Earth Day Reflections on the Past and Future

Posted April 17, 2017

The path of progress on environmental protection is never a straight line. As longstanding threats are reduced, new ones emerge.

April, when we celebrate Earth Day, is an especially apt time to reflect on how far we’ve come since the first Earth Day, and how much we still need to do.

On the first Earth Day, in 1970, it was still legal to dump pollutants into water without a permit. Cancer-causing asbestos was commonly used in building schools. Rivers were literally on fire from pollution. But change was in the air. Some 20 million people thronged teach-ins, rallies, and other activities across the nation. The legendary Pete Seeger performed at a “singout” on the Seton Hall campus. And Gov. William T. Cahill signed legislation — introduced by then Assemblyman Tom Kean — making New Jersey one of the first states to have a Department of Environmental Protection.

Today, our water and air are cleaner, thanks to the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts. But a grave new threat has emerged in the form of global warming. Nations, states, cities, and private industry are responding to address this enormous challenge. Unfortunately, the Trump Administration is systematically denying the scientific consensus that human activities are causing climate change, while seeking to reverse our nation’s commitment to address climate change and blindly focusing on more extraction of dirty fossil fuels as the nation’s energy policy.

With fracking not yet a common way to extract natural gas, no one on that first Earth Day raised alarms about pipelines. Today, though, the Garden State is in danger of becoming the “pipeline state,” building much more capacity than needed to carry a dirty, dangerous fossil fuel through our communities.

The proposed PennEast pipeline is just one example of the threat to New Jersey. Unneeded pipelines like PennEast prevent us from moving to clean, renewable sources of energy that are necessary to reduce emissions and address climate change. New Jersey’s greenhouse gas emissions increased over the past two years, driven by increased emissions from gas-fired electric plants.

New Jersey has a bipartisan history of leadership on environmental protection. It was heartening to see former Governors Kean, Byrne, Florio, and Whitman recently urge our Congressional delegation to defend a set of environmental principles, including addressing climate change and moving to clean energy.

In order to respond to the new threats facing our environment, citizens must respond the same way they did on the first Earth Day, by mobilizing in force to demand that our elected officials protect our land, air, water, climate, health, and safety.

How many more Earth Days will go by before New Jersey truly commits to clean, affordable energy sources — like wind and solar — that are just around the corner and would arrive even sooner if we stood up to unneeded fossil fuel pipelines like PennEast?

How many more Earth Days until a state that fell to 24th in energy efficiency, from eighth, summons the will to be a leader again?

The progress, and the pitfalls, in the nearly five decades since the first Earth Day remind us that the future can be better, but the path we take is up to us.

-Tom Gilbert, Campaign Director, ReThink Energy NJ

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