South must play a key role in addressing climate change, biodiversity crises

President Joe Biden has taken early steps to show how seriously he is taking the threat posed by climate change — from rejoining the Paris Agreement  to appointing former Secretary of State John Kerry as climate czar to issuing executive orders on the day of his inauguration calling for aggressive action by the federal government on climate change and biodiversity.

These are important actions that recognize climate change as the defining environmental challenge of our time. SELC recently sent a letter to the Biden Administration recognizing that focus and calling attention to the key role of the South in the United States’ efforts.

“The southern United States has as much at stake in this fight as any other part of the nation — and as much to offer, both in resources to tap and progress to make,” says Patrick Hunter, managing attorney of SELC’s Asheville office. The letter highlights the region’s rich biodiversity, large swaths of forests and other resources that will need to be protected and preserved even as development pressures threaten them.

“The region has more tree, freshwater fish, reptile, amphibian, bird, and endemic mammal diversity than nearly any other part of the country,” says Sam Evans, leader of SELC’s National Parks and Forest Program. “The South is the most forested region in the Lower 48 states, presenting a great opportunity for managing existing forests to maximize carbon storage and increase carbon sequestration at the region-wide scale.”

But the South also faces challenges and vulnerabilities. Coastal regions are already having to cope with rising sea levels. Energy consumption levels are the highest in the nation, and likely to grow with the impacts of climate change, and much of the current energy generation capacity is not renewable. The region is the most poverty-stricken in the nation, with a long history of environmental injustice and a high likelihood of suffering some of the harshest climate-driven economic losses.

The letter suggests a number of areas where the administration’s strategy will have particular implications for the southern United States, including the need to avoid the burning of forest biomass for electric generation, a re-examination of the U.S. Forest Service’s approach to carbon management (especially in its timber project management), and the critical role the South will need to play in the administration’s 30x30 initiative — a goal to conserve 30 percent of the country’s lands and waters by 2030.

The South is central to any solution to climate change. Its millions of acres of forests  are an incredible resource both for carbon storage and biodiversity protection, but they need proper management to reach their full potential.

A transition to renewable energy across the southern United States could make incredible strides in lowering carbon emissions, and a renewed push on environmental justice could help right many old wrongs.

“We look forward to working with the Biden administration to ensure that the South’s contributions to fighting climate change can be maximized and our resources and people can be properly protected,” said Hunter.

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