Meteorologists understand that only perfect conditions can bring about big environmental changes. For example, it took precise circumstances for the atmospheric river to swerve over the Golden State this year and slake our five-year thirst.
Likewise, nearly 50 years ago, a perfect political climate helped create legislation that granted the best protection of natural resources in our nation’s history.
Americans had been slowly growing aware of environmental problems throughout the 1950s and ’60s because of congressional hearings and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. After the massive Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969, Sen. Gaylord Nelson proposed Earth Day in 1970. And when the growing environmental tide met a Republican president, Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency that December.
One year after the Paris Agreement was signed on Earth Day 2016, another Republican president is taking a different tack. After putting Scott Pruitt, a climate skeptic and fossil-fuel advocate, in charge of the EPA, President Donald Trump has proposed slashing its funding by one-third, the largest single cut to any institution in his thin and short-sighted budget.
According to The New York Times, the cuts include a reduction in grants to help states monitor safe drinking water, as well as cuts to the EPA’s ability to enforce penalties on environmental offenders. Almost all clean-up programs will be eliminated, including Superfund sites, which require lengthy ongoing cleanup. Drastic cuts are in store for continued research on chemicals that harm the environment, and the $70 million Climate Protection Program will be completely eradicated.
The Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn is one of the nation’s most seriously contaminated water bodies. The canal was added to the EPA’s list of Superfund sites in 2010. (Courtesy Photo)
With Earth Day upon us, how will the EPA, the country, and (for that matter) the Earth respond?
“This year’s Earth Day is incredibly important,” Shaye Wolf, Climate Science Director for the Center for Biological Diversity tells SF Weekly. “Fighting for the planet is more urgent than ever during the Trump administration, which is working to tear down fundamental protections for our air, water, and wildlife.
“Trump’s executive order that started rolling back the Clean Power Plan and overturned the moratorium on coal leasing on public lands benefits only a few wealthy corporations and puts people’s health and lives at risk,” she adds.
After Gov. Jerry Brown’s fiery speech to scientists from the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco in December, many looked to California for leadership in the fight to defend the environment. And it’s not just symbolic: Written into the EPA regulations is the option for states to adopt California’s strict tailpipe emissions as their own. This is why California’s environmental protections are most likely on a collision course with an auto industry that wants a one-size-fits-all standard for emissions. (That “one size” is far less strict than California’s, of course.)
But it’s not just liberal Bay Area Baby Boomers dreamily celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love who are concerned about the climate. In March, a group of 17 congressional Republicans broke party ranks to sign the “Republican Climate Resolution” in a desperate bid for their leaders to consider, well, facts.
“Our Founding Fathers set up a political system that was to be reason-based,” Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina told Bloomberg News. “They didn’t believe in ‘alternative facts.’ ”
The coastline of Sanford’s district is being eaten away by a rising tide, but Trump’s response was to hold a press conference with coal miners and promise that their industry is coming back — even though experts agree an industry that has gone from almost 50 percent of the country’s electricity in 2006 to barely 30 percent last year should stay buried.
“With Donald Trump launching constant, unprecedented assaults against the clean air, clean water, and public health safeguards that protect the health of our communities, we need to be vigilant every day of the year in fighting back — and Earth Day is an important reminder of exactly what we have to lose if we do not,” says Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club.
“The EPA’s mission is to protect the health of everyone in this country from dangerous pollution, and they’ve been doing that for decades, saving lives and keeping kids healthy. Trump’s budget would essentially make it so the EPA could not do its job,” he adds.
And the response from the EPA? Requests to speak to the California regional offices were not granted to SF Weekly. As far as the national office, the most notable response has been that Director Pruitt has made room in the budget to ensure he has a 24/7 security detail — the first time in history the agency’s director has made such a request.
“In the last 47 years, Earth Day has served as an anchor — the one day each year that nearly everyone will hear a message about the environment, and hopefully engage in conversations and actions to make our world a little bit better,” says Jon Foley, Executive Director of the California Academy of Sciences.
As far as celebrating Earth Day goes, Scott Pruitt believes withdrawing from a global pact to protect the planet is an appropriate gesture. If Earth Day is a kind of birthday party for the planet, Pruitt’s gift to the honoree is, apparently, to push her into the pool when she’s trying to enjoy her cake.
Youth participate in an Earth Day celebration. (Courtesy Photo)
For some in the EPA, it’s been too much. Mike Cox, climate-change adviser to EPA’s Region 10, which covers Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, quit in April and called out his boss in an open letter.
“I, along with many EPA staff, are becoming alarmed about the direction of EPA under your leadership,” Cox wrote to Pruitt. “I have worked under six administrations with political appointees leading EPA from both parties. This is the first time I remember staff openly dismissing and mocking the environmental policies of an administration, and, by extension, you.”
Michael Picker, President of the California Public Utilities Commission, thinks a different kind of green may help ensure more Earth Days.
“I remember in 1970, going to hear people in California speaking out against nuclear power,” Picker says. “Today, the last of the nuclear power plants in California is set to close. Investing in nuclear didn’t meet their business needs. Utility companies in California have learned that renewable energy is a better investment.”
Almost 50 years ago, nearly 20 million people across cities in the U.S. marched for clean air, water, and land.
“The first Earth Day in 1970 spurred the passage of our key environmental laws, and those protections are now under attack,” Wolf says. “People must raise their voices again. Resistance is critical.”
But there are plenty of opportunities for the public to test — and possibly change — the political climate. The Science is Real March in D.C. — complete with clever, Tom Hanks-endorsed T-shirts declaring “There is no Planet B” — joins national Earth Day protests, and shortly after, the People’s Climate March takes place April 29.
In this current standoff, where debates begin and end in tweets, it’s hard to believe we have the luxury to wait around for that perfect climate that brought us Earth Day and the EPA in the first place.