Reflections on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day

Brian Buzby is the Executive Director of the NC Conservation Network.

The 50th anniversary of Earth Day offers a moment to reflect on the progress we’ve made to protect our environment and public health, as well as to look forward to the important work that lies ahead.

Here in North Carolina, we’ve generally made steady progress – with a few rocky exceptions – to protect our air, water, and land. 

However, with the disruptive impact of climate change accelerating, we’ll need significant leadership and decisive action moving forward to ensure that the progress we’ve achieved over the past fifty years isn’t wiped away.

I’m an optimist. I believe we’re up to the task – but we don’t have time to waste.

We can start by building on the successful actions we’ve taken over the years.

We need to continue to clean up our air. Passage of the Clean Smokestacks Act in 2002 led to a 77% reduction in sulfur dioxide and a 73% reduction in nitrogen oxide. It also led to significant reduction in mercury emissions, increased visibility and reduced health impacts from air pollution for citizens across the state. Additional legislation has led to the growth of renewable energy, particularly solar power but also wind power, which is replacing dirty energy sources like coal-fired power plants. Moving forward, we need to eliminate carbon emissions by increasing efficiency to reduce energy use, growing solar power – particularly rooftop solar, increasing wind power, shifting to electric vehicles and dramatically scaling new technology like energy storage.

We need to continue to protect water quality. The creation of the Clean Water Management Trust Fund in 1996 has led to the protection of over a half-million acres of land and over 2,500 miles of streams. The historic agreement earlier this year between the NC Department of Environmental Quality, Duke Energy and environmental advocates to clean up all of NC’s coal ash will lead to significant reductions in water pollution. Moving forward, we need to address the growing challenge of forever chemicals, like GenX, in our water and continue to protect our waterways from pollution.

We need to continue to protect special places. North Carolina has incredible biodiversity from the Outer Banks to the Great Smoky Mountains.  However, many of these places are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and will require continued action to ensure their protection. Moving forward, we need to dramatically scale up our funding for the protection of land – for farming, flood protection, parks and more.

What we haven’t addressed – and must moving forward - is the disproportionate impacts that are borne by communities of color and low-income communities. North Carolina is widely considered the birthplace of the modern environmental justice movement - based on the citizens standing up in Warren County in the early 1980s to fight the dumping of toxic PCBs in a landfill in their community. Sadly, vast inequities continue today as communities of color and low-income communities continue to have more pollution placed in their back yards, leading to negative health impacts and shorter life spans. These are also individuals more likely to experience negative impacts from climate change – creating a vicious cycle of inequities that needs action to be disrupted to ensure environmental justice.

Even with the significant challenges that lie ahead I’m optimistic. I believe when the people lead, the leaders will follow. North Carolinians have a deep connection to our home and over the past fifty years have consistently stood up and called for stronger protections of our environment and public health.

In addition, we’ve seen time and again that environmental protection and economic development go hand in hand. Taking action to protect our environment and public health – like cleaning up our air and water, protecting special places and increasing renewable energy – also has the positive benefit of creating jobs.

On this 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we need to recommit ourselves to the significant challenges that lie ahead – and recognize that these challenges also provide opportunities.

This future will require the public to continue to demand action – and for our leaders to take action. We will need to work together to face the challenges that lie ahead and make decisions that will ensure a clean and healthy environment, support a strong economy and ensure equity and environmental justice in all our decisions.

On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, let’s take this moment to reflect on the successes of the past, identify where we’ve fallen short, take stock of the challenges ahead and commit to working towards a brighter, healthier, fairer future. Let’s get to work.

Author: 
Brian Buzby, NC Conservation Network Executive Director