Everybody’s talking clean air and climate change again

(After a long, unexpected hiatus, the Green and Prosperous blog is back! This post and most of the ones to follow this summer will feature interviews with activists, farmers, and many others who have been working for environmental advocacy causes. Thanks to everyone who read, kept reading, or waited patiently for the next post…)


This post is based on my June 2014 interview with Gretchen Dahlkemper-Alfonso, the National Field Manager for Moms Clean Air Force, a coalition of over 380,000 moms, dads, and their supporters that pushes legislators to take substantive steps to reduce air pollution.

Lately it seems like everyone is talking about climate change. These past few months, the mainstream media has been full of stories about some of the most pressing developments related to climate change: the IPCC’s (United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) alarming report of March 2014, echoed by the  latest (May 2014) assessment on climate change by the USGCRP (US Global Change Research Program); the extreme and persistent drought in Texas, part of Oklahoma, and the West Coast of the United States; President Obama’s recent announcement of a new EPA rule designed to cut carbon emissions from US power plants 30% by the year 2030; NASA’s launch yesterday of a satellite designed to track carbon emissions; the serious steps that some of the big polluters other than the US (namely, China and India) have begun taking to tackle their pollution problems; the stubborn refusal of some members of the Republican party to admit that climate change is a problem, or (if it is) that we can do anything about it, and the quiet admission by some Republicans that climate change is very real, growing, and that they should be doing something to address it (one example is Mayor Jim Brainard of Carmel, Indiana, who was recently interviewed by Marcia G. Yerman for Moms Clean Air Force: read the interview here).

By many accounts, more so than ever before, climate change today is the biggest environmental issue of our time. No one in this world is unaffected by it, and it has not only environmental consequences, but also economic, political, and social ones.

Whatever the reasons, people are beginning to listen to the chorus of voices that have been pushing for the US to get serious about climate change. One of these voices belongs to Gretchen Dahlkemper-Alfonso, who I interviewed this past June. We talked about changes in the everyday awareness of people about environmental management in general and climate change in particular, why climate change is the biggest environmental challenge of our time, and what ordinary people can do to address it, when so many our political leaders here in the US seem unable or unwilling to get serious about passing substantive legislation that will deal with climate change and the things that are driving it.

For Gretchen, the problem became more urgent when she was pregnant with her second child. But growing up near Lake Erie, in coal country in Western Pennsylvania, and attending summer camp by Drake’s oil well, the first  commercial oil well drilled in the US (in 1859), she had often heard the adults around her talking about pollution. They especially talked about how polluted the lake was, and how you shouldn’t eat too much of the fish that came from there. The fish in the lake were tainted with mercury, a major contaminant in the western portion of the lake in the early 1970s. (Despite the monitoring program that began in the late 1970s and oversaw the decline of mercury levels in Lake Erie through the early 1990’s, these levels have steadily increased since then). After hearing about a mercury testing press conference in Philadelphia, in the wake of the Mercury Air Toxic Standards Act (the EPA rule that came out in 2011), Gretchen submitted some of her hair samples for testing (they tested positive for elevated mercury levels), and later began doing research about where mercury comes from. What she found surprised her: the same source of power for her community in Western PA was the source of mercury contamination and one of the major causes of air pollution. As she explained,

“I had no idea it (mercury pollution) came from coal fire power plants…What got me really amped up was that I had grown up in PA my whole life and did not realize that the source of our power was causing such harm to the wildlife where I grew up and not only that, was causing harm to my own children.”

Like Gretchen, many of us grew up hearing about air pollution, the greenhouse effect, and toxins in the environment, but too few of us took any meaningful action until we became parents. My own interest in speaking out about the toxic chemicals in every day consumer products intensified after the birth of my daughter in 2010. In some states in the US, though, there seems to be a strong sub-culture of environmental awareness that works to educate people on a daily basis: California (especially on the coast), Washington, Oregon, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont have strong sub-cultures of environmentalism, which translates into persistent awareness and everyday action for many people living in those states. Gretchen found this to be the case when she visited her sister (who is in the military) in San Francisco, CA. Aside from having strong laws on toxins, in parts of California there are reminders everywhere: pasted to her sister’s car window is a huge sticker with a warning: “This vehicle contains chemicals known to cause cancer.” For Gretchen, seeing this was a “wow” moment:

“I know this intellectually, but every time I step into my car I’m not thinking about it. So for me that was really powerful. I was recently out there and I walked into my hotel and outside the hotel was a plaque that said, ‘This building contains materials known to cause cancer’. To me that was an interesting way to take it, almost like the cigarette packs where the labels get bigger and bigger and bigger.”

These kinds of daily reminders could do the same for raising the everyday awareness of people in other parts of the US, if states and municipalities adopted the same kinds of tools. Awareness is easier to translate into action, even if it happens in small steps. Gretchen pointed out that

“We need to keep up the pressure on the federal level, the federal government…people still think, when you talk toxic chemicals, that it’s something they can navigate in the halls of their grocery supermarket, that they can buy organic good, or they can buy California Baby shampoo versus Johnson & Johnsons.”

On the other hand, we both agreed that sometimes people become overwhelmed or discouraged by the enormity and pervasiveness of the problems of toxicity in the environment, and choose to do nothing. Taking small steps to reduce your carbon footprint, or your exposure to toxins, is often the best place to start, to raise everyday awareness. From there, it can be easier to platform into broader action that will have an impact at the level of state and federal policy.

So what steps can you take now to combat climate change, pollution, and the explosion of toxic chemicals in the environment? One of the things Gretchen mentioned was how important it is to speak to your elected officials.  

“Go to http://www.usa.gov; you can find out who your elected officials are if you don’t know that by plugging in your zip code. Pick up your phone, and it can be as simple as saying ‘My name is Gretchen from Philadelphia. I care about climate change and I want you to know that, and I hope that you’ll support action on climate.’ Or, if toxic chemicals are your issue, call and say, ‘My name is Gretchen; I’ve got 3 children. I’m really worried about toxic chemicals in the products that I buy and I ask you to work with your colleagues on the Hill and move this [issue] forward.’ It takes 10 minutes to call all of your elected officials.”

It’s easy to forget that they work for us, the people who elected them to office.  And they do want to hear from you – more so than you probably realize. You have a voice, so use it.

There are more simple easy and easy things you can do right now to combat climate change and reduce your exposure to chemical toxins in the environment, and I’ll be blogging about some of these in my next post. (Hint: one of these involves parties, and not the political kind!) So please check back, share your ideas about this post, and let’s keep the conversation going.

**If you are in the Washington D.C. area on July 9th, join me, Gretchen, and others for the “Play-In for Climate Action,” on the US Capitol grounds from 10-12. The event is free, but you need to REGISTER)