This year, Earth Day turned 46. From the first Earth Day celebration in 1970, it has featured sunny celebration in the shadow of some very real ongoing and predicted threats. Today, Earth Day still offers the opportunity for sober reflection on the many challenges ahead, but it also showcases historic progress that demonstrates how far we’ve come.
The year has dealt a number of hard environmental blows. For example, in Flint Michigan, the world saw the reality of environmental injustice. The faces of the children who innocently drank water that politicians knew had illegal levels of lead contamination and the harm to their health and learning abilities that they are already facing and can expect to face long after the news cameras have left the scene.
And still there are dozens of communities across the country facing exposure to lead and other toxins in their drinking water from polluters who take advantage of their socioeconomic situations and lack of political power and nobody wants to take responsibility.
The similarly high-profile environmental disaster in Porter Ranch, Los Angeles, was illustrative of how environmental issues intersect with race and class. In October 2015, the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility began spewing methane gas into the air, ultimately forcing more than 100,000 metric tons of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere. Residents of this affluent, predominantly white area experienced asthma attacks, headaches and nosebleeds in the surrounding neighborhoods, and within weeks, were evacuated to hotels and temporary apartments.
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Without disparaging the severity of the Aliso Canyon crisis, other Angelinos noted the swift response to this environmental threat in this wealthy neighborhood compared to the sluggish response to similar health issues in Boyle Heights, South Los Angeles and Wilmington which ultimately received some long overdue attention.
This past month, another environmental crisis unfolded much closer to home for me.
A dozen blocks down the street from my parents’ home in Miami, the Turkey Point nuclear plant was found to be leaking tritium, a radioactive isotope, into Biscayne Bay.
This beautiful body of water has levels of radioactive tracer that are 215 times what should be found in nature.
What these tragedies have in common is a lack of responsibility on the part of polluters and governments to ensure the safety of all citizens, including the most vulnerable. And governmental protection and resources will become exponentially more important as climate change becomes more extreme, accelerating the natural disasters we experience and sometimes multiplying the impacts of toxic exposure.
As we speak, 24 state governments are fighting the Clean Power Plan, which is designed to fight climate change by limiting the carbon pollution that we dump into the air.
Amid the gravity of these thoughts, I am grateful that this Earth Day also brought reason to celebrate. On Friday, world leaders gathered at United Nations headquarters in New York City to sign the Paris Agreement, the first-ever accord that compels all countries to limit the carbon pollution that causes climate change.
After years of debate about the details, especially the relative responsibilities of developed and developing countries, world leaders came together in December and designed a policy tool that makes sense. They agreed to take responsibility and act to fight climate change. The result will be stabilized markets for low-carbon innovation, greater collaboration, and changes in education, urban planning and health care that improve quality of life.
Growing up means facing challenges and taking responsibility. Paradoxically, I believe that this can lead to greater freedom; we know what we need to do to curb climate change and clean up our environment, and taking decisive action is stepping away from fear and toward opportunity.
It is time to step up like the grown-ups we are, for the sake of those who have yet to grow up.
Adriana Quintero is a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.