In a Divided Congress, Four Opportunities for Cooperation on Nature

December closed one of the most productive U.S. federal legislative sessions for nature ever. By the time the 117th U.S. Congress gaveled out, it had advanced the country’s largest investment in climate action; a massive bipartisan infrastructure package that heavily invests in nature, clean energy, and climate resilience; and a host of bills related to water infrastructure, natural climate solutions, coastal and ocean resilience.

Any one of these advances would have been impressive in itself, but to do them all in just two years shows how far we’ve come in making conservation and climate action central and urgent policy issues in the United States. Some of these victories passed on party-line votes, but the vast majority of measures passed last Congress had strong bipartisan support. 

For The Nature Conservancy (TNC), it has never been about who controls Congress or the White House that defines our policy objectives, but where the science tells us we must act. As the 118th Congress settles in, there are several opportunities to build on the progress of the last Congress and continue bipartisan support for nature.

Farm Bill

© Mark Godfrey/The Nature Conservancy

Arguably the most significant opportunity is the next Farm Bill. The bill has the biggest impact on private land conservation in America, funding programs and practices that invest in U.S. croplands, rangelands, forests, and pasturelands. It is the best opportunity to boost practices that benefit both the health of these landscapes and the producers and communities that depend on them.

Congress typically renews the Farm Bill every five years, often with strong, bipartisan cooperation. The 2018 Farm Bill was the most conservation-focused yet, increasing funding for easements that help farmers conserve their lands, enacting new policies to improve the management of private forest lands, and many other steps. This year, lawmakers will begin their work on the next Farm Bill, which has the potential to drive even more resources toward private land conservation and a host of other priorities, including clean energy, equity, and inclusion.

Recovering America’s Wildlife

© Chris Helzer/TNC

Another opportunity for bipartisan cooperation is a bill that is critical to reversing the country’s dwindling biodiversity. The bipartisan Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (RAWA) nearly made it over the finish line last year, and would be the most consequential bill for U.S. wildlife conservation since the Endangered Species Act. RAWA would invest $1.4 billion a year in state and tribal wildlife agencies’ time-tested efforts to help wildlife species at risk of extinction recover.

For much of the last Congress, the momentum was behind the act, and we still see significant opportunity for Congress to keep that momentum in the new Congress. With a third of U.S. wildlife species at risk of extinction – which in turn endangers our communities at large – Washington has no more time to waste.

Bristol Bay

© Clark James Mishler

It may also be necessary for lawmakers to conserve a place unlike anywhere on Earth. Alaska’s Bristol Bay is a pristine watershed that supports the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery and is home to 31 federally recognized Tribes that have lived and sustained themselves there for generations. It is also threatened by what would be one of the largest open pit mines in the world.

For over two decades, TNC has worked in partnership with individuals and regional organizations in Bristol Bay to analyze the Pebble Mine’s potential impact and working toward greater protections for the lands and waters of the region. While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last week finalized its decision to prohibit and restrict the use of certain waters in Bristol Bay necessary for developing Pebble Mine, there may be a need for additional protections to ensure the broader watershed can continue to be protected in the years to come. 

Ensuring the Success of Last Session’s Wins

As much as it is essential to advance new policies, it is just as important to preserve those wins for nature already in place. The 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law and last year’s climate bill are two of the most significant steps the United States has ever taken to preserve nature and humanity’s future. Now that they are both law, these investments must be preserved and effectively used to enhance resilience in the face of growing climate impacts and mitigate climate change. Doing so will ensure the best possible outcomes for people and nature.

Science such as our Resilient Lands Mapping Tool and Power of Place-West can help guide that work, and forthcoming policy research from TNC and partners on issues ranging from addressing U.S. wildfire risks to curbing U.S. biodiversity loss can serve as a springboard for further bipartisan cooperation.

The enormous legislative accomplishments of the last two years were not anomalies but just the latest additions to the incredible progress Congress has made in recent years on climate, resilience, clean energy, and conservation.

Many of those past victories were made during times of divided government. We know this Congress can do the same.

Former U. S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is a heart and lung transplant surgeon and global board chair of The Nature Conservancy, one of the most wide-reaching conservation organizations in the world with over 400 scientists across 76 countries. 

At the time of publishing this article, Darci Vetter was the Global Head, Policy and Government Relations for The Nature Conservancy. She led TNC’s work to expand what is possible in conservation through transformational policies that achieve equitable climate and conservation outcomes for people and nature. She is an expert in international trade, agriculture and environmental policy.

This article was originally published by The Nature Conservancy on February 7th, 2023.

Explore Natural Climate Solutions in action across the United States in U.S. Nature4Climate’s Building Ambition Through Action page.

A Path Forward For Climate Action in a Divided Washington

After a hard-fought mid-term election, divided government once again reigns in Washington, DC. In this era of heightened partisanship, the specter of gridlock has re-emerged as Democrats and Republicans stake out divergent positions across a whole host of issues, including climate change. Will these divisions in the Congress constitute a requiem for climate action for the coming two years? Or will the two parties succeed in harmonizing their agendas, developing a new path forward on climate change? 

Broad Bipartisan Support

A wide, brightly lit road to bipartisan climate action beckons if the two parties are ready to put on their boogie shoes and follow the lead of a growing number of Americans. Natural Climate Solutions. A recent poll of 1,000 registered voters commissioned by U.S. Nature4Climate revealed overwhelming support for the expansion of Natural Climate Solutions to address climate change, with 86% supporting expansion and only 14% opposing it. Support was strong across party lines, with 93% of Democrats, 81% of independents, and 81% of Republicans supporting the expansion of practices like conserving and replanting forests, regenerative agriculture practices, and reducing the loss of natural areas. Long story short, there is very little political risk in supporting these climate strategies.

The strong support is remarkable, especially considering our poll didn’t share some of the most compelling reasons to support Natural Climate Solutions. In addition to addressing climate change, these solutions create jobs and provide new sources of income for many farmers and forest landowners. They can lower heating and cooling bills in urban communities. And provide increased habitat for wildlife. And they help improve water quality. And help strengthen resilience in urban communities, rural farmland, and coastal areas to all kinds of extreme weather. Even without hearing some of our greatest hits, voters are flocking to download the album. 

Environmental Interests & Business Interests Align

But wait a minute. Polling often frames economic growth and environmental action as a zero-sum game – where leaders must choose one or the other. Setting aside that this is a false choice – it is possible to do both at the same time – it is noteworthy that organizations representing both environmental and business interests favor the expansion of Natural Climate Solutions. It may not be surprising that The Nature ConservancyEnvironmental Defense Fund, and Natural Resources Defense Council have all embraced Natural Climate Solutions as an important climate change strategy. But so has the business community. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce supported the recently passed Growing Climate Solutions Act, which makes it easier for farmers and forest owners to participate in carbon markets. And Ceres, a network of investors, companies, and non-profits, is working to help corporations integrate Natural Climate Solutions into their climate commitments. 

Natural Climate Solutions are also strongly supported by organizations with a variety of ideological perspectives. The progressive Center for American Progress favors investment in blue carbon climate solutions and coastal restorationreforestation on both public and private lands, and supports increased funding for conservation agriculture programs. On the right, American Conservation Coalition Action, an organization representing the voice of young conservatives who support climate action, has made Natural Climate Solutions one of the main pillars of its policy agenda

Compromise is Possible

It is true that a Natural Climate Solutions bill written by Democrats may prioritize different strategies and funding mechanisms than one written by Republicans. But compromise is possible. And upcoming legislation like the Farm Bill offers an opportunity for both parties to strengthen existing programs, while supporting innovative approaches that put our lands and waters to work in the effort to tackle climate change.  It has happened before and it can happen again. 

Natural Climate Solutions are only part a comprehensive strategy to address climate change. They can complement necessary efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the energy and transportation sectors. A climate change strategy that featured ONLY Natural Climate Solutions wouldn’t work – it’d be kind of like trying to perform a rock concert with only a bass guitar. On the other hand, rock music generally sounds better with a bass in the mix (White Stripes notwithstanding). Likewise, a climate change strategy that includes Natural Climate Solutions is more effective than one that does not. The crowd-pleasing encore to this metaphorical climate change concert is that not only are many of these strategies ready to go now, but they can also help do something about the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere. While Natural Climate Solutions can’t single-handedly solve climate change, they do provide an opportunity to help break through the partisan noise and add a popular new song to our climate action playlist.

Seeking to chart a path forward on climate policy that taps into the power of America’s natural and working lands?

The Decision-Makers Guide to Natural Climate Solutions Science provides an opportunity for experts to discuss and debate the uncertainties in forest, agriculture and coastal wetland science that are limiting our efforts to implement climate-smart strategies. Click below for more.