If you ask Americans about the importance of having air that's healthy to breathe, water that's safe to drink, and an unspoiled environment for the kids and the kids' kids to explore and enjoy, it's no surprise that we care a great deal, even if we don't think about these things every day. After all, clean air, good drinking water, and environmental-hazard free neighborhoods are basic rights, aren't they? And for that matter, so are wilderness areas, national parks, unspoiled coastlines, free-flowing rivers, and other symbols of our country's rugged character. It's pretty hard to imagine our lives without all these things, even when the only pristine waterfall we've seen lately was on television. Still, it's good to know we don't have to worry about our air, water, public lands and wild places. Right?
Unfortunately, no. Today, laws that have cleaned up our communities and protected the environment for decades are being systematically weakened in favor of special interests. Legislation and regulatory rule changes threaten to reverse more than 30 years of hard-won progress, putting our communities at risk. Although most of us learned as children that if you make a mess, you clean it up, the removal of key environmental protections means that irresponsible corporations can get away with fouling the air and water, creating toxic dump sites, and forcing taxpayers to live with the health consequences and bear the burden of cleaning up environmental disasters.
In order to ensure a safe, livable environment, big corporations must do their part, and for that to happen, lawmakers must make sure environmental protections are enforced. We expect our elected representatives to act in the best interests of all citizens, not just their biggest campaign contributors. Unfortunately, the Bush Administration policies have weakened the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, halted funding for toxic waste clean-ups, and removed wilderness protections.
Communities in and around St. Louis are struggling with serious medical problems like asthma, birth defects, lead poisoning, and soaring cancer rates. Pollutants from Missouri's dirty power plants react with our climate and geography, creating unhealthy effects peculiar to our state. Nationwide, soot and smog-forming power plant emissions cause more than 600,000 asthma attacks each year; in Missouri, more than 1.1 million kids live within 30 miles of one of Missouri's 16 coal-fired power plants. More than a quarter-million of these kids live in poverty, and 65,728 have asthma.
Mercury is another serious threat from coal-fired power plants and industry. Just recently, however, the EPA proposed a rule that would delay requiring mercury pollution controls by a decade, and let some polluting power plants off the hook completely. Mercury gets into the air, water, and fish and then into humans who eat the fish. Missouri is one of 14 states that have posted advisories for every body of water in the state about the dangers of eating contaminated fish. Mercury is an extremely dangerous neurotoxin, known to cause severe developmental and learning disabilities in fetuses and babies, so pregnant and nursing women need to be especially cautious about fish consumption. In December 2003, the Food and Drug Administration actually expanded the mercury risk to include all women of childbearing age who may become pregnant, after acknowledging that 1 in 12 women already have mercury levels high enough to harm the fetus if they become pregnant. Yet that very same week, the EPA announced its intention to delay implementing controls, even though the technology exist to reduce mercury pollution by up to 90% cost-effectively. (For more information about power plant health effects in Missouri, go to www.cleartheair.org, click on Health Effects, then Get Local.)
The decade delay in implementing mercury pollution controls was also bad news for some Midwest companies that engineer and manufacture air pollution control equipment for power plants and industries. Environmental policy that protects the environment is also good for jobs, while poor environmental policy hurts jobs.
Other rule changes let timber, mining, oil, and gas interests to destroy national parks and wilderness lands that belong to all Americans and future generations. A "roadless rule" exemption recently opened up Alaska's old-growth Tongass National Forest to logging, while mountaintop-removal threatens the Appalachians, and proposed oil and gas exploration would wreak havoc with coastlines. The last untouched piece of Alaska's north shore, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, remains at risk despite estimates that it contains only six months worth of oil, and that it wouldn't be available for at least a decade. Polluting corporations should not benefit at the expense of our health and heritage.
There is a better way. We made tremendous progress in the 1970s, when, thanks to laws that made polluters pay to clean up their messes, communities were able to finally clean up extraordinarily polluted rivers. Who could forget the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, which was so dirty with petrochemicals that the river actually caught on fire? In the 1970s Congress also set automobile fuel economy standards, gradually raising the average gas mileage of cars from 12 mpg to 27.5, and light truck mpg to 22.7 mpg, making American-made vehicles more competitive with foreign models. Unfortunately, fuel-economy has stagnated and dropped to its lowest level since 1980. We can get back on the right track with common sense solutions and modern technologies.
- We can build and drive more fuel-efficient cars, trucks, and SUVs. By using existing, available technology, we can reduce our dependence on Middle East oil, curb global warming emissions and air pollution, cut the trade deficit, and save drivers money at the gas pump. A combination of improvements could make the 19-mile per gallon Ford Explorer get to 34 miles per gallon. Go to sierraclub.org/globalwarming/cleancars for more information, and take the Global Warming Pop Quiz below!
- We can build a 21st century energy industry that conserves energy, uses renewable power sources to generate electricity, and creates good jobs. The Apollo Alliance, for example, is an alternative energy vision launched by a group of labor unions led by steelworkers, machinists, and electrical workers. The project calls for investing $300 billion over 10 years into a clean-energy economy, one based on innovation and efficiency. (Compare this to the Bush Administration's energy plan, which would take us backwards with polluting coal, oil, gas, and nuclear, and give billions in handouts to those industries. The energy plan failed to pass in the Senate last year, but could be back this month.)
- We can install modern air pollution control equipment on old power plants, refineries, and factories, as the Clean Air Act intended. The Bush Administration's weakening of the Clean Air Act means that America's oldest, dirtiest power plants and industry can keep right on polluting, instead of being required to upgrade to modern equipment when they make other major facility upgrades. Pollution control equipment has proven to be quite effective at cutting emissions, and companies that manufacture this equipment also benefit.
The U.S. EPA has scheduled the first (and only) public hearing on the new mercury rule, set for February 25 and 26 in Chicago. If you are interested in testifying or sending a written comment, please contact me at email@example.com as soon as possible.
A healthy environment is a basic right, not a privilege. Americans need responsible leadership that protects our national heritage and puts people ahead of polluters.
And now for a really hot topic global warming!
As state organizer for the Sierra Club's Global Warming and Energy Program, my work focuses on an environmental threat many people still think is a distant, far-off danger, but one which grows more urgent every day. While climate change over several millennia is a natural occurrence, as shown in ice core and sediment samples, what we call global warming is a modern, man-made phenomenon. In Earth's atmosphere, gases act as a heat-trapping blanket. But during the 20th century, an era of unprecedented industrial growth has accelerated the process. Burning fossil fuels coal, oil, and natural gas release carbon dioxide (CO2), trapping more heat and causing Earth's climate to change at a rate that plants, animals, and humans cannot readily adapt to, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. If we don't act now to curb global warming, our children will live in a far less hospitable world.
Global warming is most evident right now in polar regions, where we see melting ice caps and thawing tundra. But we are also witnessing the rapid disappearance of glaciers, loss of habitat, and the spread of destructive insects due to a longer warm season. A study released last month by the scientific journal Nature estimates that 15 percent to 37 percent of the species examined for the study will be disappearing by the year 2050.
What's the prognosis for Missouri? According to a 1997 report released by the EPA, in the next 20-50 years, global warming is expected to result in more frequent and severe droughts and flooding, impacting agriculture, causing the loss of jobs and millions of dollars in property damage. It estimated a 180% increase in heat-related deaths in major urban areas such as St. Louis and the spread of mosquito-borne diseases like malaria and St. Louis encephalitis. That's why it's important that we start taking steps today to curb this trend.
The good news is that we have the technology and know-how to reduce global warming emissions. We have the ability to reduce fossil fuel use through efficiency and switching to clean, renewable sources of energy like wind and solar.
My program focuses on something we can all relate to: automobiles, which account for 22% of all greenhouse gas emissions. The United States established fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks in 1974 in order to reduce dependence on foreign oil, yet today, we're more dependent than ever, importing more than 60% of our oil from the Persian Gulf and other unstable regions. And almost half of the oil we import is goes into our passenger cars and light trucks!
Automakers can curb greenhouse gas emissions by installing efficient technology in all new cars and light trucks, such as continuously variable transmissions (CVT), variable-valve control engines, and an integrated starter-generator that shuts the engine off at stops instead of "idling". By using modern, efficient technology, cars and light trucks could average 40 miles per gallon by 2015, instead of languishing at 1980 levels. We can do better.
Take a Global Warming Pop Quiz!
Q. Name the country that pours the most carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere:
A. The United States.
Q. Too easy, huh? Okay, so name the 5th largest contributor:
A. That would be India. But wait
Q. Can you guess what other CO2 source actually surpasses that entire subcontinent for annual greenhouse gas emissions?
A. U.S. cars and light trucks. Yep, our gas-guzzling ways also beat out industrialized Germany, the United Kingdom and Canada.
What can you do?
- Consider switching to a fuel-efficient vehicle, such as a gas-electric hybrid car. The 2004 Toyota Prius, for example, gets 60 miles per gallon in city driving, over 50mpg on the highway, and creates a fraction of the greenhouse gases, not to mention up to 89% fewer smog-forming air pollutants, of a regular car. Hybrids are a great way to save money at the gas pump, reduce dependence on imported oil, and create cleaner communities. Honda makes two, and Ford and Lexus models are due out later in 2004, with others to follow. For more information about automobiles and global warming, visit sierraclub.org/globalwarming/cleancars.
- We can advocate for cleaner, better automobile technology by showing practical alternatives already exist, and by encouraging fleets to switch to more fuel-efficient models. Attend a "Green Fleets" event such as a Hybrid Car Day (spring date tba), or get involved in a Route 66 Hybrid Car Tour! If interested, email me firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are lots of other ways to be active with the Sierra Club, including hikes and other outings, and free monthly meetings featuring great speakers on a variety of "green" topics. Check it out at missouri.sierraclub.org/emg.
Jill Miller is the Sierra Club Conservation Organizer for the Global Warming & Energy Program, St. Louis.