The passing of another Earth Day seems to have some pundits waxing nostalgic. One such pundit, Nicholas Lemann of the New Yorker, wrote a glowing piece about the hundreds of thousands of Americans who turned out for the first Earth Day in 1970. He even went as far to say that the absence of grassroots action in today’s environmental movement allowed Congress to sidestep climate legislation in 2009 and 2010.
The groundswell of support for the first Earth Day was indeed a potent force. It was the catalyst for change and launched an extraordinary time in environmental history. It inspired me and many of my colleagues at NRDC who were the drivers behind passage of landmark environmental protections like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. But, unlike Nicholas Lemann, I don’t believe our best days are behind us because I know how much we are accomplishing right now.
Political Landscapes Change, Requiring New Navigational Tools
Today the 1970-style teach-ins sound like a distant memory, much like FDR’s fireside chats did back then. When Earth Day first launched, it caught polluters off guard. Today is a different story. Now big oil and the gas industry are in full opposition mode. They spent $168 million on lobbying in the year before the climate bill was introduced, and it poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the 2012 campaign to elect climate denying candidates. Tea Party leaders in the House, meanwhile, voted more than 300 times to gut environmental safeguards in the last two years. The good news is the NRDC Action Fund and our allies activated our powerful network of supporters and prevented most of the terrible measures from becoming law. In today’s political environment, sometimes a good defense is our best offense.
While some may believe the tactics of the 1970’s is what we need to be victorious today, I argue that today’s political realities demand not just one, but all the tools at our disposal. Environmental victories will come from grassroots action, media outreach, scientific research and advocating our positions on Capitol Hill. We have to use our power, influence and message to affect change. There is no magic tool in our tool belt that can change the heart of fossil fuel opposition or defuse extreme Tea Party ideology. In today’s dysfunctional Congress, not even broad public support works. With polls showing that 90 percent of Americans support tougher gun control laws one would think Congress would easily pass a bill. Heck, so many voters called Congress to voice their support of stronger measures that they shut down the switchboard. Yet here we are today, still no closer to Congress passing anything. What was once considered the low hanging fruit-extending background checks to online sales and private gun shows-couldn’t even make it out of the Senate.
In his New Yorker article, Lemann bemoans the fact that there has been no major environmental legislation since the 2010 effort to pass a climate bill. But a Congressional strategy won’t work when Congress is this stuck. Even in the best of times, it takes multiple attempts to pass transformative legislation—just ask anyone who works on health care, immigration reform, or gun control.
How to Get Things Done, Without Congress
I get it. Change is hard. But, playing a blame game is easy. Rather than pointing fingers at one another or Congress, let’s keep working. While some have been busy plotting our early demise, America has been implementing standards which will continue to reduce our carbon pollution. U.S. carbon dioxide emissions have declined 12 percent since 2005. We are on track for far deeper reductions, because we’ve been using all the tools at our disposal to work with the White House to use its existing authority to reduce pollution.
Just last August the Obama administration issued fuel economy standards that will cut carbon pollution from new cars in half by 2025. They will also reduce U.S. oil imports by one third and save drivers $1.7 trillion at the gas pump. The administration also proposed the first-ever carbon limits on new power plants. These are not minor efforts. They target America’s two largest sources of carbon: cars and power plants.
But, we’re not done yet. Now it’s time for President Obama to take the next bold steps. We won’t rest until he uses the Clean Air Act to limit carbon pollution from existing power plants and rejects the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline that would lock us into decades of carbon pollution from the dirtiest fuel on the planet.
President Obama is clearly committed to confronting climate change, but prompting him to move forward will require all our tools. We aren’t just relying on an inside or outside strategy. In today’s game you need both. Our plan includes a cost-effective plan from NRDC for how the EPA can structure its carbon standards for existing power plants. At the same time, the environmental community is coordinating grassroots efforts in support of the standards—just like when the environmental coalition collectively helped generate a record-breaking 3 million comments in support of carbon standards for new power plants. And NRDC is providing expert scientific, economic, and public safety analysis of the Keystone XL pipeline, while helping to organize protest rallies that brought tens of thousands of people to the White House.
Be Proud, but Never Settle
These efforts in concert with one another are creating the climate solutions we seek. The results are astonishing. This Earth Day is just one administration after the Cheney Energy Task Force practically sanctified oil and gas development. Just one year after a presidential primary in which nearly every Republican presidential candidate denied the existence of climate change. Yet, America has cut our carbon emissions, dramatically expanded our investments in renewable energy, and cleaned up our cars. But, we’re not done yet. In fact, we are only getting started. I’m confident we will have even more reasons to celebrate at Earth Day 2014 and beyond.