Though the Need is Urgent, Earth Day’s Best Moment May Lie in Past

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This week, just a day before the nation marked the 40th Earth Day, the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded 50 miles from the Louisiana coast, leaving 11 people dead, dozens injured, and a pulse of crude oil that is spreading across the Gulf of Mexico. The blast, which caused the platform to sink on Earth Day itself, came 16 days after 29 men perished in a West Virginia coal mine – the worst American mining disaster in 40 years.

The two calamities embody the relentless risks – human and environmental – that come with the unceasing pursuit of fossil fuel. They also highlight a stubborn feature of the original Earth Day – the consequences of America’s dangerous reliance on oil and coal – that has expanded and deepened in the 40 years since.

On Monday, Senators John Kerry, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman are scheduled to make public a proposal for comprehensive climate and energy legislation they hope will change that vector. By some accounts the steps it takes to diminish oil and coal use will include a phased in cap for the electricity and industrial sectors. It may also contain a pollution fee for transportation fuels and new measures to foster the development and use of domestically produced cleaner energy alternatives.

In these and other provisions, the Senate proposal is said by Congressional staffers to differ substantially from the House energy and climate legislation enacted in June 2009. The House legislation contained robust measures to cap carbon emissions and to develop an emissions trading market that has potential to generate billions of dollars to accelerate the low-carbon economy.

In anticipation of the Senate climate and energy proposal, Public Opinion Strategies, a national market research firm, released on Earth Day the results of a poll that was conducted in five moderate to conservative states.  The firm found that a majority of 800 voters polled earlier this month in Alaska, Florida, Iowa, Idaho, and Virginia favored what the pollsters called an “overhaul the nation’s energy system to reduce polluting emissions and increase the use of renewable energy sources.”  The pollsters also discovered what they said was “strong support” – regardless of party affiliation -for any plan to put a price on carbon to also include refunds to citizens.

I’ll be busy on Monday reporting for USCAN on the Senate bill’s content, gather a summary of reactions from the climate action community, and describe the shape of the policy debate over the next few months.

Forty years ago, in response to the first Earth Day, 20 million Americans demonstrated their commitment to Mother Earth in marches, actions (I painted the White Plains train station and dragged tires out of the Bronx River), teach-ins and much more. The civic activism prompted a generation of bipartisan federal and state legislation that cleaned the air, cleared the water, and protected man and animal alike from a good number of industrial hazards. It also opened the way to a much more efficient economy that is many times larger today than it was then.

The legislation made public on Monday is driven by motives and energy that is consistent with the first Earth Day. But the political culture is so much angrier, divided, jealous, and immature — and that encompasses the behavior of extreme voices on every side. The result is that in an era when environmental dangers are just as urgent, and the potential for doing good just as keen, the federal government has scant chance to enact a measure that comes close to what’s needed.

— Keith Schneider

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