PCAST Report on Sustainable Development

Executive Office of the President

President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology
Washington, D.C. 20500

January 7, 1997

President William J. Clinton
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President:

The President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) believes that the United States must continue to lead the nations of the world through the transition to a more sustainable future. The work of the President's Council on Sustainable Development has placed us on the right path. Now America needs a comprehensive and integrated science and technology agenda to support such a transition, one that addresses major interrelated issues of national and global consequence.

PCAST has identified five sustainable development issues that provide "targets of opportunity"; they offer the potential for significant progress toward a more sustainable future, and we want your support in making them priorities in the Administration's science and technology portfolio during your second term in office. The issues are climate change, biodiversity, energy, ecosystems, and food supplies. PCAST proposes the following specific actions:

  • CLIMATE CHANGE: The Earth's climate is changing because human activities have seriously altered the chemical composition of the atmosphere. The burning of fossil fuels has added vast quantities of greenhouse gases. Temperatures have increased IOF over the last century, glaciers are retreating worldwide, and the 10 warmest years on record have all occurred since 1980. Because the rate of climate change is faster than that experienced over the last 10,000 years, ecosystems may not be able to adapt.

The U.S. should vigorously continue to play a leadership role internationally in the climate change issue. To date, most research has focused on the physical climate system. As evidence of a changing climate becomes ever clearer, we must rapidly increase our ability to anticipate and mitigate the ecological and economic consequences for the United States. These issues are poorly understood, have been inadequately studied, and must become a larger part of the climate research portfolio. The Federal government should begin analyzing the regional implications of climate change and possible mitigation and adaptation options. This effort should involve regional representatives of Federal, State, and local governments.

  • BIODIVERSITY: The loss of biodiversity is progressively limiting our future global productivity and sustainability. The information encoded in billions of diverse packets of DNA, accumulated over billions of years, is literally irreplaceable . We are destroying species many times more rapidly than new ones are appearing. Current extinction rates are accelerating and are already about 100 to 1,000 times historic rates.

Yet, we depend on biodiversity for our general welfare. Individual organisms -- plants, animals, fungi, and microorganisms -- are sources of our food, medicines, clothing, and shelter. We must begin to reduce the rate of biodiversity loss and protect our her itage in the genes. species, and ecosystems of the world. Only in this way can we preserve our capacity to adapt to future global changes, including those associated with a growing human population. The United States should take a leadership role in p reserving biodiversity by ratifying the International Biodiversity Convention; providing enhanced funding for research and training in systematics through all relevant agencies; and understanding, sustainably managing, and conserving our biodiversity.

  • ENERGY: Projected increases in fossil energy use in developed and developing countries will cause costly and unacceptable environmental degradation. Continued over reliance on fossil fuels, which are the primary sources of emissions of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane, will accelerate global warming and cause continued deterioration in urban and rural air quality. Without the further development and wider implementation of low-polluting energy-supply technologies and more efficient energy use, achieving sustainable economic progress, both in the United States and in the rest of the world, will be impossible.

The United States needs a more comprehensive and robust program of energy R&D to respond to the challenges of building environmentally sustainable prosperity in this country, and around the world. Addressing global climate change requires the revolutionary development of more efficient and less polluting technologies for energy supply. The most immediate priorities should be substantial increases in Federal funding for R&D on energy efficiency and renewable-energy options, which have particularly high leverage in reducing dependence on fossil fuels.

  • ECOSYSTEMS: Many parts of the United States are subject to the increasing pressures of population, movement toward the coasts, and urbanization. We need to understand the effects of fragmentation in specific land and water ecosystems, to know the causes and extent of ecosystem changes, to develop indicators of ecosystem health, and to improve our capacity to anticipate impacts on existing ecosystems. Natural adaptation to global change, such as migration of forests, is hindered by both the pace of change and extensive human development of the landscape. Facilitating adaptation will depend on developing adequate knowledge about ecosystems so that appropriate management decisions can be made in a timely and effective manner.

An ecosystem approach to managing our natural resources requires increased emphasis on integrating ground- and space-based monitoring systems, and making maximum use of declassified satellite data. Although there is a tremendous array of capabilities to assess physical and biological resources at Federal, State, and local levels, most were developed to provide resource-specific information. Currently, there is little coordination between these capabilities in terms of spatial or temporal scale. We must integrate all available information to help us understand why change has occurred, what changes can be anticipated, and how we can best manage resources in the face of change. Federal agencies should develop a coherent monitoring system capable of producing a report card on the state of the Nation's ecosystem health by 2001.

  • FOOD SUPPLIES: The world's food supplies are increasingly strained by population increase, pollution, land-use changes, and many other interacting environmental factors. To feed the current human population adequately requires the urgent dev elopment of new and sustainable systems of agriculture. To feed future populations will require even greater efforts. Achieving reliable food supplies demands increased attention to sustainable approaches to farming as a way of life.

Federal agencies must help farmers understand and adopt the most appropriate agricultural practices to enhance the capacity to produce food while sustaining the ecosystems on which human communities depend. Limiting the application of pesticides on agricultural crops and reducing nonpoint pollution from farming are extremely important. The possibility of shifting from our principal dependence on annual crops. which have high requirements for water and fertilizers, to greater use of perennials and mixed crops, should be explored more frilly. Integrating highly sophisticated satellite information about crop quality and nutrient requirement into everyday farming offers great promise for reducing the need for multiple agricultural inputs. Federal agencies should be challenged to initiate multiple agricultural demonstration projects based on sound ecosystem management, including improved methods of cultivation, the use of genetically modified crop species, integrated pest management, low pesticide use, and water conservation.

In the attached report, R&D Priorities for Sustainable Development, PCAST offers a brief description of each area and recommendations for Federal research investment priorities for advancing the Nation's goal of sustainable development.