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Blair Horner: Earth Day 2018

This week we celebrate Earth Day.  Earth Day is an annual event that started in 1970 and is an important opportunity for our society to examine how well we are protecting the environment.  In a sense, Earth Day is the day we issue a “report card” on our stewardship of the planet’s natural resources.

There is no other way to describe it, we are failing.

Just reviewing the record on climate change underscores that failure.  The planet continues to heat up and that warming trend is accelerating.  The amount of carbon being released into the atmosphere is in the “red zone.” 

The results are devastating: the oceans are becoming more acidic; sea levels are rising and threatening coastal regions; deserts expand and with them famines; food shortages and extreme heat waves trigger violence; populations are displaced; and species across the planet are becoming extinct.

How should we respond?  Scientists’ recommendations are quite clear – reduce reliance on existing fossil fuel powered energy sources and keep reserves in the ground.

Yet, the opposite polices are being followed.  The Trump Administration ignores science and appoints political allies to dismantle environmental programs.  The Trump Administration wants to leave the Paris Climate Change accord, one that has been ratified by every nation across the globe.

And the Congress does nothing, on a good day.

Why do our elected leaders act in such a reckless and irrational way?  Because there is a political constituency that has been created by the oil, gas and coal industries to block science-based solutions.

Those industries wield tremendous political clout and are able to use their muscle to protect their corporate interests – even if that results in tremendous harm to the public interest and threatens our survival. 

And the fossil fuel industry also has been using that power to create an atmosphere of doubt around the science of climate change.  It is their public relations and political campaigns that have allowed it to have a stranglehold over national policies.

But the industry is not all powerful.  In the early years of the Cuomo Administration, oil giant Exxon-Mobil put its considerable political clout behind an effort to get New York to allow fracking; a controversial type of drilling that allowed for the extraction of natural gas.  At that time, it had the support of the governor.  It was on a roll.

Yet today a ban is in place.  The reason for the change?  An unprecedented statewide citizen mobilization in opposition to the plan.  New Yorkers from Buffalo to Long Island decided that allowing the oil and gas industries the rights to large scale mining of natural gas reserves was simply too much of a public health and environmental threat.

And in this age of climate change they knew that fossil fuels must stay in the ground, not be burned and released into the atmosphere to make global warming worse.

The clout of arguably the most powerful economic force on the planet was not a match for widespread grassroots mobilization grounded in scientific fact.

It is no secret what needs to be done to slow down, and hopefully reverse, the terrible impacts of the world’s reliance on fossil fuel power.  The world needs to collectively agree to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, there needs to be massive investments in energy sources such as solar, wind, geothermal, and energy efficiencies.  There needs to be a ban on the sale on new cars that run on fossil fuels.

And there must be a halt on the expansion of new fossil fuel pipelines and other facilities.  These capital investments take decades to pay for themselves and the planet simply does not have decades to continue to rely on fossil fuel generated power.

These goals can be accomplished if Americans mobilize into a national civic campaign to avert an environmental catastrophe.  2018 is an election year—the time when it’s most important to deliver a message to candidates: we want you to pledge to follow science, not lies; we want actions, not promises; we want policies designed for the public’s best interests, not the economically powerful’s campaign contributions.

Earth Day is a time to take stock, to review how well we are taking care of the world – for ourselves and our children.  It is time to act.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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