Climate Change and Public Lands
What does climate change have to do with public lands? Everything!
Much of Broads’ work is related to reducing or eliminating activities on public lands that contribute to climate change. We do this through restoration and stewardship of public lands, as well as ongoing monitoring to measure the health of our ecosystems. Keeping lands and waters intact is an important first step to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Climate change has already impacted both ecosystems and human communities with shifting seasonal events, altered plant and animal ranges, accelerating sea level rise, extreme precipitation trends, longer wildfire seasons, worsening pest outbreaks, and longer and more intense heat waves.
These dangerous impacts not only affect ecosystems, but also the communities, cultures, and economies that depend upon them.
America’s public lands can offer vital nature-based solutions to climate change. But are we allowing these landscapes to reach their full climate-defense potential?
The Great Carbon Imbalance
Industrialization and intensive commercial uses on public lands is on the rise. And when we look at these trends in the context of climate change, we find some startling impacts.
When oil, natural gas, and coal extracted from public lands are burned, carbon is released into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, forests, marshes, and coastal wetlands are “carbon sinks”—capturing carbon through photosynthesis and locking it up in deep soils.
But fossil fuel production on public lands introduces roughly 4.5 times the carbon into the atmosphere than our public lands can capture. From 2017 to 2020 alone, nearly 10 million additional acres of public land has been leased for new extraction—an area larger than the state of Maryland!
The old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest are some of the richest carbon sinks in the world—but logging and logging-related emissions have decimated them by 27% in California, 34% in Washington, and by nearly half in Oregon. When ranked relative to the world’s worst emitting countries, America’s public lands rank as the 5th largest carbon emitter in the world!
Climate change is also impacting communities across the globe, but these effects are not felt equally across all communities. Frontline communities are experiencing the first—and often the worst—effects of climate change, including pollution and flooding.
Frontline communities include:
- Indigenous peoples
- Those most dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods
- Communities of color
- The economically disadvantaged
Indigenous communities often rely heavily on the natural environment in ways that are critical to cultural survival. Climate change is projected to impact “First Foods” or historically cultivated subsistence, economic, or ceremonial foods, which often include berries, roots, fish, and local wildlife. These communities often have fewer economic resources to prepare for and cope with climate disruptions.
A Natural Climate Defense
Nature-based climate solutions and public lands stewardship are vital tools to lessening these impacts. Public lands such as old-growth forests and intact river estuaries have the right tools to not only lock up carbon, but also to boost resilience for both people and wildlife in the face of climate change.
Public lands help us to adapt to climate change by:
- Providing diverse habitats and connected landscapes that allow space for species to adapt
- Reducing the impacts of flooding to downstream communities
- Maintaining cool rivers amid rising temperatures while slowing runoff and recharging depleted water tables
As communities around the world plan and implement strategies to adapt to climate change, we can all contribute by being better stewards of our public lands.
Where to begin?
The natural landscapes that shape your region form a unique piece of the climate change puzzle. Get to know the local, state, and federal land agencies in your area, ask about the policies and challenges that are affecting natural climate solutions, and join with Great Old Broads for Wilderness to explore ways to protect America’s public landscapes!