What Congress Can Do to Save Our Environment

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What Congress Can Do to Save Our Environment

The planet’s health is in perilous condition, heading toward a growing number of system breakdowns. Our government leaders remain deeply divided on how to address it. They’re unable or unwilling to cooperate. The ecological damage varies in degrees of severity depending on where one looks, but the problems are truly global: polluted lakes and rivers, toxic air quality, shrinking ice caps, trillions of pieces of trash bunching together in the ocean, leveled mountain tops, mass extinctions of species, deforestation on a tremendous scale and more.

Among Democrats, there is widespread agreement that the Environmental Protection Agency and similar government departments must be given strong authority to protect the environment and guide companies and individuals to treat nature in ethical and healthy ways. They also believe we should partner with other nations to set ambitious yet realistic goals and challenge one another to very high standards of care for the Earth. Republicans have their own ideas, some of which overlap with those of the other party. I do not see theirs so much as a developed system except in a hope or expectation corporations and individuals will regulate themselves or the market will eventually eliminate bad actors. During an interview in June 2015 with prominent Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, he openly said with regret that the GOP had no environmental policy. This is far different than what was commonly practiced by several presidents representing their party in the 1980s and beforehand. I describe this in a paragraph below.

It is vital to stress how unusual the United States is by international standards in its substantially large resistance among many citizens and leaders against a normative acceptance and implementation of strict environmental protections. This is especially true in comparison to every other advanced Western nation. For example, on Yale University’s Environmental Performance Index, we ranked 39th in 2009, 61st in 2010 and 26th in 2016. The Quality of Life Index scored America 38th for 2010. Out of 35 member nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, we placed 16th in 2016. The Climate Change Performance Index, based on detailed evaluations from about 300 international climate and energy experts, positioned us at 44th in 2015, out of the 58 countries that together produced 90% of global energy-related C02 emissions.

If we are to stand in such contrast to those nations outpacing us in environmental policy, then the burden of proof is heavy upon us to justify our apparent negligence and even abuse of the natural world. Regardless of whether or not climate change is real and caused by humans, as has been emphatically stated for many decades by something like 97% of scientists across all disciplines, conservatives and liberals in America must find a way to agree on the basics of environmental stewardship. This includes prevention of pollution and destruction of the only habitat available to us and the millions of other species on this planet. Many of the common sense methods we likely can come together on will at least somewhat improve whatever problems exist related to climate change.

Although environmental protection is most often associated today in the United States with Democrats, it is important to remember the accomplishments of 20th century Republicans on this subject. Teddy Roosevelt, referred to by many as “the conservation president”, was a major force behind a substantial expansion and development of America’s national parks, doubling their total number during his eight years in office. Richard Nixon deeply influenced the formation of the Environmental Protection Act, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, Noise Control Act, Safe Water Drinking Act, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Marine Mammal Protection Act and signed amendments to the Clean Air Act. Ronald Reagan’s policies have been heavily criticized by environmentalists, yet there were several efforts made by his administration within the bounds of a conservative political philosophy to address ecological concerns. 

The Weekly Standard explained in 2013: “Under Reagan’s leadership, new lead production was virtually eliminated. Carbon monoxide emissions fell by roughly a quarter, and particulate pollution was reduced 40 percent. Reagan pushed for and signed the Montreal Protocol to phase out ozone-layer-depleting, climate change-promoting chlorofluorocarbons. His administration did the initial work on a ‘cap and trade’ system to control acid rain that ultimately was implemented during the George H. W. Bush administration.”  These types of programs would most assuredly be considered too liberal for the current GOP to engage in, but this need not be the case. A more recent article title by The Washington Post explained, “Environmental policy is partisan. It wasn’t always.” We all must get past our differences for the sake of improving living conditions and preserving the Earth’s land, water and sky.

What is especially worrying to many people in America and globally is the aggressive plan that the Republican Party has announced in the opposite direction. Vox reported November 2016 a week after the election: “If Donald Trump and the GOP actually follow through on what they’ve promised, this time around will be a lurch in the opposite direction. Federal climate policy will all but disappear; participation in international environmental or climate treaties will end; pollution regulations will be reversed, frozen in place, or not enforced; clean energy research, development, and deployment assistance will decline; protections for sensitive areas and ecosystems will be lifted; federal leasing of fossil fuels will expand and accelerate; new Supreme Court appointees will crack down on EPA discretion.”

Scientists from numerous organizations have estimated that between 100,000-400,000 people around the globe are dying each year due to environmental abuse associated with climate change. Contrast that with international terrorism, a serious problem said by many to be more threatening, which has killed between 11,000-33,000 people per year during the past decade.

The Daily Beast remarked: “The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the gold standard for climate science, said in its Fourth Assessment Report in 2007 that climate change caused 150,000 extra deaths a year….But the 150,000 figure took into account only deaths from malnutrition, malaria, and diarrhea caused by contaminated water, a common result of floods. Excluded were the effects of heat waves, crop losses due to an increase in pests, and a range of other deadly diseases, which can be substantial. For example, the record-breaking heat wave that blanketed Europe for six weeks in summer 2003 caused at least 71,449 excess deaths, according to a 2008 study sponsored by the European Union.”

The New Republic commented: “When scientists attribute deaths to climate change, they don’t just mean succumbing to a heat wave or, as Huckabee put it, to sunburn. Heat waves kill many, to be sure, but global warming also devastates food security, nutrition, and water safety. Since mosquitoes and other pests thrive in hot, humid weather, scientists expect diseases like malaria and dengue fever to rise. Floods threaten to contaminate drinking water with bacteria and pollution….When the report looked at the added health consequences from burning fossil fuels—aside from climate change—the number of deaths jumps from 400,000 to almost 5 million per year. Carbon-intensive economies see deaths linked to outdoor air pollution, indoor smoke from poor ventilation, occupational hazards, and skin cancer.

The Guardian noted, “New research shows global warming’s effect on the quality of food available could kill more than 500,000 people a year around the world by 2050….Climate change is already judged by doctors as the greatest threat to health in the 21st century, due to floods, droughts and increased infectious diseases, with the potential to roll back 50 years of progress….Prof. Andy Challinor, at the University of Leeds…said, ‘Year-to-year variability of food production will become greater, which will make global food markets more unpredictable. And extreme climatic events will become more common, such as the wheat harvest failure in Russia in 2010 which affected UK food prices. The effects of such events on global food availability and prices will be felt in the UK and around the world.’”

In 2015, scientist Thomas Karl of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), along with eight other researchers, published a major paper providing a clarification regarding the continuing rise in global temperatures: “Much study has been devoted to the possible causes of an apparent decrease in the upward trend of global surface temperatures since 1998, a phenomenon that has been dubbed the global warming ‘hiatus.’ Here, we present an updated global surface temperature analysis that reveals that global trends are higher than those reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, especially in recent decades, and that the central estimate for the rate of warming during the first 15 years of the 21st century is at least as great as the last half of the 20th century. These results do not support the notion of a ‘slowdown’ in the increase of global surface temperature.”

The solutions, or at least substantial improvements, proposed by modern science to address our ecological dilemma are numerous.  Each of them should be considered seriously. I research and write articles at a web site called Persuade Me Politics and have there contributed a piece titled, “Can Business Save The Environment?” It provides an overview of some possible aids in ameliorating our ecological situation through actions in tandem with government and commerce.

The main component there that can be helpful is its reference to the writings, policies and activism of entrepreneur and economist Paul Hawken, cofounder of Smith & Hawken garden supply stores. His work helped to provide impetus for the transition since the early 1990s among many businesses toward much greater environmental sustainability. Two key books of his are The Ecology of Commerce: How Business Can Save the Planet (1993) and Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution (1999). The latter was coauthored with scientist Amory Lovins and business professor Hunter Lovins. These texts provide solutions that both conservatives and liberals find useful and profitable. One of the books can be read online for free.

Andy Rhodes writes also writes at Persuade Me Politics, on religion and creates music and art. You can reach him on Facebook and Twitter.

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