Earth Week 2018: Environmental losses and solutions
Protesters outside the White House decry Trump’s anti-environment policies. | Susan Walsh/AP

As the chaos of climate change becomes the new status quo, Earth Week gains significance with each passing year. First celebrated in 1970 as Earth Day, the annual event has since been expanded into seven days’ worth of activities pertaining to the many environmental issues the world faces. It also provides an opportunity to review the year in environment so far, and though it has been one of many troubling events, there is still hope.

At the center of many environmental losses this year is, of course, the Trump administration. One of its initial offenses came in 2017, when it positioned fossil fuel supporter and climate change skeptic Scott Pruitt as the new head of the EPA, and the aftermath of that decision has certainly carried over into 2018. He has been criticized by former EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman, who remarked, “If his actions continue in the same direction, during Pruitt’s term at the EPA the environment will be threatened instead of protected.”

EPA reducing, withdrawing limits on pollution

Under Pruitt’s direction, the agency has, as of this year, overturned at least 33 environmental rules that have previously been in place, several of which pertain to curbing or outright removing certain standards for harmful emissions.

In accordance with the Clean Air Act, for example, the EPA must regulate facilities that emit one or more of 189 hazardous air toxins. A plant or factory is designated “major” by the Act if it could potentially emit over 10 tons of an individual toxic chemical or 25 tons of a combination of such carcinogens into the air per year. Those facilities that do this must then work to reduce that pollution as much as possible with the best technology available. But the new EPA has now altered this policy so that once a polluter reduces its harmful emissions below a certain volume, it no longer has to keep using that better technology afterward. Basically, it means facilities can now continue to put out toxins without regulation, potentially getting those emissions back up to those dangerous levels all over again, and essentially making that part of the Clean Air Act redundant.

“The possibility seems very likely that some [downgraded] sources could actually increase their emissions as long as they don’t hit the cap,” said Janice Nolen, assistant vice president for national policy with the American Lung Association.

Meanwhile, the EPA has declared its intent to roll back important greenhouse gas and fuel emission standards for cars and light trucks, which were implemented in the era of the Obama Administration. Pruitt accused Obama of making “assumptions about the standards that didn’t comport with reality, and set the standards too high.” This line of thought is in direct conflict with California and other states that have enacted tougher controls on such emissions to limit air pollution and slow down the process of global warming. The Golden State, in fact, has a waiver from federal authority under the Clean Air Act that allows the state to set its own, higher standards. The EPA has now threatened to “re-examine the waiver.”

Climate change continues to be swept under the rug

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has stricken “climate change” and similar verbiage from its strategic planning document, a move that ironically coincides with one of the most financially and environmentally disastrous years, in terms of natural disasters, in U.S. history. Under the section in the document about “emerging threats,” FEMA no longer mentions global warming or extreme weather events. This is the latest step for the Trump administration in maintaining the absurd pretense that climate change does not exist, and it hasn’t been the only move made this year to that effect.

The administration has also rescinded the requirement that projects built with federal money take into account the way warming temperatures could intensify extreme weather. It’s a decision that seems particularly unwise in the wake of Hurricane Harvey and in a nation where infrastructure is particularly at risk from such disasters.

Ana Unruh Cohen, government affairs director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, suggested that for a government to deny the problem of climate change is tantamount to courting danger. “The analogy,” she said, “could be that if somebody’s got a heart problem or high cholesterol, you take medicine that helps manage that so you can avoid a heart attack. Trump taking that away, saying, ‘Forget it, I don’t believe I have high cholesterol,’ is setting up the country for a heart attack.”

Perhaps most glaringly in terms of climate denial, a report has found that in the first year of the Trump administration, U.S. government websites have been altered to remove mentions of climate change.

“Oil Spills, Inc.”

 Thanks in part to the pursuit of fossil fuels, the profit-driven mismanagement of equipment, and the loosening of safety regulations, the U.S. has borne the brunt of major oil spills for decades – increasingly so in recent times. However, other nations must also contend with such disasters, all of which happen as oil corporations are allowed to run roughshod over sensitive ecosystems and the health and rights of human beings.

On January 6, a massive tanker was sailing to South Korea when it crashed into a Chinese freighter in the East China Sea. The crew of the Chinese ship was taken to safety, but the damaged tanker ignited and killed all 32 people on board. The tanker was carrying nearly one million barrels of a type of oil called condensate, which, unlike the traditional “black glob” oil, is not visible in the water, even though it has certainly drifted south and settled in a commercial fishing area. Experts are still unsure about the extent of environmental damage this will have, and are still collecting water samples and trying to determine the level of ecological impact.

“The one thing for certain, whether or not you can detect the impact, is that there’s no such thing as a good oil spill,” said Paul Johnston, a scientist at Greenpeace Research Laboratories at the University of Exeter in England. “It’s just varying degrees of bad.”

Meanwhile, oil also wreaked havoc in Colombia at the beginning of March, when a well burst and spewed a not-yet-determined amount of oil into the Magdalena River, a significant waterway that flows northward for about 950 miles. Throughout April, the spill has resulted in the deaths of more than 2,400 animals. Over 1,000 species of trees have been irreparably damaged, and families in the area have been relocated and treated for vomiting, headaches, and dizziness. The level of damage is, according to conservationists, the worst the country has seen in decades. As of today, the crude continues to flow, and has now contaminated the Lizama and Sogamoso Rivers. An investigation of the circumstances surrounding the leak is still ongoing, and few additional details – aside from the environmental destruction – have been released.

Natural disasters will grow more disastrous

 Less than four months have passed, and already natural disasters have cost the U.S. $3 billion this year. And a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows that the number of massive, destructive climate events is climbing. Already, said the report, the nation has endured “one severe storm event and two winter storm events. Overall, these events resulted in the deaths of 34 people and had significant economic effects on the areas impacted.” Less severe – but no less harmful – phenomena like droughts in many states and record heat in Alaska, have also added to that $3 billion weather bill.

The NOAA predicts that natural disasters will continue to skyrocket as the year goes on, and these events may not just be limited to the increasingly usual wildfires, hurricanes, and dry spells. Researchers believe that volcanic eruptions are already on the rise, and have found a direct correlation between the frequency of those eruptions and climate change. In short, an Earth that is rapidly heating up melts the glaciers that normally help volcanic mountains remain cool. Without that benefit, volcanoes can be expected to grow more volatile.

Scientists also believe that 2018 will see a catastrophic earthquake spike. Based on analyses of seismic data, “we should see a significant increase in numbers of severe earthquakes,” said Roger Bilham of the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Quakes, too, have ties to climate change, as the melting of glaciers causes a reduction in the massive weight placed on the Earth’s crust, which then “bounces back” in what scientists call an “isostatic rebound.” This can reactivate previously dormant faults and thus increase seismic activity.

Destruction of nature goes hand-in-hand with climate change

 “The time for action was yesterday or the day before,” said Robert Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Ecosystem Services. “Land degradation, biodiversity loss, and climate change are three different faces of the same central challenge: the increasingly dangerous impact of our choices on the health of our natural environment. We must act to halt and reverse the unsustainable use of nature or risk not only the future we want but even the lives we currently lead.”

Scientists today worry that deliberately hiding or ignoring the steadily worsening threat of climate change will make 2018 the first of many dire years to come.

Benjamin Santer, an atmospheric scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, remarked, “There are powerful individuals out there who do not like criticism, who do not like being told they are wrong, and do not like being told they are disseminating ignorance. At its most basic level, the responsibility of government is to keep us safe from harm, to protect us. The government today is failing in that responsibility.”

The time to fight back is now

 Many are understanding that an important part of the solution is to grab the opportunity the 2018 elections present to vote out the politicians who are deliberately standing by and doing nothing while the world gets worse. Their anti-environmental positions and policies are, furthermore, inextricably tied to their attacks on labor, civil, and human rights.

Fortunately, people worldwide are making their voices heard. The 2018 March for Science occurred on Apr. 14, with local actions in various states and countries. In the U.S., thousands descended on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., marching past the EPA and the Capitol to send a message to public officials that evidence-based policy decisions – not climate denial – are crucial and that science must not be ignored.

But marching is merely the first step. “Change doesn’t happen unless people vote for it,” said D.R. Tucker with Citizens Climate Lobby. “The changes needed to expedite our country’s shift away from fossil fuels won’t occur on a scale dramatic enough to avert the worst impacts of the climate crisis unless legions of voters focused on protecting future generations show up to vote consistently.”

“The 2018 elections may prove more consequential for environment and energy than any for a long time,” said Joseph A. Davis, consultant with the Society of Environmental Journalists. “They could drastically slow the deregulatory campaign of the Trump-GOP regime, or even reverse it. One consequence of the current GOP lock is that Trump can appoint strongly anti-environmental judges. Trump has already made some mark on the judiciary – with Neil Gorsuch at the Supreme Court, for example – an impact that may be lasting on some climate cases. But many more appointments are yet to be made. As the Trump administration grinds on, more and more policy questions are likely to be decided in the courts. How long Trump remains in office, and how long Republicans keep the Senate, are variables that will determine how deep Trump’s impact will be.”

“The twin problem of money in politics and systematic voter suppression challenges key democratic principles of equality, representation, and fairness,” said Jon Fox, senior democracy campaigner with Friends of the Earth. “These permeate every issue area including those of the environmental movement. When our political institutions stop working for us, it’s harder to pass the rules necessary to keep our planet safe. In order to win on our number one issue – be it carbon reduction, environmental protection, or food safety – we must first reduce the noxious influence of powerful anti-environmental interests in our political system.”

Many of the people who took part in the first Earth Day learned how to organize and get politically involved, voting for pro-environment candidates and targeting the “dirty dozen” of Congress in 1970 – politicians who had terrible environmental records, were advocates for the oil and coal industries, and were from districts with major environmental issues that voters cared about. That political action led to the election of hundreds of pro-environment candidates and put pressure on Congress to pass historical environmental legislation like the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, and to create the very EPA that Scott Pruitt is now trying to dismantle from within.

Today, voters and activists have a similar responsibility to fight back. “There isn’t a single environmental subject that hasn’t been negatively impacted by the Trump administration,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club New Jersey Chapter. “However, more people are becoming active in environmental groups since Trump’s election, instilling a new spirit that hasn’t been seen since the first Earth Day. By joining such groups, attending protests and rallies, and opposing rollbacks, we can fight back.

“We must focus more on making the environment a political issue so that people will vote for candidates who will protect it and fight climate change. We need to hold our Congress members accountable, especially those such as Rep. Leonard Lance, R-NJ, 7th District, who used to vote for the environment and now does not, and Rep. Tom MacArthur, R-NJ, 3rd District, who has one of the worst environmental records in Congress. The polls show that people care about the environment. Now we need these people to come out and vote for it. We need to organize and vote like we’ve never done before, because our planet depends on it.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Blake Skylar
Blake Skylar

Blake is production manager, responsible for the daily assembly of the PW home page. As a writer, he has earned awards from the IWPA and ILCA, and his articles have also appeared in publications such as Workday Minnesota, EcoWatch, and Earth First News. He has covered issues including the 2010 BP oil spill in New Orleans and the 2015 U.N. Climate Conference in Paris.

He lives in Illinois and frequently visits his home state of New Jersey. He likes cats, red wine, books, music, and nature. In his spare time, he is writing a novel and working on art.

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