My Turn: To fight climate change, we must draw on the spirit of the ’70s

  • A Pace College student in a gas mask smells a magnolia blossom in City Hall Park on Earth Day, April 22, 1970, in New York. AP file

For the Monitor
Published: 4/25/2019 12:30:22 AM

April 22, 1970. Nearly 50 years ago, I was a sophomore in college and the modern environmental movement was in its infancy. The nation was in the midst of the war in Vietnam, and political divisions were stark and severe as a result. The nation also was suffering from a crisis of polluted air and water and warnings that pesticides like DDT and others were both poisoning our wildlife and us.

I was, at that point, one of those idealistic college students who took up the cause of Earth Day and helped organize events about pollution, recycling, urban sprawl and other issues of the day. I and other students read everything we could, took science courses that would help inform our activism and joined national groups like Friends of the Earth that advocated for environmental clean-up.

Over the next few years, progress was made. Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act, creating the EPA. The Clean Air Act was dramatically strengthened in 1970. The Clean Water Act, an update to early less effective water pollution laws was passed in 1972. A law more thoroughly regulating the use of pesticides, and transferring that oversight from the Department of Agriculture to the EPA, was passed in 1972.

1973 saw the passage of the Endangered Species Act on a vote of 92-0, creating the scientific review process that eventually placed species like the bald eagle, peregrine falcon and grizzly bear on the list of endangered species. (All three have now recovered enough to be downlisted.)

All of these laws passed with bipartisan support. While some business and industrial interests opposed them, the public support for these and similar pieces of environmental legislation was broad and largely nonpartisan.

As recently as 1990, George H.W. Bush and a Democratic Congress agreed on amendments to the Clean Air Act that established a program to address acid rain and ozone pollution. Much of the grassroots work leading to that law emanated from activism by citizens here in New Hampshire.

Also in 1990 I stumbled across a little-known book titled Climate Change – A Threat to Global Development, a review of the state of climate science written for the German Bundestag (parliament). The commission that wrote the report said: “There should be no further delays in protecting the atmosphere. Considering the dramatic effects themselves, the Commission is appealing to responsible politicians to find new ways of international cooperation.”

Here we are almost 30 years later, having largely ignored that recommendation, and we are paying the price. In the interim the science of climate change has grown more and more robust, and there is no longer any doubt (except among a small group of what I call “purposefully ignorant” politicians) that we humans are responsible for the problem.

There are more than enough reports, projections and studies that illustrate what is at stake should we fail to address this problem. There is also a myriad of actions we can take that provide hope that the worst of those impacts can be avoided.

One of these is a bill in Congress, with growing bipartisan support, titled the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (HR 763). It would put a price on carbon emissions at the source, paid by fossil fuel producers and the money collected would be rebated to every American household each month. The idea is to increase the price of fossil fuels, using market forces to encourage the rapid transformation of our energy economy to low or carbon-free energy. The rebates ensure that those of us in low-income households will not see our financial resources dwindle during the transition.

The goal is to bring down U.S. carbon emissions by 40 percent in 12 years and 90 percent by 2050. Economists who have analyzed the proposal indicate it will improve people’s health, create about 2 million new jobs and not create any significant growth in government.

Behind this positive approach is an organization called the Citizens Climate Lobby, a nonpartisan group of citizens, many of them young people, that has had over 1,000 outreach events in their local communities and 250 meetings with members of Congress. At this point, more than 30 members of Congress have co-sponsored the bill.

As in the 1970s when a citizen-led movement inspired Congress to address polluted rivers, dirty air, poisoned wildlife and other environmental crises, the coming few years will require a citizen-led movement to address climate change. As in the ’70s, it is the youth of our nation that must bring their energy and commitment to the effort if it is to succeed.

In the 1970s, my generation’s activism was a major force that contributed to congressional action. It will also require an enormous outpouring of activism by today’s youth to meet the challenge of climate change and transform our economy into one that is healthy and sustainable for them to inherit.

(Paul Doscher lives in Weare.)

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