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Howard A. Learner

This Earth Day, Let’s Recognize Progress and Accelerate Solutions

We do have far to go to achieve a safe, clean environment for all—but the improvements are real.

Crain’s Chicago Business Op-Ed Published on April 22nd, 2021 

This Earth Day, let’s recognize and celebrate the environmental progress that we’ve truly achieved while mobilizing action on climate change and other challenges we face going forward.  We can solve environmental problems in ways that are good for the environment and create jobs while boosting economic growth for all.  That requires rapidly and robustly accelerating renewable energy, more efficient innovative clean technologies, and transportation modes that pollute less. 

Energy and transportation systems produce about 65 percent of the carbon pollution that causes climate change. These problems require policy actions and pragmatic solutions. We’ve done that before.

Fifty years ago, steel mills and chemical factories poured toxic sewage directly into Lake Michigan. Smelly alewives, phosphates and chemical crud plagued Chicago’s beaches and waters.  Air quality was sometimes acrid and putrid. You could see pollution hanging in sepia-colored air in industrial areas.

Much has improved. The first Earth Day in 1970 generated public activism and legislative action. The Clean Air Act of 1970 changed the federal government’s role in air pollution control by authorizing comprehensive federal and state regulations to limit emissions from both industrial and mobile sources.  The Clean Water Act of 1972 focused on reducing pollution discharges into our rivers, lakes and streams to make them “fishable and swimmable.”  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, founded in 1970, greatly increased the federal government’s ability to implement and enforce these environmental laws.

The flurry of 1970’s environmental statutes made a difference. Great Lakes beaches are cleaner, and the water is better for swimming.  Public water supplies are safer to drink in most places.  The air is cleaner and safer to breathe.

We do have far to go to achieve a safe, clean environment for all, but the improvements are real. Can you imagine how much worse it would be if the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act had not been enacted, implemented and enforced at all?

Fifty years of progress is worth recognizing and celebrating. Recognizing that environment investments made a real difference motivates people to spend time and energy advancing new policies necessary for progress. Celebrating the real achievements empowers people to act on today’s real challenges.

Last year, there wasn’t much attention on Earth Day’s 50th birthday. We were reeling from COVID shelter-in-place orders. We were too busy defending against then-President Trump’s misguided rollbacks of America’s core environmental laws to be celebrating them.

This Earth Day calls for the political will and actions to accelerate solutions to compelling environmental threats:

• Fifty more years of greenhouse gas pollution have accumulated in the atmosphere.  Climate change impacts show up in more extreme weather with catastrophic hurricanes, tornadoes, derechos, wildfires, heat waves and very cold spells.  Rising Lake Michigan waters flood shoreline areas while droughts rage elsewhere.

We don’t have much time left to mitigate global climate change. What’s necessary? Rapidly accelerate clean energy and clean transportation that grow jobs and the economy, and reduce pollution from fossil-fuel power plants and vehicles of all types. From an atmospheric standpoint, it doesn’t matter whether carbon pollution comes from Indiana, India or Indonesia.  We’re all in this together.

• We’ve underestimated the persistence and health harms of legacy synthetic chemicals like PFAS. Political partisanship has stalled clean ups.  Likewise, governments failed to clean up Superfund and other legacy toxic chemical sites because the oil and chemical industries’ political clout ended the financing mechanism.  The “out of sight, out of mind” tolerance of these toxic sites is a dangerous poker game risking public health.

• The history of concentrating polluting facilities in lower-income communities of color is morally wrong and demonstrably dangerous to people’s health in too many cases.  President Biden’s environmental justice initiative is designed to reduce harms and threats, and his Justice40 initiative seeks to ensure that clean energy development and other sustainability investments significantly benefit disadvantaged communities.  Those twin initiatives are right, timely and just.

• Agricultural runoff pollution — mostly manure from “CAFOs” with thousands of hogs, chickens and cows, and fertilizers on crop fields — is causing recurring severe toxic algae outbreaks in Lake Erie and Lake Michigan’s shallow bays that impair safe drinking water supplies, damage fisheries, make outdoor recreation unenjoyable, and harm the economy.  Manure runoff plagues Wisconsin waterways as water well tests show distressingly high levels of E. coli bacteria and nitrates.

The science and solutions are clear: enforceable regulatory standards to reduce agricultural runoff pollution sufficient to clean up our lakes and rivers, and protect public health and ecological vitality.  Voluntary measures, alone, don’t work to solve the problem.  Will there be sufficient political will to take the necessary actions to ensure safe, clean water for all?

This Earth Day, let’s celebrate the environmental progress we’ve achieved. Let’s use that momentum to advance policy actions, innovative modern technologies, and the human and political will to meet today’s challenges. Let’s empower ourselves to succeed.

Howard A. Learner,

President and Executive Director, Environmental Law & Policy Center

Howard Learner is an experienced attorney serving as the President and Executive Director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center. He is responsible for ELPC’s overall strategic leadership, policy direction, and financial platform.

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