Earth Day 2023

We all deserve to breathe clean air and drink clean water. There is nothing partisan about it. It was because of concerns about clean air and clean water that the Earth Day tradition began. Thousands of students and other groups fought against oil spills, pollution from factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, species extinction and loss of wilderness. The first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970. Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, urban and rural dwellers, farmers, business and labor leaders came together demanding better environment.

By the end of 1970, the United States Environmental Protection Agency was created and the U.S. Congress passed environmental laws including the National Environmental Education Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the Clean Air Act and in 1972 it passed the Clean Water Act. These laws have saved lives, improved air quality and health.

For two decades, concerns about increased use of coal, oil and gas were raised by not only NASA’s climate scientists but by ExxonMobil’s own scientists. Increased use of coal, oil and gas added pollutants including carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air. In 1988, Dr. Hansen testified in the U.S. Congress expressing concerns of global warming. By 1990, Earth Day was globally celebrated by nations for global action. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, human activities have produced 40 percent more atmospheric concentration of CO2, from 280 ppm to 414.7 ppm in 2021. Carbon dioxide emissions reached record high in 2022.

Seventeen out of eighteen warmest years have occurred since 2001 according to NASA.

As concentrations of CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions increase in the atmosphere, extreme weather events have intensified, our climate has destabilized and pollutants and pollen counts have gone up. Austin is known for problems of pollen allergies throughout the year. Pollen allergies have become much worse with increase in CO2, warmer temperatures and tail pipe emissions resulting from traffic congestion. Austin had 25 “Ozone Action Days” in 2022 which tops the combined total for past eight years. Short term measures like reduction in use of gasoline powered vehicles, equipment and manufacturing and long term measures like transitioning to cleaner energy sources are needed to reduce warming and ground level ozone. People suffering from pollen allergies feel the effects of ground level ozone along with increase in pollens from ragweed, grass, mold, trees and other pollutants. Sneezing, headaches, post nasal drainage and general sense of tiredness are the symptoms that I suffer from, even after taking appropriate measures.

Texas is a leader in oil and gas production. A non-profit group, Carbon Mapper has detected methane leaks near drilling sites in Texas. Methane has more than 80 times the warming power of CO2 for 20 years after its release. Methane emissions cause 25% of global warming today. Lack of enforcement of permitting rules on oil and gas operations continue to add to global warming by releasing methane into our environment.

Texas faces many water issues including groundwater pollution, aging infrastructure, drought and flooding. Abandoned oil and gas wells are polluting Texas farms, ranches, and underground water. Texas Railroad Commission (TRCC) which oversees orphan wells in Texas, has reported 140,000 inactive wells. Until these wells are plugged, water contamination is likely to get worse affecting health of humans and cattle.

Clean air and clean water are critical and so are reductions in polluting emissions. There are policy proposals introduced in the U.S. Congress to transition towards clean energy sources but we need a political will and bipartisan approach to drive this transition for improved quality of life for all.

Kalpana Sutaria

Project Manager, City of Austin and Member, Citizens’ Climate Lobby Austin

April 20, 2023

Texans should demand action from lawmakers on Earth Day

This letter was published in 2018, but the discussion remains relevant today.

Each year, the world celebrates Earth Day on April 22 after its creation in 1970, when a large oil spill occurred on the California coast off Santa Barbara.

Concerns about the environment were increasing at the time in the U.S., and Republican President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.

Humankind has been using fossil fuels for a long time — and its use has helped modernize transportation, manufacturing and agriculture. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, human activities have produced 40 percent more atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, from 280 ppm to 406 ppm in early 2017. This increase has happened despite the absorption of the gas by oceans and forests.

These trapped emissions have severe consequences for humankind. They act as a blanket around Earth, allowing global temperatures to rise. The American Meteorological Society has been keeping records of weather since 1919, allowing scientists to understand the changing climate.

Thirteen of the 15 hottest years in last 100 years occurred between 2000 and 2014.

Researchers found that there is some certainty that human activities are responsible for warming of the Earth.

As temperatures rise, evaporation increases, which causes more water vapor, a potent greenhouse gas. These conditions create more intense storms. We saw the likes of them in 2017 in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico.

Hurricane Harvey started as a tropical depression, grew into a Category 1 hurricane and continued to gain strength over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and churned towards Texas.

It became a Category 4 hurricane, covering a huge area from the coast to Central Texas and dropping 51 inches of rain over Houston. The estimated damage is $198 billion.

Total damages from natural disasters in 2017 alone are estimated between $300 billion to $400 billion. Victims are still waiting for help. In comparison, the damages were just $46 billion in 2016.

The list of climate change impacts is large: Heat waves, floods, wildfires, melting glaciers, rising sea level, droughts, severe storms, off-the – charts high temperatures in the Arctic, crop destruction and deforestation are just a few.

Earth Day is especially crucial for Texans this year. We must reverse warming of the planet by reducing dependence on fossil fuels and developing clean sources of energy. The longer we wait, the harder it will be.

The Montreal Protocol signed by 197 countries to discontinue ozone-depleting chemicals was a success story in 1987 for the global community. It has worked hard for years, and 195 countries signed the Paris Climate Accord in 2015 to limit global temperature rise. But President Trump announced his intention to withdraw in 2017, making us the only country to disengage.

A Yale survey of 36 congressional districts in Texas shows 67 percent of adults are concerned about global warming — and 75 percent believe in funding research into renewable energy sources. Millennials are broadly convinced human-induced climate change is real and deserves action. Industries, businesses, universities, cities and states are addressing it.

A carbon fee and dividend is proposed by Citizens’ Climate Lobby, which would put a fee on oil, coal and gas. The money collected would be returned to American households.

This rebate would stimulate the economy and make clean energy cheaper. The Climate Leadership Council is proposing a similar solution.

On Earth Day 2018, let us demand actions from our lawmakers to find solutions. A bipartisan group of lawmakers in the U.S. House are working on it. Let us support them and ask others to join for a livable world for all.

Kalpana Sutaria

Austin American-Statesman

April 21, 2018