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Sustainability News

October 25, 2016

Smokestacks in front of an orange sunsetA Thought Leader Series Piece

by Leon Billings & Thomas Jorling

Note: As the two senior staff members who led the Senate environment subcommittee during the 1970s, Leon Billings and Thomas Jorling are widely regarded as pioneers of the "Golden Age" in environmental policy when Congress developed some of the most influential and enduring legislation – still in effect today.

While electronic media, political commentators and candidates wallow in irrelevancy, our planet’s future hangs in the balance. Actions man has taken over the last century and a half have contaminated the thin patina of atmosphere that we call air.

No, this isn’t conventional air pollution that we have sought to reduce through efficiency and technology. This is climate pollution caused by a group of pollutants called greenhouse gasses, byproducts of man’s use of natural resources to improve the human condition.

Senators with whom we worked in the latter part of the last century were deeply concerned about how we used and wasted our natural resources. They tried their best to write laws that would reduce pollution, encourage recycling and conserve for future generations the bounty of our planet. They did not know about climate pollution, but they wrote laws capable of addressing future threats to mankind’s survival.

Today, there is a widely accepted science that proves climate pollution will alter how our planet functions so as to change the volume of water in our oceans, wipe out a significant number of nature’s creatures, change disease vectors and alter the temperature of the earth. Overwhelmingly, the science is in and is indisputable, even though the fossil fuel industry belittles it.

Fifty years ago, we had much less evidence of the health risks of air, water and waste pollution when we wrote our seminal environmental laws. But Congress collectively, and with near unanimity, decided it was better to take the risk and clean up too much pollution than to do too little.

But not with climate pollution. The egregious “climate change is a hoax” purveyors have stopped our government from rudimentary, economically-feasible and non-disruptive pollution control measures. And, sadly, they have gotten one of our major political parties to drink their Kool-Aid.

The Republican nominee, Mr. Trump, has not only denigrated the science of climate change, he has alleged that the Chinese have perpetrated the hoax to undermine the American economy. Worse, because he has a significant following of voters disinterested in any facts, far too many Americans are “climate deniers.”

The message of the deniers is an easy course politically because too many other Americans assume that climate damage is decades away, far from this year’s campaign contributions or elections. Unlike the environmental leaders in both the Republican and Democratic Parties 50 years ago, it is easier to stonewall today than exercise precaution for tomorrow.

What a difference those few decades make. Just think, in 1969, newly elected President Richard Nixon was determined to take leadership on environmental politics from Senator Edmund Muskie, who he viewed as his most likely opponent for re-election. Nixon’s affirmative grab for environmental leadership helped challenge the Congress to act, and – led by Senator Muskie – Congress gave Nixon a lot more than he sought.

But now, with an issue of greater consequence that is more difficult to solve, this Republican nominee calls climate change a hoax. At the same time, it is one issue around which those testy, independent, demanding, selfish millennials are united. They believe their planet and their children’s planet are threatened and that we must act now. And they are correct.

The contrast could not have been starker in the first presidential debate. The die was cast. It is a foreign policy issue of major importance. The public is entitled to hear how the candidates would deal with it.

Fifty years ago, Walter Cronkite forced public awareness of pollution issues. Pollsters were forced to put pollution on their list of public concerns. Today, presidential debate moderators need to channel Walter Cronkite. They need to emulate what one journalist in their industry did to save our citizens from the threats of air, water and waste pollution.

Highly credible scientists think we have already passed the climate change “tipping point,” making the horrors of climate pollution inevitable. Other scientists refuse to concede defeat and demand a specific response from our future leaders.

So, even accepting the reality of that threat is insufficient. The task of bringing the family of nations to that reality is more daunting. We need an international entity capable of enforcing the climate pollution reductions more than 190 countries have agreed upon. Real American leadership, real understanding and real appreciation for the complexity of bringing together those sovereign nations are essential if we are to save our planet.

Rather than having a phony, fake-science, special interest-driven debate on the reality of climate change, our political leaders must focus on how to define and implement a global regulatory regime.

This is the debate we must have in 2016. Whether our grandchildren have a future on this planet depends on the outcome of that debate. The fact that there are no easy answers, that the subject is complicated and that media producers don’t consider it sexy are unacceptable arguments for ignoring it. Second only to nuclear war, climate pollution poses the greatest known threat to our planet.

Let’s talk about it before it really is too late.

Leon G. Billings was chief of staff to Senator and Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie (D ME). From 1966 to 1978, he was staff director of Muskie’s Subcommittee on Environmental Pollution and had primary majority staff responsibility for the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. He later served as Executive Director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and twelve years in the Maryland legislature. He also team-taught “The Origins of Environmental Law” with his former Minority co-author Tom Jorling.  

Thomas C. Jorling served with the Solicitor’s Office of the U.S. Department of Interior and Counsel prior to becoming Minority Counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on Public Works in 1968. From 1972 to 1987, Jorling served as Director of the Center for Environmental Studies at Williams College in Massachusetts. During this period, he served three years as Assistant Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency for Water and Hazardous Waste. Jorling subsequently served as Commissioner for the Department of Environmental Commission in the administration of Governor Mario Cuomo. He was also vice president for environmental, health and safety programs and forest policy for International Paper Co. Email Jorling