Earth Day at 50: Science informing public policy is best hope
The current COVID-19 challenges facing the world bring home some crucial lessons and learnings for all of us here in Southwest Florida. First of all, the facts and science behind understanding the virus, how it spreads and impacts our health, is the necessary driver for a public policy response. I don’t believe many Americans today would debate the importance of using data-driven decisions to ensure our health is protected through the guidance of well-established medical agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control.
Similarly, the challenges of climate change and its impacts, water quality issues, and loss of wildlife habitat are equally important to understand in the vein of data-driven decisions, based on peer-reviewed science, and then translated into smart public policy to protect our natural resources and our own quality of life. For climate change in particular, the time to deny the well-established scientific consensus that human-related emissions are causing the dramatic increase in the warming of our planet’s atmosphere, should be over. As with the COVID-19 response, all levels of our government and civil society should be acting on the reliable, science-driven information available to all of us from highly reputable agencies such as National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
The emphasis now must be on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, in an urgent but responsible manner, and shifting our societies to renewable and sustainable forms of energy. Like COVID-19, climate change is a planetary-level challenge where one country simply cannot “go it alone”; but it is also an opportunity to reduce emissions, improve decentralized power generation, create sustainable forms of economic development, mitigate where possible impacts from sea level rise, all the while enhancing health outcomes through cleaner air and communities. We can change the course of the health of our planet, but only if we dramatically escalate our efforts and leverage the incredible scientific capabilities of this country and countries around the world to produce a “flattening” of the emissions curve.
Scientists around the world are making the case that we must limit warming of our atmosphere to no more than 1.5?C. Doing so requires major and immediate transformations including in our energy production, transportation and food production systems. The good news is that it is technically possible to change our path, to a positive path. It is possible to protect Southwest Florida from the worst-projected impacts of sea level rise, climate change and increasing impacts from heat and severe storms on health, agriculture and ecosystems. However, we must act immediately to pivot and prepare for current impacts and changes that are already occurring and will occur through adaptive planning. Secondly, we must contribute at the local level to a reduction in the sources of emissions that are contributing to these changes.
For the first time in decades, in some parts of the world, citizens can now see mountains in the distance or stars in the night sky, thanks to the massive decrease in polluting emissions. Imagine, that on our 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the largest civic engagement day in the world, we could emerge out of COVID-19 with a new found appreciation for the invaluable role of scientific principles and practices, applied courageously to public policy for the benefit our Southwest Floridians and citizens all the world. That would be an Earth Day milestone that our children and grandchildren would indeed thank us for.
Rob Moher is president and chief executive officer of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, a not-for-profit environmental protection organization focused on issues impacting the water, land, wildlife and future of five Florida counties. For more information, visit Conservancy.org.