A More Sustainable Union:
The Case for a Federal Sustainability Policy

A More Sustainable Union

A recently published report urged the U.S. government to develop a national sustainability policy and to give federal agencies the tools to work more closely in managing the nation’s resources. F&ES professor Thomas Graedel, chairman of the National Research Council-appointed committee that produced the report, describes what such a framework might look like, and why it should be a national priority.

Q: Your committee met with numerous federal agency leaders and stakeholders to discuss sustainability. What did you learn?

Thomas Graedel: Well, the real charge that we had as a committee was to offer advice as to how government agencies could best deal with issues that cross their typical disciplinary boundaries. Agencies — the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the others — are set up by statute and the statues say, “The purpose of this agency is such and such…” And that works fine as long as the problem is something that fits the statute. But sustainability issues often don’t fit that very well. They cross boundaries.

For instance, you have issues like energy and water and food. Energy can be supplied if you have enough cooling water for the nuclear power plants or fossil fuel plants. Water is obviously central for agriculture, but you only have it if you have energy enough to pump it around. And food depends on both of those things. So you’ve got the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture, the EPA in there someplace. NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] is in there someplace. But the government is not set up to efficiently move across those boundaries. It’s set up really to seal itself off from moving across the boundaries.

Q: So it’s not necessarily disorganization or lack of creativity. It’s more a question of how the government is set up?

GRAEDEL: It’s set up that way by statute and by its funding. Generally speaking, the different agencies are funded by different committees in Congress. And those committees tend to fund the core actions, and not an awful lot of stuff outside those core actions. There’s also the tradition that if you’re in the Department of Energy you do energy stuff. So often it takes real initiative to move from one place to another.

Q: What would a framework that more effectively addresses these complexities look like?

GRAEDEL: The committee suggested two different things: One was to have a framework that says, “Make sure you get everybody involved to the table.” Because if you forget somebody it’s probably not going to work very well. Remember that you’re not trying to optimize the pieces, you’re trying to optimize the system.

And we suggested rewarding those who show particular initiative in crossing boundaries. We recommend supporting research that crosses boundaries, which means that agencies have to be willing to give up some of their core money to investigate sustainability-related issues that cross boundaries.

Probably the most innovate recommendation of the committee was to have the government issue an executive order to create a national sustainability policy… The general idea is that it would show that the government thinks that sustainability is important, and realizes that sustainability issues are multifaceted. It encourages agencies to look and see where things that they’re doing interface with others and figure out ways to get together with them and work out action plans to do it. It doesn’t set up any new agencies. In fact, we think it probably would save some money because there’s often some duplication in what agencies do. But the principal idea is to increase efficiency for these problems that are interdisciplinary.

There are some models for actions that involve cross-agency approaches… There is one that was set up in 2010 called the National Oceans Policy, and it deals with working to preserve the oceans for wildlife, for recreation, all the things we need the oceans for.

Q: Who ultimately would have the final responsibility?

Graedel: The committee was purposely not prescriptive, except to say that we weren’t talking about new agencies. What happened with the Oceans Policy is that they set up a committee with people from all the relevant agencies to get together and say, “What are the things we want to address in this plan? Who’s going to take this piece and draft it up?”

Q: Do you think there is an appetite out there among agencies to work together cooperatively and address these issues from a big-picture perspective?

Graedel: I don’t think it’s universal. But for many agencies and people, it is. And the fact that they were willing to put some money on the table and support a committee to think about this a bit is evidence of interest.

Q: Should people be hopeful this can be accomplished in the current political climate?

Graedel: It’s hard to be hopeful about a lot of things in this political climate, I suppose. I think the fact that it doesn’t call for new organizations, it doesn’t call for new funding, it basically calls for initiative and the recognition from higher authority that this makes good sense, that can get a lot of this done without the deep involvement of the usual way in which things are often done at governmental levels.

Q: What is at stake if the U.S. government doesn’t think more about sustainability in a holistic way?

Graedel: We looked at a case study in the Mojave Desert, which is used for an amazing variety of things. Every one of the military branches has a training facility in the Mojave Desert. The desert tortoise, which is an endangered species, has its home in the Mojave Desert. California is setting up part of the desert as a center for solar power. And there are other players out there… Inevitably, that’s not gong to be an optimized system. It’s going to be a system that puts constraints on the military trying to do the job the military is set up to do. It’s going to present challenges to wildlife. There are Native Americans issues that are going to be challenged.

If you don’t address these in a holistic way, you’re really just not going to get the best solution. And it will depend on the problem how the less-than-best solution manifests itself. But these are really problems that need to be addressed on their own terms. And too often they’re not done that way because we’ve set up our management system in ways that don’t respond well to the challenge.

Created in 2010 by executive order, the National Research Council’s Committee on Sustainability Linkages in the Federal Government was sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Department of Energy, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Science Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, BP, Lockheed Martin, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation.

Read the full report: http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=13471

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PUBLISHED: August 16, 2013

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