The State of the Environment

(This 709th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on October 31, 2004.)

Many things will determine your vote Tuesday. Among them are the war, national security, the economy, employment and health care. Unfortunately, equally important environmental issues seem to have dropped out of sight; yet they will surely change our lives and society if not addressed.

It is not my intent to support candidates or parties here; rather, I raise some major environmental issues for you to consider.

Global Warming

The National Academy of Sciences tells us that the Earth's surface temperature has risen significantly in the past century, with that rise accelerating in recent years. Accumulating evidence also indicates that most of the warming is attributable to human activities that have caused the buildup in our skies of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Most atmospheric scientists agree that the prospects for climate are dire unless we address this issue now. If we continue along our current path they predict wider swings in weather causing more severe storms, floods and droughts, rising sea levels and increases in malaria and respiratory disease.

The United States has opted out of the international Kyoto Global Warming Treaty, which calls for serious reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, separating us from other nations. Instead incentives are offered to businesses to voluntarily reduce emissions by considerably less than the 8% reduction called for by Kyoto.

Clean Air Standards

As two results of our failure to clean up the air we breathe, over one million New Yorkers now suffer from asthma and over 14 million state residents live where smog exceeds the federal health standard. Here in Erie and Niagara Counties, deaths caused by air contaminants exceed those caused by car accidents.

Thirty years ago the remarkably effective Federal Clean Air Act was legislated. Over the years it has resulted in major reductions in air pollution. Unfortunately those provisions are being weakened. A recent proposal deceptively titled "The Clear Skies Initiative" would have serious effects on us here in western New York. Many air contaminants reach us from power plants and refineries in the Midwest. Under this program the requirement that those plants install modern pollution control technology are relaxed.

Locally the steel polluters are gone but others like the Huntley Plant remain and proposed emissions trading, while good for polluters, still leaves us downwind from major pollution sources.

Meanwhile our standards for automobile fuel emissions have been weakened and ways to get around even them are provided. For example, allowing large SUVs to be considered light trucks eliminates them from regulation as passenger cars. If instead we simply required manufacturers to make the cars they sell average 40 miles per gallon overall, we would save more oil than we currently import from the Persian Gulf and we would curb a substantial portion of the emissions of those greenhouse gases.

Alternative Energy Sources

With gasoline prices over $2.00 per gallon and heating fuel bills over $200 per month, even the most jaundiced among us should be concerned about energy alternatives. Our Middle East wars contribute only partially and, we hope, temporarily to these problems. Over the longer haul, we must face the fact that oil, natural gas and coal are non-renewable energy resources.

Clearly we need to identify and tap other sources. Some progress is being made but we have delayed too long in providing support for research and implementation of alternatives. Manufacturers (with foreign auto makers leading the way) are already beginning to sell cars and buses that rely less on gasoline. Unfortunately, mounting gas prices seem not to deter some of our wealthiest drivers who are turning to ever larger SUVs and even Hummers. We need to quell this unfortunate trend.

We must also turn to largely untapped energy sources - wind, solar, geothermal, biomass and atomic - and we need increased governmental and public support for such initiatives.

The Great Lakes

When we look out over them, our wonderful Great Lakes appear to be both healthy and infinite resources. They are not. While pollution of these waters has been reduced, we still have a long way to go and the condition of those lakes, the Niagara and Buffalo Rivers and other regional streams remain of deep concern.

Of equal importance is the issue of Great Lakes non-returnable water withdrawal by industry and communities both within and outside the watershed. We need to be especially sensitive to ongoing international negotiations on this issue.

Other Problems

These environmental concerns scarcely scratch the surface. Others include our increasing population and urban sprawl; our diminishing wetlands and grasslands; intrusions by extraction industries into our remaining wilderness; lowered priorities in addressing hazardous waste sites; and invasive plant and animal species.

 

Much needs to be done. We need strong political leaders at all levels of government to address these problems.-- Gerry Rising