April 22, 2010

Celebrating 40 Years of Earth Day

It’s been 40 years since Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin created Earth Day to focus America on the responsibility we share to care for our planet. Since then, we’ve made great strides to meet that responsibility, but we still have a long way to go.

The year of the first Earth Day also marked the birth of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and launched an era of commitment by America to better protect the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land we call home. Many landmark environmental laws passed during that era, and strengthened over the years, reflected the leadership of our own Senators Claiborne Pell and John Chafee in shaping national environmental policies and putting our Ocean State at the forefront of the environmental movement.

Despite these hard-fought victories, new threats have emerged. Our changing climate, for instance, threatens our oceans and our coasts. This global challenge can seem daunting because it requires us to reexamine fundamental choices about the energy that we use to power our lives. However, there is so much to gain if we act now. Promoting energy efficiency and developing clean, renewable energy will not only curb carbon emissions, it will reduce lots of traditional pollution, too — pollution that leads to “ozone alert” days every summer in Rhode Island. It will position the United States to lead the global clean energy market. (Since experts say “green energy” will dwarf the digital economy of the 1990s, this is a race we don’t want to lose). And it will free our country’s dependence on oil-rich nations that do not wish us well.

As a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, I’ve been working hard to raise awareness and spur action on climate change. Last fall, our Committee passed legislation that would cut carbon emissions 20% by 2020, launch the new clean energy economy, and protect wildlife and coastlines in Rhode Island and across the United States. In December, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, about 50 countries, representing roughly 80% of the world’s carbon emissions, committed to specific emissions reduction targets under the Copenhagen Accord. This was a huge step forward. At the end of the day, however, it is still up to individual nations – and people – to take concrete action to limit the pollution of our air and sea. The U.S. is already behind many developed nations in that effort, and I’m working to pass legislation in Washington to begin the process of catching up.

So on this 40th Earth Day, I applaud all Rhode Islanders, young and old, who are making their voices heard. And I applaud those who get involved, who get out there and volunteer: picking up trash along the river or the bike bath, starting a recycling program at school, cleaning debris at the beach, or anything else that makes you use this day as a faithful steward of our earth, embrace our responsibility to care wisely for this planet that sustains us, and to preserve for future generations the natural life and beauty of our state and our nation.

By: Sheldon Whitehouse