The NRDC was co-founded by John Adams in 1970. The organization lobbies Congress and other public officials for a public policy that promotes conservation of the natural and built environment. The NRDC works against urban sprawl, pollution, and habitat destruction, and promotes actions to mitigate global warming and increase the use of renewable energy. It also sometimes files suit in federal court against corporations and government agencies for violations of the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act. Other operations carried out by the NRDC include public education and sponsorship of scientific studies.
In 2001, NRDC launched the BioGems Initiative to mobilize concerned individuals in defense of exceptional and imperiled ecosystems. The initiative matches NRDC's legal and institutional expertise with the work of citizen activists.
It has issued a report on the health effects arising from the September 11, 2001 attacks.
NRDC was also one of the only major national environmental organizations to become and stay involved with community activists on the ground in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.
The NRDC has also published a number of studies on nuclear weapon stockpiles around the world, both as monographs and as individual studies in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
In December 2006, Green Day and NRDC jointly launched a website to raise awareness on the U.S.'s petroleum dependence. The NRDC takes the position that new nuclear power plants are not a solution for America's energy needs, or for addressing global warming.