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Celebrate Earth Day….; But then get down to work

April 17, 2013

For many people, Earth Day is for celebrating the beauty and diversity and everything else we love about our planet, and perhaps that is the way it should be. But on this Earth Day, we also know that the planet is in trouble and that far too little is being done to effectively address its many problems.

On the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, people in practically every major city and in many hundreds of towns staged rallies to protest pollution of the environment. An estimated 20 million people turned out (an inspiring number for a first-time event). Some of the rallies had a serious tone and message to deliver, while others were more like street parties.

So, by all means, on Earth Day this year, go out and do something to celebrate our planet, and then let’s get down to work.

Forty-three years ago on Monday, NBC’s Frank Blair ended his news report with these words: “This morning there was an awesome Earth Day warning from a government scientist in remarks prepared for the Geophysical Union in Washington. Dr. J. Murray Mitchell said pollution and over-pollution, unless checked, could so warm the earth in 200 years as to create a greenhouse effect, melting the Arctic icecap and flooding vast areas of the world.”

Today we already can see that Dr. Mitchell’s timetable was a bit off. In summer 2012, the Arctic icecap reached a record low. Eighty percent of Arctic sea ice already has disappeared.

One has to marvel that so little has been accomplished to address greenhouse warming. One particularly has to marvel at the lack of will to address the issue here in our own country, as well as our lack of leadership on the international stage.

At one time, we did have the will. President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, signed the Clean Air Act (1963); Richard Nixon, a Republican, signed the Clean Water Act (1972) and created the EPA (1970) by executive order. Back then, pollution was not a partisan issue, and it should not be today.

In the 1980s, acid rain was the environmental menace of concern. After funding a decade of scientific research, Congress passed amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1990 requiring coal-fired power plants to cut sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions. A cap-and-trade program for sulfur dioxide (1995) and nitrogen oxides (2003) helped reduce the acid rain that was killing forests and poisoning lakes and streams especially in the Northeast (because of our location downwind from power plants in the country’s heartland).