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Jackie Speier: Don't forget how Earth Day came about

April 22, 2015

Special to the Mercury News
By Jackie Speier

April 22, 2015

Forty-five years ago, people were sick and dying from air and water pollution. Industrialization was at its height. Garbage was dumped into rivers and bays, sewage flowed straight into the ocean, toxic chemicals from factories and leaded gasoline exhaust from cars were fouling the air. The Cuyahoga River in Ohio was so polluted it caught on fire. Off the Santa Barbara coast one of the worst oil spills soiled miles of coast line and killed thousands of birds and fish.

Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin had witnessed the Santa Barbara oil spill and came up with the idea to combine the energy of the anti-Vietnam-war movement with public awareness about pollution in order to put environmental protection on the political agenda. He turned to Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey who represented the San Francisco Peninsula and to Denis Hayes, a young Stanford graduate and activist, to create a national teach-in on the environment.

Hayes built up a large staff across the country and worked with thousands of universities, colleges and schools to promote the event. On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans marched in the streets to protest against environmental ignorance and pollution.

The mood in the country was ripe for environmental protection and regulations. In the 1970 election, seven of twelve members of Congress with dismal environmental policy records, dubbed the "Dirty Dozen" by the Earth Day movement, lost their seats. Landmark environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, and Estuary Protection Act, were signed by the Republican President, Richard Nixon.

Pete McCloskey says the Earth Day movement resulted in the defeat of corrupt politicians and spurred a quarter century of bipartisan environmental legislation.

Unfortunately, since the mid-1990s, many members of Congress have spent their energy trying to tear down these protections and do nothing about climate change.

For two decades we have failed to create an international treaty on climate change mitigation. The U.S. didn't sign on to the Kyoto Protocol. Summits in Rio and Copenhagen ended with basically nothing. This year leaders from around the world will meet in Paris to negotiate an agreement that would cut greenhouse gas emissions and limit warming to two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, a level scientists say is necessary to avert the worst effects of climate change.

2014 was the hottest year on record. Temperatures over land and ocean surfaces were the highest since scientists started recording them in 1880. Strange weather has made headlines around the world. We've seen polar vortices and tornadoes in the Midwest, massive snow storms on the East Coast, rapidly shrinking sea ice at the North and South poles, record hurricanes and cyclones over the Pacific and Indian Oceans, flooding in Asia, and extreme droughts in Africa and right here in the western United States. Even in California, where we are used to a dry climate, we didn't expect four consecutive years of exceptional drought. Scientists call this the "new normal" — in a warming world we have to expect the unexpected.

Sea level rise, ocean acidification, species extinctions, erratic weather events, decreased agricultural yields, harm to human health and lower worker productivity are real and costly consequences of climate change.

It is past time that we reclaim the spirit of the original Earth Day and make 2015 a year of bipartisan action to preserve our natural resources and the health of our planet. We owe it to future generations.

U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo) represents the 14th Congressional District. She wrote this for this newspaper.

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