This article was originally published on the Examiner website on Earth Day 2011. I decided to re-post in on my blog in celebration of Earth Day 2013, updated with information on some current environmental issues.
Since 1970, the twenty-second of April has been designated as Earth Day, a day to celebrate our planet, raise awareness, educate people, and join together to rally for political and social change in regard to environmental issues. However, the Earth Day movement has fizzled somewhat from its beginnings, with widespread protests, marches, and teach-ins, to a day that people completely forget about unless it happens to come pre-printed on their desk calendar. Many environmental problems our society faced back in 1970 have been improved significantly: our air and water are cleaner and are protected by stronger laws and regulations, many toxic chemicals and pesticides are banned from use, and recycling has become a part of life for most people.
However, our challenges are not behind us—in fact, we face challenges ahead that are more daunting than most people would like to believe: our Earth’s climate is changing at a rapid rate, due largely to human activity and greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation, automobiles, and industry. How can we adapt to the changing climate, while supporting a burgeoning global population that will be more susceptible to extreme weather events, hunger, disease, poverty, and lack of water as a result of climate change?
And let’s not forget that we are not alone on this planet—we share the planet with 1.7 million documented species of plants and animals, with millions still to be discovered. We need to account for their needs and survival in the equation, as well. Scientists such as the famed Dr. Richard Leakey are calling our current era the “Sixth Great Extinction”. There have been five massive extinctions in Earth’s history, including the Permian extinction and the extinction of the dinosaurs—and in our current era, by some estimates, 50% of earth’s species are at risk of extinction due to human activity and climate change.
If you are one of those people who thinks that environmental issues are a bunch of garbage (no pun intended), let me give you some numbers:
- That estimated 50% of earth’s species at risk of extinction… who’s to say humans aren’t included in that figure?
- Currently, the environment provides services that benefit humans (pollinating plants, filtering and cleaning water through the water cycle, decomposing dead matter and recycling the nutrients) and if humans had to find a way to do all those things ourselves, the cost has been estimated to be around $30 TRILLION. Kind of nice for nature to take care of all that for us, for free, isn’t it? And you thought the US debt looked bad now...
- 50 Million: the number of climate refugees expected by the year 2020. 1 Billion: the number expected by 2050. Just for reference, the population of the United States is about 350 million, and China’s is around 1 billion. Looks like things could get cozy as people flee flooded coastal areas for dry ground, and seek food, water and safety in more plentiful areas when their home countries become parched, overcome with diseases, and wrought with conflict over increasingly scare resources.
- The movement to divest from fossil fuels. This is a movement that started among universities, where student activist groups held demonstrations (such as "die-ins" staged in the hallway outside the university President's office) to urge their schools to divest from fossil fuel companies and instead invest in sustainable companies. The idea behind this movement is to create financial pressure on fossil fuel companies whose product is one of the largest contributors to climate change. As the campaign states, investing in fossil fuels is "investing in our own destruction" by pouring more money into an industry that is is a significant (if not the most significant) contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and worsening climate change. This movement has since grown to include cities: Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn formally requested that the city of Seattle "refrain from future investments in fossil fuel companies and begin the process of divesting our pension portfolio from those companies". Churches are beginning to join the movement as well, recognizing that "most faiths agree that creation is God's-- ours to steward, but not to destroy". You can find Divest campaigns across the country at campaigns.gofossilfree.org. According to this website, there are active campaigns at the following universities in Washington state: Washington State University, Whatcom Community College, University of Washington, Western Washington University, Seattle Pacific University, Evergreen State College, Pacific University, Seattle University, and University of Puget Sound.
- Opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline (KXL). This pipeline is a proposed extension to the TransCanada Keystone pipeline, which would run from Alberta Canada, to Nebraska, where it would join with the existing pipeline to carry tar sands oil to the Gulf of Mexico for refining. There is strong opposition to the KXL due to environmental concerns-- such strong opposition in fact that on February 17th of this year, 40,000 people descended on the National Mall in Washington DC to let President Obama know that the pipeline cannot be allowed. The largest concern with the pipeline is the potential for devastating tar sands oil spills along the 1,180 mile route, which runs through the underground Ogallala aquifer. This aquifer provides drinking water for two million people, as well as irrigation water for croplands in the "breadbasket" of America, including South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas. An oil spill in the aquifer would have a devastating impact on human health as well as the farmland that provides our nation with much of its food crops. Historically, these pipelines have not had a "spill-free" record, either: according to 350.org, another tar sands pipeline run by TransCanada spilled fourteen times in just the first year of operation. A pipeline operated by Enbridge spilled over 1 million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River in 2010. Another concern with the pipeline is its impact on climate change. Not only does the pipeline promote the fossil fuel industry and its contributions to climate change, but it also causes more damage, with tar sands being 19% more greenhouse-gas intensive than conventional fuel. Proponents of the pipeline tout its job-producing potential, while opponents argue that the pipeline could end as many livelihoods as it creates, should any spills occur and cause lasting damage to farmland. Opponents also comment that only 10% of the jobs created by KXL would be filled by local people living along the pipeline. Embroiled in controversy due to questionable environmental impact statements, and opposed by an overwhelming number of citizens, the future of KXL is still uncertain.
- And to bring things a little closer to home: The Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point. This proposed coal terminal would be located near Ferndale, Washington and with the capacity to export 48 million metric tons of coal per year, this terminal would also be the largest such facility in North America. If built, up to 9 trains per day would transport coal from mines in Wyoming and Montana, following a route that travels along the Columbia River before running north up the I-5 corridor to the terminal in Ferndale. Opponents of the terminal are concerned about the negative environmental impacts of the increased train traffic, with the soot and exhaust from diesel engines as well as coal dust blowing off the train's cargo having the potential to cause health problems for the people living near the proposed train route. Farmers are also concerned that these pollutants will affect the productivity of their land and farm animals such as cows, which could result in significant economic problems. The terminal is also opposed by the Lummi tribe due to the concerns over the impact of increased freight traffic and coal dust on their fishing areas nearby the terminal site. When one sees photos of trains carrying coal, completely obscured by the dust blowing off of their cargo and onto the surrounding area and looking more like a large dark cloud than a train, it is difficult to not be concerned about the potential health and environmental impacts of such pollution. Similar to the KXL pipeline, proponents of the Gateway Pacific Terminal argue that the project will bring economic value, as well as providing local jobs (a "whopping" 1,250 jobs, according to the Gateway Pacific website itself).
350.org is a great resource for information on the current environmental issues and campaigns occurring around the world. On April 22nd, take a moment to educate yourself on the environmental issues that our most pressing for our society, and learn about ways in which you can make a difference. Solving these problems is going to require the collective cooperation of our entire society, and our future well-being depends on it. Go Earth Day.