The overwhelming number of environmental calamities we face overshadows environmental success stories and this undermines efforts to build support for ecological action. People concerned about the state of the environment understandably spend a lot of time talking about unresolved issues. Sadly, there is much to talk about, from soaring temperatures and extreme weather, to rising oceans and climbing levels of GHGs. Around the world, we are witnessing urban landscapes choked by smog and forests that are steadily being depleted. While these are undeniably critical issues, we must not forget that despite the scope of environmental problems, solutions are possible nonetheless.
In addition to highlighting the obstacles, we must underscore environmental victories. Realizing that solutions are possible energizes people to act on other pressing issues.
The extent of ecological degradation makes it easy to succumb to fatalistic despair. However, this type of paralysis prevents us from addressing the threats arrayed against us. When confronted with seemingly intractable problems, people will often choose to ignore an issue rather than venture to hope for change. This is called escape-avoidance-learning. In this paradigm, people learn to avoid unpleasant or stressful situations.
To get people involved in meaningful change, we must first muster the hope to believe that there is a way out. The unwavering reliance on the hard facts espoused by some environmentalists can be counterproductive. Such an approach ignores the monumental victories of the past.We need to stress our accomplishments if for no other reason than to show that we can triumph over adversity. While our efforts must be informed by science, this only works if people can see a way to manage the horrors of a world ravaged by climate change.
People need to understand that solutions are possible. Although we have seen significant reason to despair, we have also seen some meaningful successes. The courts as well as governments at the federal, state and municipal levels have demonstrated their ability to act on a wide variety of fronts ranging from acid rain to waste recycling.
While many environmental success stories date back decades, we have also seen some major triumphs in the last year. In 2012, there was global agreement on a binding treaty restricting mercury emissions, and in 2013, we are seeing the fruition of an important international effort to reduce short lived climate pollutants (SLCPs).
Here is a summary of some of the greatest environmental achievements in U.S. history.
It has been known for almost a century that asbestos can be deadly. Asbestos is actually six mined substances that were widely used in manufacturing due to their durability and heat resistance. However, asbestos particles break away and are easily inhaled into the lungs, where they can lead to fatal diseases including lung cancer and mesothelioma.
Lawsuits in the 1970s resulted in billions of dollars in litigation losses. Now, much of the world enforces strict regulations on the use of asbestos.
Nitric and sulfuric acids are the byproducts of coal-fired power plants and other fossil-fuel combustion. When combined with water and oxygen, these acids fall to Earth in rain. High acidity levels caused widespread damage to lakes, forests, and soils.
In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed amendments to the Clean Air Act which puts limits on air pollution. These amendments not only reduced pollution, they did it faster and at a lower cost than expected.
For decades, DDT was a widely used insecticide that contaminated the air, soil and waterways. The poisoning of the living Earth’s ecosystems with DDT fueled the 60′s environmental movement and in the early 1970′s, the insecticide was banned in the U.S.
In the period from 1945 to 1963, the U.S. and the USSR conducted 434 open-air nuclear bomb tests. To curtail the nuclear fallout from these explosions, the major world powers entered into arms-control negotiations that led to the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty. This led to an early nuclear arms-control agreement between the U.S., U.S.S.R. and the U.K.
In 1966, the UN General Assembly adopted the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which bans all nuclear explosions in all environments.
In 1974, the U.S. Endangered Species Act entered into service and began protecting a number of species. With the help of protections from this Act, gray wolves, bald eagles, grizzly bears, and the brown pelican are amongst the animals that have fought their way off the endangered list.
The U.S. established the world’s first national park, Yellowstone, in 1872. Other countries like Australia, Canada and New Zealand soon followed America’s lead. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt created the country’s first national wildlife refuge. The wildlife refuge system is now the world’s largest, comprising more than 150 million acres of protected lands.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which tracks the world’s progress on preserving natural habitats, there are more than 100,000 protected areas worldwide, covering one-eighth of the Earth’s land mass.
Even after toxic waste disposal in landfills was prohibited, there were numerous hazardous waste sites that continued to pose a serious danger. The disease and death caused by toxic sites like Love Canal spawned a law in 1980 that set up a Superfund to clean up these toxic waste dumps.
The 2001, Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants was part of a global attempt to stop toxic dumping. The treaty was ratified by 172 countries and targets dangerous pesticides and industrial chemicals.
One of the best illustrations of cleaning up toxic waste sites can be found in the town of Hialeah near Miami in Dade County. This toxic dump site accepted pesticides, paints and solvents as part of what grew into a square-mile mountain of garbage. The EPA cleaned up the site and converted it into a lake for wading birds, complete with walking trails and lookout centers.
Industrialization and mass-production made it easy to produce things cheaply, One of the consequences was a massive increase in waste and the problem was exacerbated by modern landfills. In the 1960s and ’70s, recycling grew in popularity and cities eventually began offering recycling pickups. Now recycling is commonplace and comprises a wide assortment of material including steel, aluminum, glass, plastic, and paper.
Tetraethyl lead used to be an ingredient in gasoline and while it was good for combustion engines it is harmful to living things. The Environmental Protection Agency started phasing out leaded gas in 1974 and in 1980, the federal appeals court ruled that the EPA could set standards.
The elimination of lead in gasoline has decreased the incidence of related hypertension, nervous system damage and adverse developmental impacts in children.
In the 1970s, scientists began to make the connection between chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and the breakdown of the ozone layer. By 1985, a clear link was established between CFCs and the ozone hole,
As a result of these observations, all 197 members of the United Nations (UN) came together to sign the Montreal Protocol which provided legally binding standards restricting CFCs. This treaty stopped the use of CFCs and scientists believe that ozone will return to pre-1980s levels by 2070. According to Kofi Annan, the former secretary general of the United Nations, the Montreal Protocol is “perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date.”
The Cuyahoga River, in northeastern Ohio, was one of the most polluted rivers in the world. It came under international scrutiny when it repeatedly caught fire culminating in an infamous 1968 blaze that galvanized support for cleanup efforts. This led to the landmark Clean Water Act.
The Clean Water Act was passed by Congress In 1972. It protects the health of America’s waters, including lakes, rivers, and coastal areas. The Act has two fundamental national goals: to eliminate the discharge of pollutants into the nation’s waters, and to achieve water quality levels that are fishable and swimmable.
A few decades ago only one-third of the nation’s waters were safe for fishing and swimming. Wetland losses were estimated at about 460,000 acres per year. Agricultural runoff resulted in the erosion of 2.25 billion tons of soil and the deposit of large amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen into many waters.
Today, two-thirds of U.S. waters are safe for fishing and swimming, the loss of wetlands is only 70,000-90,000 acres, the amount of soil loss to agricultural runoff has been cut by a billion tons annually and the phosphorus and nitrate levels are down.
President Richard Nixon, signed the Air Quality Act in 1967. This became a federal law that protected air quality and reduced air pollution. In 1970, Congress passed what is now called the Clean Air Act.
The purpose of the Clean Air Act is to protect people’s health and welfare. According to the EPA, in 2010 alone, the Clean Air Act is estimated to have saved over 160,000 lives; avoided more than 100,000 hospital visits; and prevented millions of people from getting sick. The Clean Air Act also positively impacts the American economy through enhanced productivity.
Mercury emissions are a known threat to human health. After protracted negotiations that spanned almost half a decade, more than 140 countries recently signed on to the world’s first legally binding international agreement to control mercury emissions. The treaty sets mercury reduction targets on a range of products, processes and industries. The agreement also provides clear guidelines for industry.
The agreement puts in place rules that limit mercury emissions from power plants and industrial boilers as well as certain kinds of smelters. The new agreement bans the production, export and import of a range of mercury-containing products. The treaty phases out mercury-laden products, like batteries and thermometers as well as certain types of fluorescent lamps, soaps and cosmetics. The agreement also establishes rules for direct mining of mercury and addresses safe storage of mercury waste.
Nations that have small-scale gold mining operations, (a leading cause of mercury contamination) will be required to draw up national plans to limit mercury emissions.
This agreement is expected to reduce cases of neurological and behavioral disorders, and other health problems linked to mercury, as well as the contamination of soils and rivers caused by man-made emissions of the metal.
The treaty will be signed at a special meeting in Japan this October and it will come into force in 2020. In the interim, Japan, Norway and Switzerland have pledged funds to fast-track action.
Short-lived climate pollutants are the low hanging fruit of greenhouse gas emissions. Cutting short lived climate pollutants (SLCP) can go a long way to preserve human health and keep global temperatures below critical thresholds (2°C above pre-industrial levels). SLCPs include black carbon, tropospheric ozone, methane, and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). They are collectively known as short-lived climate pollutants because they remain in the air to warm the Earth for only a few days to a decade and a half.
A World Bank report indicates that cutting SLCPs can reduce the rate of global warming in half. Preventing SLCPs emissions can save 2.5 million lives per year, and it can increase crop yields and food security.
Durwood Zaelke, President of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development was quoted as saying: “Reducing short-lived climate pollutants provides the fast mitigation that the world needs to save millions of lives and avoid the worst of the predicted climate impacts,”
Zaelke also said “in the near-term, aggressively addressing short-lived climate pollutants such as black carbon, methane, tropospheric ozone, and HFCs can provide rapid climate, health, and food security benefits, particularly in the critical vulnerable regions that are already suffering some of the worst impacts of climate change.”
Black carbon on its own may be responsible for half of the warming in the Arctic. According to a UNEP study, eradicating SLCPs with existing technologies could cut the rate of global warming in the Arctic by two-thirds. However, without immediate and substantial mitigation efforts, the polar ice will keep melting and sea levels will keep rising. The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme indicates that sea levels could rise 5 feet within the next century. Perhaps most alarming is the fact that ongoing Arctic warming could release huge quantities of methane from the ocean floor, which could lead to runaway climate change.
“Reducing emissions of these short-lived climate forcers is critical for protecting the world’s vulnerable peoples and vulnerable ecosystems. When we talk about sustainable development, this is precisely what we mean. These measures reduce climate change, save lives, provide access to clean energy, and improve food security all at once,” said Zaelke.
In 2012, an important initiative was launched in Washington DC to address SLCPs. The Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce SLCPs is one of the most important developments to combat climate change in over a decade. The coalition is focused on fast-action climate mitigation which has the potential to significantly reduce climate pollution.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, which brings together governments, the private sector and key organizations around the world to work toward reducing short-lived climate pollutants,
“The Coalition may be the single most important development for climate protection in the past ten years. It focuses on fast-action climate mitigation that can be done today with existing technologies by willing partners. It has the potential not only to reduce a major part of climate pollution, but to build the momentum and confidence we need to successfully manage carbon dioxide from energy production, which is essential for keeping the Planet’s long term temperature increase to an acceptable level,” Zaelke said.
Charter members of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition include three developing nations (Mexico, Ghana, and Bangladesh) and three developed countries (Sweden, US, and Canada), along with the United Nations Environment Programme. Late in 2012, the European Union, Norway, Japan, Nigeria, Colombia, and the World Bank announced that they have joined the Coalition to reduce SLCPs. Many other countries are also poised to join shortly.
Initial funding for the Coalition has been provided by the U.S., Canada. Sweden and Norway. The World Bank noted the need for urgent action to reduce SLCPs and announced that they have $12 billion in their portfolio that can contribute to the Coalition’s goals.
On April 24th 2012, six initiatives aimed at accelerating and scaling-up action against the short-lived pollutants were approved by the Ministers meeting in Stockholm.
Rachel Kyte, World Bank Vice President for Sustainable Development said:
“This is the most important decade for action on climate change, But with a global treaty that will speed the curbing of carbon dioxide many years off, the climate and clean air coalition puts a practical new deal on the table – one that helps slow global warming while reducing the soot and smog that is damaging food crops and health worldwide, undermining growth and development.”
On Friday December 14th, 2012, the White House stood up to industry and announced its plans to significantly tighten air pollution limits on soot from exhaust pipes and smokestacks. The EPA sent the final rule to the White House Office of Management and Budget on December 4th where it was quickly reviewed and approved.
The December announcement sets a new annual air quality standard for soot — also known as fine particulate matter or “PM2.5″ — at 12 micrograms per cubic meter. That’s significantly tighter than the standard of 15 that the agency had established during the Clinton administration. This is expected to prevent heart attacks, strokes, asthma and other respiratory problems.
According to EPA research, “long-term PM2.5 exposures may [also] be linked to cancer and to harmful developmental and reproductive effects, such as infant mortality and low birth weight.” EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said that preventing these health problems could save $5 billion a year.
These efforts are being driven by strong public support. Over one million Americans have expressed their strong support for clean air. Private industry is also innovating novel ways of reducing SLCPs. For example in 2010, GM developed a replacement for HFCs.
Although efforts to engage SLCPs are laudable, carbon dioxide still accounts for half of all global warming. Therefore it is important to understand that efforts to reduce SLCPs do not take the place of reducing other GHGs, particuarly carbon. As NASA’s Drew Shindell writes:
“We are concerned about the effect of methane and black carbon primarily because they are exacerbating the threats posed by carbon dioxide…If we eliminated emissions of methane and black carbon, but did nothing about carbon dioxide we would have delayed but not significantly reduce long-term threats posed by climate change. In contrast, if we eliminated carbon dioxide emissions but did nothing about methane and black carbon emissions, threats posed by long-term climate change would be markedly reduced.”
And as Stanford’s Ken Caldeira concludes, we cannot choose SLCPs over GHGs
“…there is no scientific basis on which to decide which impacts of climate change are most important, and we can only conclude that both controls are worthwhile.”
“To win the climate war, we need to cut both the short-lived climate pollutants and long-lived carbon dioxide, the most damaging gas. Fortunately, we’re gaining allies quickly in the second front of the fight against black carbon, methane, and HFCs. A victory on this front will build the confidence we need to win the war.”
While far more needs to be done to manage climate change, it is important to take stock of what has already been achieved, if for no other reason than to inspire more people to advocate for the Earth.
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.
Image credit: jborger, courtesy flickr