhaps uniquely learned over the decades. We hope it could be helpful, especially at this time, for example, to Gina McCarthy as she tries to integrate climate change into all federal agencies. If not, it presents a base for citizens to pick up and build upon in perhaps another era when the times are ready for it -- if that ever happens. And, if so, it should be useful to help new practitioners, change-agents, and policymakers who want to accelerate their learning curves and avoid some mistakes (which we’ve made or seen).

New ways of thinking can be hard to absorb, especially against the inertial pull of unquestioned business-as-usual practices. At a fundamental level, sustainability puts front-and-center a big-picture question that we don’t usually think about: “Can we keep going the way we’re going?” With the simple and obvious answer “No,” it is harder to stay complacent and in denial. We can then move forward, thinking more about what it will take, whether easy or not, to flip the focus towards: “We’re learning how to get from here to sustainability.”




  1. The best way to bridge the divide and solve the mutual despise is to raise the level of general education in the country, and put better controls on social media. People need to learn how to question sources and think for themselves, rather than being blindly led down dark alleys by the blind.


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