30 by 30: A Bold Vision to Save the Natural World

Senator Tom Udall  /  5 Min Read  /  Activism

“One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, ‘What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?’” —Rachel Carson.

This section of the Rio Grande River flows through Big Bend National Park, one of thousands of protected areas in the United States. Globally, only about 15 percent of land and 7.4 percent of seas are protected or in line for protection, according to the UN. Scientists and conservationists are calling for protecting 30 percent of land and waters by 2030 to combat the biodiversity and climate crises. Photo: Andrew Burr

We have reached a period of enormous upheaval and challenge in this nation and world. A pandemic has killed hundreds of thousands of people and thrown millions out of work. The United States is grappling with a legacy of racism and injustice that has robbed Black and Indigenous people and people of color of their lives and freedom. Both of these pressing matters demand urgent action.

All of this comes against the backdrop of a planet in peril. The Earth is facing dual climate and nature crises that threaten life as we know it. We are in the middle of a sixth mass extinction, and climate change represents an existential threat to our present and future. Already, millions are facing resource and economic insecurity, adverse health effects, and worsening natural disasters—all driven by climate change. These twin climate and extinction crises are accelerating, even as we confront the critical issues before us today.

Yet a common refrain in these past months of health crisis and civil unrest has been: “When can we go back to normal?”

That is the wrong question. Instead, we should ask ourselves the question that Rachel Carson posed: How do we open our eyes to the challenges before us? And how do we keep our eyes open so that we act to create a new normal?

We must be clear-eyed about how we want to emerge from this important juncture. Our national recovery needs to be undertaken with a goal not of going back to normal. Instead, let’s build a more equitable, more sustainable and healthier future—one where we are equipped with the solutions to address the consequences of a warming and fractured planet.

I propose we move forward with a bold vision for our environment and enact policies to halt the climate and extinction crises, build a green economic recovery, and bring environmental justice to communities most affected by pollution, development and climate change.

This bold vision includes protecting 30 percent of our undeveloped lands and water by 2030—30 by 30 to save nature. This is the ambitious, global target that scientists tell us we need to save the planet and ourselves.

In the Senate, I have introduced the “Thirty by Thirty Resolution to Save Nature,” to officially set this conservation goal for the United States. This goal is about restoring and preserving our nation’s outdoor spaces for the benefit of all Americans. To get to 30 by 30, we can undertake a variety of efforts, like creating new national monuments and parks, designating new wilderness areas, creating more urban green spaces, and returning federal lands to a healthier state.

Most people know that we are on a collision course with a climate emergency of epic proportions. Fewer are aware that we also are facing this grave extinction crisis—which is interconnected with our warming climate. As the climate crisis worsens, habitats and ecosystems are destroyed. And as habitats and ecosystems are destroyed, we emit more harmful greenhouse gases. We cannot solve one crisis without solving the other.

Protecting nature is about protecting humanity. It’s that simple. We rely on nature for our economies, food, medicine, recreation—for our very way of life. But in the United States, we are losing a football field’s worth of nature every 30 seconds. A United Nations report published last year warned one million species are at risk of extinction because of human activity.

As we look to protect the natural world, we must see that marginalized communities—communities of color, low-income communities and Indigenous people—bear the worst consequences of the environmental destruction often caused by the rich and powerful. Native lands have been desecrated—many sold off to the highest bidder for oil and gas development, while abandoned mines dot the West and seep toxic pollution into our lands and waters. Research shows that air pollution is disproportionately caused by the consumption habits of white Americans, but Black and Hispanic Americans are disproportionately exposed to such pollution. The concentration of environmental pollution in communities of color leads to the health disparities that we see so plainly today, including how COVID-19 is disproportionately killing Black and Indigenous people and people of color.

Achieving environmental justice must be the North Star of our conservation work—as it is in 30 by 30—to ensure inclusive access to nature and an equitable distribution of its benefits.

There’s no denying the alarming conclusion that the health, social and economic pain of this pandemic is a warm-up act for the devastation of climate change and the extinction crisis. But we do not need to be resigned to that future. There is plenty that federal, state and local governments and communities can do to get to 30 by 30.

What we need is the political will to get there. The good news is that the American people are energized behind this work. Support for bold action to tackle climate change and the extinction crisis is higher than ever. According to recent polling, wide majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents in the West support the 30 by 30 goal. And this effort has global backing: the UN Convention on Biological Diversity has called on nations to protect 30 percent of the planet by 2030.

Young people and people of color, especially, are leading a powerful and justice-driven environmental movement—a movement that looks like America. We need to pay attention to these voices of Black and Indigenous people and people of color, as well as younger generations that have the most at stake, to deliver lasting progress.

If we keep organizing and keep demanding change from our policymakers, we can get to 30 by 30. Contact your member of Congress and urge them to cosponsor the Thirty by Thirty Resolution. Get in touch with your city council, and urge them to protect public spaces. Thirty by thirty is an ambitious goal, and it will take a varied approach to get there—from protecting iconic national landscapes to the park just down the street. National and local efforts alike are essential.

Let’s open our eyes to the grave challenges before us. Let’s be clear-eyed about the solutions. And let’s move forward with a bold vision for the next decade to save the natural world—and thereby, save humanity.

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