Earth Day Reflections: Plastic Ocean Patches, Hermaphrodite Fish and No Talk of Cap and Dividend

by on April 22nd, 2010

Today is Earth Day. I started my morning, as I almost always do, looking up the latest environmental news brought to my email Inbox by the Society of Environmental Journalists. Today’s news consisted of: a killer whale who died off the coast of the Puget Sound gorged on plastic debris and other garbage (the objects didn’t kill him, though scientists think it might have been the ingestion of invisible industrial chemicals), the latest update about yesterday’s explosion of an offshore oil rig off our Southeastern coast, and an AP article about the events that spurred the first Earth Day with a comparison about our current state of the environment.

To begin with this last item, we no longer have waterways that catch on fire or birds falling dead from DDT poisoning mid-flight, and most of our skies are not rendered mere shadows by smog and soot. Our environmental threats are now more concealed and more complex, and so harder to believe in, or combat. Chemical exposure and climate change are more difficult to see, and their threats are for the most part, slower to take hold.

For the AP article, I was struck by one of the last lines, which contained a quote by a Beltway resident who now lets her children swim in the Potomac, and does not even bother to clean them off afterwards. This is to highlight how we have improved the cleanliness of the River and other bodies of water that once brimmed visibly with sludge. I found this interesting, because having lived in the D.C.-metro area myself and having spent enough of my spring and summer days riverside, I never once saw a swimmer in the Potomac. I also recall that the few times I went sailing, we all had a fear of tipping over into the murky water. This is because most of the fish in the Potomac are reported to be hermaphrodites from exposure to the environmental estrogens in the water. Just two days ago, there was another article again about this issue, and how it has accelerated. Environmental estrogens do not attack our bodies the same way DDT attacks the body of the bird. We don’t instantly drop down dead, and so we have been less vigilant about reducing exposure or banning products that contain them. Instead, we develop cancer, usually of our reproductive system (breast, ovarian, uterine–organs that are more estrogen-regulated) and at much higher rates and earlier ages than we used to. We may go on more marches rallying for a cure, but at the same time more and more of our products contain these chemicals, including our cleaning products, personal care products, even most our milk and dairy products. The bitter irony is that most of the “sponsors” of these marches and proactive cure cancer events are cosmetic companies that have refused to phase out the estrogenic chemicals in their products at the request of many cancer victim advocacy organizations, though they have already done so for the product lines available in other countries that have such bans (and where, incidentally, rates of cancer development are decreasing). Not only will chemical companies not voluntarily phase out chemicals in the U.S. they are prohibited from using elsewhere, they are working vigilantly against Obama and U.S. government efforts to do so. Yes, there seems to be a lot of irony, as with the recent explosions of oil rigs and mines at a time when our government is pushing to exponentially increase these activities and has ensured the public that we can do so safely. In addition to the fact that these activities will exacerbate climate change and other environmental maladies, it seems they are still inherently unsafe for workers in the field. (A lesser known piece of news is that concerning the closure of the Yankee nuclear plant in my recent resident state of Vermont, where more reports of leaks and adverse health effects have come to light at a time when we are pushing and planning for more nuclear energy.)

Finally, today’s news concerns EPA recommendations for regulating carbon. It’s about time. Of course, the rules are still too weak (regulation starts for industries emitting 75K+ tons of CO2 annually). What also fails to be mentioned is that the House-passed climate bill, the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACESA), otherwise known as the Waxman-Markey bill, contains language that would usurp the EPA’s authority to regulate carbon and other greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it could three years ago. Though some say this bill is as good as dead, the new Senate bill being fashioned by Kerry, Lieberman, and Graham, seems likely to incorporate a lot of the language and provisions of ACESA. And there’s the fact that Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski and other Congressional representatives are taking decisive and aggressive action to ensure the EPA is castrated of its legal powers to protect us from climate change. Frankly, the House cap-and-trade bill was a sell-out piece of legislation that would do nothing to genuinely and effectively address climate change. It would giveaway most carbon permits instead of sell them. It would depend greatly on offset schemes–which just yesterday, a huge investigative story ran in the Christian Science Monitor that confirmed a vast majority of offsetting programs are not real and are simply scams. The bill also sought to lavish subsidies on technologies that simply don’t exist and are implicitly counterintuitive to addressing climate change–such as clean coal. Clean coal is a myth, as I discussed in my blog the other day about the House cap-and-trade bill.

Which leaves me to my final thought: where is the discussion of cap-and-dividend? Why has the President, Congress and most of the media ignored the fact that there is another climate bill that has been introduced into Congress? One that does not deprive the EPA of its court-ordered obligations and duties, one that does not allow offsets to qualify as emission cuts,one that does not giveaway permits to polluters, and one that would GIVE MONEY BACK TO THE AMERICAN PEOPLE? That’s right, the cap-and-dividend bill, known as the CLEAR Act (Carbon Limits and Energy for America’s Renewal), would auction off every single permit. Then, it would take the majority of that revenue from the auction and give it directly back to U.S. citizens in the form of a dividend check distributed by snail mail or direct deposit come tax season. Low-income and middle-class citizens would get the largest share, with our wealthiest 2% either breaking even or losing a small amount. The check would help offset small increases to prices at the pump and in our electrical grid. The smaller precentage of leftover revenue would go towards direct subsidies in conservation, efficiency, and renewable energy programs, that would further deflect the burden of projected energy price increases on our populace. Even our anti-climate bill politicians in the great state of Alaska cannot deny the popularity and effectiveness of dividend programs–the state has subsidized a lot of its infrastructure through its own program from oil revenues and the state citizens are very pleased with their annual checks.

The bill definitely has its drawbacks: the carbon cap is too low, and it still offers some funding to dubious technology (again, the dreaded clean coal, though the funding is not as lavish), and it only is focused on carbon. However, the auction and dividend process would aid in naturally tightening the cap and, as the concept of climate regulation begins to face less resistance and as more climate-friendly programs and infrastructure is implemented, the cap could be strengthened. Again, the bill’s biggest strong point is it is downright populist and progressive in messaging and intent and has the ability to rouse unprecedented public support. All of the arguments of catering to corporations aren’t applicable here, and when people got on board, so would our politicians. So, again, why don’t we hear about it? Well, because our corporations wouldn’t benefit, and their interests are adamantly protected in our government lately. The Supreme Court ruling in January that interprets them as individuals and money as speech more or less let us in on that secret. If we do want other Earth Days for our children, this is a bill we can believe in. Even if you don’t believe in human-induced climate change, or even if you don’t believe it’s a bad thing, I am sure we can all agree that we need to steer away from fossil fuels, and that we need cleaner air and water (CO2 and other GHGs cause environmental health problems in addition to global warming), that we need energy sources that are safer for our workers and residents, and that we need a system that favors people over industry. And so far, we’re wasting time. For more of my reporting and commentary on cap-and-trade v. cap-and-dividend, I invite you to please visit my latest blog post on the issue.

Happy Earth Day!

Laura Kiesel