Blair Horner: Earth Day 2019

Apr 22, 2019

This week we celebrate Earth Day.  Earth Day is an annual event that started in 1970 and is an important opportunity for us to review 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 causing environmental crises happening today and that are only going to get worse. 

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 oil, coal and gas reserves in the ground.

Yet, the opposite polices are being followed.  The Trump Administration ignores science and appoints political allies to dismantle environmental programs.

Why do 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 clout and can use their political muscle to protect their corporate interests – even if that results in tremendous harm to the public interest and threatens the lives of millions – perhaps billions – of people worldwide. 

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.

That shift in public opinion is spreading nationwide as the impacts of global warming are becoming more apparent.

Earlier this year, polling was released showing a sizable shift in the view of Americans about the growing dangers caused by a planet that is heating up.  According to a poll conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, nearly three quarters of Americans polled said that global warming was happening, a jump of 10 percentage points from 2015 and three points since March 2018.

The rise in the number of Americans who say global warming is personally important to them was even sharper, jumping nine percentage points since March 2018 to 72 percent, another record over the past decade.

Like so many public health and environmental fights, ultimately the outcome will hinge more on public action than scientific analyses.  Just as was the case when public health experts identified smoking as the primary cause of lung cancer, decades of corporate deception and the cowardice of politicians delayed action to curb tobacco use.  But once public opinion swung dramatically in favor of action, public policies changed.

The optimistic view today is that something similar is happening.  Despite the public relations, lobbying and campaign contribution efforts of the oil, coal and gas companies, elected officials are finding it harder and harder to take their orders from the fossil fuel lobby.  

Whether the appropriate actions will be taken, and taken quickly enough, only time will tell.  But given how little time there is left, action is needed now.  The nation must act quickly to embrace energy efficiency programs and to heavily invest in solar, wind and geothermal forms of power.  Each year of inaction further damages the environment and puts more lives at risk.

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

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