Your Turn: U.S. needs to be a leader in saving the planet

In April 1970, Earth Day was held in America to raise awareness about our treatment of the planet. Millions of people participated.

Earth Day moved us to treat our environment better. Two catastrophes made it a no-brainer. Chemical waste on Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught fire, and a river burning on TV shocked the country. Also, a massive oil spill near Santa Barbara, California, killed many fish and birds along beaches.

Politicians responded in a positive, bipartisan way. Congress passed the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Toxic Substances Control Act, among others. The EPA was created to care for our air, land and water. President Nixon signed them into law.

These laws worked. Catalytic converters on cars greatly reduced carbon monoxide. Wastewater treatment improved, and so did wetland maintenance for filtration and flood control. Survival of plant and animal species had to be accommodated.

That was then. Since progress in the 1970s, the U.S. has mostly been backsliding. One small example: President Carter put solar panels on the White House. President Reagan took them off.

Reagan slashed solar power, which American scientists pioneered. Also, Reagan put fossil fuel executives, and their minions who hated regulation of any kind, in charge of enforcing regulations. 

George H.W. Bush pulled the U.S. out of the Kyoto Protocols. To be fair, Bush helped achieve a 1990 update of the Clean Air Act, which reduced sulfur dioxide, the cause of acid rain.

Bill Clinton chose Al Gore for vice president, but they did little for renewable energy or getting us to join the global treaties. Clinton preserved some national monuments, but his enforcement was disappointing.

George W. Bush was a disaster. The Sierra Club’s Carl Pope said Bush has “the worst environmental record in American history. The administration consistently favors polluting industries over health and safety.”

President Obama tried but was handcuffed for three-quarters of his time by the GOP Congress. At least Obama got $80 billion allocated for renewables and worked with China to cut greenhouse gases.

Trump is worse than George W. Bush.

The Republican Party became aggressively anti-environmental. Right-wingers used SLAPP suits against activists. SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. These suits weaponize the courts to censor and silence critics.

Why did the party of Teddy Roosevelt, who gave us the National Parks, become anti-environmental? Money. The oil, coal and chemical corporations made huge contributions to Republican politicians (and some to Democrats) to buy them off.

In Earth’s other democracies, both conservative and liberal politicians work for action on climate. Only the U.S. has irrationally anti-science conservatives.

While the vast majority of climate scientists see global warming as a human-made crisis, Republican politicians cite a few hacks employed by big oil.

America was long the leader in polluting the world. We were briefly the leader in cleaning it up. Now we’re obstructing progress.

There are more hurricanes, droughts, floods and wildfires. Bees have died in record numbers and they are essential for pollination in agriculture. A 2014 report in Science showed the loss of plant and animal species is occurring about 1,000 times the rate than if humans weren’t in the picture.

A March 2019 International Energy Agency report shows worldwide demand for oil, coal and natural gas in 2018 grew at their fastest rate this decade. The biggest increases for oil and natural gas came from the U.S. The IEA reports it costs less to develop wind and solar than to maintain almost three-fourths of U.S. coal plants. Building renewable facilities creates jobs so it’s a win-win. 

Things we can do: Vote for candidates who protect the environment; vote with dollars for efficiency, electric lawn mowers, and electric or at least hybrid vehicles; and eat less or no meat, to save grain and water while reducing toxic waste from factory farms.

We humans must care how we treat the Earth. In March 2019, two whales washed ashore dead, one with 88 pounds of plastic trash in its stomach, one with almost 50 pounds. Allowing the oceans to be choked with trash shows that as a species we just don’t care.

Yet on this 50th Earth Day we’d better start to care as if our world depends on it. It does.

— Frank Lingo is a Lawrence resident, a former columnist for The Kansas City Star and author of the novel “Earth Vote.”

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