OP-ED: The State of the Earth 2021 Building Science Back Better

By Pam Lazos
AFGE member
Philadelphia, PA

So here we are again, Earth Day.  Founded by Senator Gaylord Nelson, environmentalist, conservationist, consumer advocate, small business proponent, and peace-lover, the first Earth Day was held on April 22, 1970 as a teach-in to raise awareness of America’s long-standing environmental issues.  Eight years before in 1962, Rachel Carson released her groundbreaking work, Silent Spring, decrying the overuse of pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides; on June 22, 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught on fire for the 13th time; and in 1970, smog clouded not just the Los Angeles skyline, but cities across the country.  In 1970, there were only 3.6 billion of us on the planet compared to almost 8 billion today.

The environmental degradation of the 70’s propelled 20 million Americans to attend Senator Nelson’s Earth Day party.  Their efforts paid off:  on December 2, 1970, President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, leading to the expansion of some of our most important national legislation like the Clean Air Act (originally passed in 1963 and amended in 1970), and the Clean Water Act (originally enacted in 1948 as the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, and reorganized and expanded in 1972).  Last year, EPA celebrated 50 years of following its mission of protecting human health and the environment for all 328 million Americans.

Environmentally speaking, the last few years have been difficult ones for EPA. Budgets shrank, staff departed, and morale sank to the bottom of the sea as we watched regulations, representing years of the Agency’s hard-won victories, addressing clean air, clean water, and clean power, unspool like cable at our feet. Worst of all, science was routinely disregarded and the expertise of EPA’s scientists dismissed.

The upside, if there can be one, has been an increased awareness of environmental issues among the young.  Kids, like Greta Thunberg  who, — because of the birthright of climate change — are born environmentalists, have no choice but to pay attention if they want to secure their own futures.  Why? Here are a few reasons:  we are on the verge of a 6th mass extinction; according to the CDC, one in 12 people has asthma, a condition that’s on the rise in the U.S.; per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS and dubbed “forever chemicals” have been found “in the blood of virtually all Americans,” in our drinking water, and most recently, on Mount Everest; and for me, the most chilling, by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

These are shocking statistics, intractable, yet not insurmountable problems, but in order to deal with them, we need to make science our friend again — and therein lies our hope.  Under the leadership of President Biden and our new EPA Administrator, Michael Regan, science is back; environmental justice for all is a top priority, and the benefits of a green, sustainable economy are being explored and readied for implementation.

Today 97% of scientists agree that we humans are causing climate change.  As a society, we need to take steps to arrest it before the planet gets any hotter; an increase of one of more degrees Fahrenheit could be the cause of the single biggest mass migration the world has ever seen.  Even a couple degrees of warming will make places uninhabitable for billions of people.  If you think a handful of countries have immigration problems now, wait until 3 billion people are on the move.

Today, EPA’s staffing hovers at 1988 levels — a time when only 5 billion people walked the planet.  If EPA is to remain competitive, retain and attract top-level staff talent, and build back better using science as our north star, we need the resources to do it.  Earlier this month, President Biden laid out his preliminary FY2022 budget that includes a 20% funding increase for the EPA.  Now we just need Congress to seal the deal, make a commitment to community, and invest in our planet’s future by investing in EPA.

There is an old adage:  “when fishermen can’t go to sea, they repair their nets.”  EPA has been busy repairing its nets for several years now, but we are ready to get back out to sea — an Agency on a mission, fueled by science.

While today’s problems may seem to big to solve, if we ignore them, tomorrow’s environmental issues will make us long for the smog-filled days of the 70’s.  This is the part of the movie where long-time enemies must join forces to fight the coming doom — aliens, King Kong, Thanos, empty seas, whatever we fear most — and hope that the sheer act of cooperation will buy us some grace.

To quote President Biden, “If we act now, in 50 years people are going to look back and say: ‘This was the moment that America won the future.’”

Give EPA the resources and we’ll give you back clean air, clean water, and a cleaner world.  There is no Planet B.

Pam Lazos is a writer and an attorney in EPA Region 3.  The opinions expressed in this article are hers alone and do not represent those of the Agency.