Appoint a presidential commission on sustainable development

Rights of nature movement could help prevent environmental destruction

A view of a section of the Upper Colorado River in Colorado. (Bob Wick/BLM)

By Gary Wockner

Earlier this year, the Democratic National Committee’s Council on the Environment and Climate Crisis released its recommendations for the 2020 Democratic Party platform. I make no apology that I plan on voting for Joe Biden and I hope he uses the recommendations of this Council to address the environmental and climate crisis.

The Council calls its recommendations “Bold, Ambitious, Transformative.” For good reason, the proposal includes numerous programs and policies that could actually help fight climate change and protect our environment rather than simply give lip service.

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In the list are commitments to short and long-term “zero” emissions targets, a “just transition” for workers out of fossil fuel industries, and “massive investments in renewable energy infrastructure.”

The proposal includes several specific recommendations that I strongly applaud. including:

1) Rescind Trump-era rollbacks on environmental protections

2) Protect 30% of all U.S. lands and oceans by 2030 and 50% by 2050

3) Elevate the EPA to a federal department

4) Increase “polluter accountability” including “monetary restitutions” for communities and people that have suffered harms from climate pollution

In addition to the recommendations above, the Council also recommends appointing a “Presidential Commission on Sustainable Development” that would “explore incorporating Rights of Nature principles into U.S. law.”

First, a movement towards rights of nature is desperately needed in the United States. Even pre-Trump, America’s environmental laws were not very strong — they mostly regulated the amount of environmental destruction and pollution rather than stopped it. As just one example, the so-called Clean Water Act doesn’t actually stop the pollution of America’s waterways, it just regulates the intensity of that pollution. Of course, Trump’s changes to the Clean Water Act make it even weaker.

I spend a lot of my time as a river-protection activist in the Southwest United States and around the planet. Giving rights of nature to rivers and waterways could change the playing field to help stop them from being dammed, destroyed and polluted. The rights of nature movement is growing in countries around the world, and in the United States, with what’s called “personhood” status being given to rivers so that the river itself has standing in court and can sue polluters and dam builders to protect clean, healthy, free-flowing rivers.

Second, a Presidential Commission on Sustainable Development is a wonderful idea and has a historical precedent that can be used as a model. In 1993, President Clinton signed Executive Order 12852 creating a commission with that exact title. The Commission appointed scores of experts from industry, government and nonprofits, and worked for two years to arrive at 10 goals “essential to seek economic prosperity, environmental protection and social equity together.”

While the 1993 Commission did not include a rights of nature component, it did include another equally important goal, and an entire task force, centered around Goal #8: “Move toward stabilization the U.S. population.” Called the “Population and Consumption Task Force,” this group met and worked for 14 months to create a range of recommendations for how to stabilize the U.S. population.

President Clinton’s Population and Consumption Task Force even dealt with what they called the “sensitive and explosive issue” of immigration, which included this recommendation endorsed by President Clinton that I strongly favor and work towards in my own global environmental advocacy: “The Task Force also believes strongly in working to ease conditions around the world that force people to leave home, with appropriate economic development and related policies and programs.”

As a long-term Democrat — and a former Colorado Democratic Party campaign manager — I’m voting for Biden for president. It’s my opinion that Trump has been the worst environmental president in American history, and so a dramatic transition to a Biden presidency that included many of the DNC Council’s recommendations is desperately needed.

Gary Wockner, Ph.D., is an environmental activist, scientist and writer specializing in river and water protection, climate change, and population stabilization. Twitter: @GaryWockner.