Friday, April 26, 2013

Opening Comments at Earth Day Panel on the 25th Anniversary of the Montreal Protocol

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Below are my opening comments from one of this week's Earth Day panels at Hofstra on the 25th Anniversary of the Montreal Protocol:

Earth Day started in 1970 as a bipartisan effort by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson. In the 1970’s our nation, and our world, were much more united on issues of the environment. We were just coming out of three decades of devastating environmental pollution in the US. We were starting to manage serious issues through new laws like the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

Since then, we have had some modification of laws and local rules that impact the environment, but the cornerstone of all of these agreements started back in the 1960’s and 1970s via the activism present during that time. The environmental movement peaked in the U.S. at the very first earth day 43 years ago today. While many of us still have the passion and drive to forge ahead on key environmental issues, the drive and passion that I remember being present in 1970 is not always present in today’s society. Just think of the issues that divide us: Keystone Pipeline, Fracking, Arctic Drilling, and yes, climate change policy.

But, we have not always been divided. In the late 1980’s the world came together like never before to address the global problem of ozone depletion. At that time, evidence came forward from the scientific community that a layer of ozone concentration in the upper levels of the atmosphere was under attack from anthropogenic chemicals. Due to the unique character of atmospheric circulation, the worst problems were at the poles. The ozone layer protects us from harmful solar radiation, so there was a great deal of concern.

When the problem was first identified, it became clear that there were increases in skin cancers in the polar regions and a wide variety of other health and environmental problems. The situation was serious and many were concerned over the livability of some areas of the earth if we lost the atmosphere’s ability to protect us from the harmful rays.

Thus, the world came together and signed the Montreal Protocol. It is a relatively effective agreement that significantly decreased the release of harmful radiation reaching our planet. Has the problem been fully solved? No. But we have made important contributions.

It has been 25 years since the Montreal Protocol was signed. Many have looked to it as a model for how we can develop global climate change policy on greenhouse gases. Many years ago scientists identified the problem, the public became educated and concerned about climate change, and it is evident that it is a worldwide issue. But, to date, we don’t have a major workable policy that the world has agreed on or implemented. We do have the Kyoto Protocol, but that has proven to be relatively ineffective and we see greenhouse gases increasing in many nations, not decreasing. We also have our own failed efforts from several years ago when the US tried to develop climate change policy in the Waxman Markey and Kerry Boxer Bills that failed. What is preventing us from reaching a greenhouse gas agreement in this country or around the world that is effective?

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