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Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Global Issues

Environmental Sustainability


After reading this introduction, engage your students in further exploration of Disease Prevention as a global issue using the WebQuest Promoting Environmental Sustainability and the classroom activities listed in Investigating Environmental Sustainability.

A sustainable future depends on the long-term conservation of our natural environment. The United Nations' Millennium Development Goals call for worldwide efforts to ensure environmental sustainability by reversing the loss of natural resources and reducing the decline of the world's biodiversity.1 They identify several key areas to address, including reversing deforestation, reducing carbon dioxide emissions, conserving the world's fish stocks, protecting terrestrial and marine areas, and reducing the number of species threatened with extinction.1


The world's forests provide critical habitats for endangered plant and animal species. They also play an important role in mitigating global climate change by storing large amounts of carbon. Carbon is a key element that makes up all plants and animals, including the ancient plants and animals whose remains decomposed deep within the earth to form fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas. When humans burn fossil fuels for energy, carbon is released into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide , a type of heat-trapping greenhouse gas . Through the process of photosynthesis , trees absorb carbon dioxide and store it as carbon in their trunks, leaves, branches, and roots-making forests important stores for carbon that might otherwise build up in the atmosphere and contribute to global warming.


Although deforestation rates have declined in the last decade, it is still a major environmental issue, especially in some of the earth's most biologically diverse regions.1 Between 2000 and 2010, the world lost an area of forest nearly the size of West Virginia each year. 2


Deforestation combined with increased carbon dioxide emissions has put the earth's ecosystems in danger of experiencing the impacts of global climate change. Climate scientists widely agree that human activity, especially the burning of fossil fuels, is contributing to global climate change.3 Data from the past century have shown strong correlations between increased greenhouse gas emissions and increased global temperatures, 4 rising sea levels,4 more frequent droughts and intense storms,4 and changing ranges of the earth's animals and plants.5


Protecting biodiversity, or the variety and variability of life on earth, is essential for the health of ecosystems and for human survival.6 The world's plants and animals provide people with food and medicine, and also help to purify the air and water on which we depend. Within an ecosystem, a decline in one population can affect all the other species connected to it as part of a food web , disrupting the balance of the community and increasing the risk for species extinctions. Nearly 17,000 plant and animal species worldwide are at risk of extinction , and this number is growing.1


Approximately 2,000 of the world's endangered species are found in the United States. To protect species at risk of extinction in the U.S., Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973, which stated that threatened and endangered plants and animals "are of esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation and its people.7" Environmental conservation in the U.S. has historically focused on reducing habitat loss, preventing overexploitation of wildlife, mitigating environmental pollution,8 and more recently, reducing the risks associated with climate change. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other national, state and local-level government organizations, oversee environmental policies and their enforcement in the U.S.


To address environmental sustainability issues on a global scale, the United Nations convened in 1972 and declared that ?A point has been reached in history when we must shape our actions throughout the world with a more prudent care for their environmental consequences "Through fuller knowledge and wiser action, we can achieve? a better life in an environment more in keeping with human needs and hopes..."9 Conserving natural resources in the developing world is especially important for the livelihood and wellbeing of communities. Permanent depletion of forests, arable land, and fish stocks can affect people's ability to meet basic survival needs, and can limit long-term opportunities to generate income through agriculture, forestry, or other activities that depend on natural resources.

All countries on earth are affected global environmental concerns like climate change, and must cooperate in order to understand the problems and find solutions. Exploring renewable energies like solar and wind power to reduce dependence on fossil fuels has become an important part of both national and global conservation strategies.


To address these challenges, Peace Corps Volunteers work with their communities in a variety of ways. They educate youth and adults about environmental issues, and provide guidance when environmental issues conflict with basic needs for farming and income generation. For example, volunteers may work with communities to promote local ecotourism activities as a way to protect the natural environment while generating income for the community. Peace Corps Volunteers also work on issues like sustainable gardening practices, reforestation, wildlife management, soil conservation, and watershed management.10 They also work with communities to promote the use of renewable energies that help limit the impact of human activities on local and global ecosystems.11



1. United Nations Millennium Development Goals
2. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
3. NOAA National Climate Data Center
4. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
5. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
7. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
8. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
9. United Nations
10. Peace Corps
11. Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas



Arable: Suitable for growing crops

Atmosphere: Natural layer of gases surrounding the earth

Biodiversity: Variety and variability of life on earth

Carbon: Element that makes up all plants and animals

Carbon dioxide (CO 2 ): A colorless, odorless gas produced through combustion and respiration, and absorbed through photosynthesis; a type of greenhouse gas

Conservation: Protection or careful usage, especially of wildlife and natural resources

Ecosystems: Communities of living organisms and their environments

Ecotourism: Tourism in natural areas that conserves the local environment and supports local people

Endangered: At serious risk of extinction

Extinct: No longer living

Fish stock: A local population of fish

Fossil fuels: Fuels formed in the earth from the remains of ancient plants and animals (e.g. coal, petroleum, natural gas)

Greenhouse gas: A gas in the earth's atmosphere that absorbs infrared radiation and contributes to the greenhouse effect

Mitigate: Alleviate

Natural resources: Natural materials or substances that can economically benefit humans (e.g., land, minerals, water, forests, etc.)

Photosynthesis: The process by which plants produce energy and oxygen using carbon dioxide, sunlight, and water

Renewable energy: Energy generated from sources that can be naturally replenished (e.g. wind, sun, tides, geothermal heat, etc.)

Sustainable: Able to continue for an extended time period, without the depletion of resources

Terrestrial: Land-based