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Observing Earth Day in the era of climate crisis

Volunteers with the Avalonia Land Conservancy carry trees and shrubs to plant in May 2021. The plants are being used in a demonstration project aimed at figuring out what will work in Connecticut forests facing the impacts of climate change.
Volunteers with the Avalonia Land Conservancy carry trees and shrubs to plant in May 2021. The plants are being used in a demonstration project aimed at figuring out what will work in Connecticut forests facing the impacts of climate change.

As Earth Day circles around again – more than 50 times now on April 22 – it comes with a different breed of environmental concerns than the ones that spurred the first Earth Day in 1970.

This year’s Earth Day is filled with sobering climate change assessments.

The International Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) two most recent Sixth Assessment reports in February and earlier this month included dire warnings for the planet. They detailed a litany of extreme events and conditions and called for dramatic and rapid cuts in emissions in years, not decades.

The U.S. continues to be crushed by climate extremes, undoubtedly functions of climate change. Historic droughts, wildfires, precipitation extremes and abnormally high and low temperatures are just a few of the events that have flooded coastlines, burned homes and pushed some wildlife to the brink of extinction.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has provided another reason to get the world off reliance on fossil fuels, but the immediate future has nations like the U.S. considering drilling for even more resources to get away from those supplied by Russia.

And Connecticut too faces climate change alarms that seem to be worsening: increased air pollution, falling behind on greenhouse gas emission reductions, the prospect of yet another difficult hurricane seasons plus generally more severe storms — all in addition to what may prove to be a conservative prediction of 20 inches of sea level rise by the middle of the century.

While focused on climate change now, Earth Day was borne of the brown smog clouds that blanketed American cities and the toxins and trash that rendered many of the nation’s rivers all but unusable. The Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act came into their modern forms in no small part from Earth Day. But some two generations later, is it still relevant?

It’s not scientific, but we’ve asked a cross section of Connecticut folks — all of whom are engaged in the world of climate change and the environment — what they think. How far we’ve come or not; what’s changed about the focus; the most pressing priorities now; and whether Earth Day even matters.

Be ready for some surprises.

Sena Wazer
Sena Wazer

Sena Wazer was only 5 when a children’s story about a whale caught in a fishing net left her in tears for days. Her focus on all things environmental has not wavered since. Now 18 and about to graduate from UConn, a mile or two from where she grew up on a small farm in Mansfield, she is already a veteran of environmental activism.

She’s the director of the Connecticut chapter of the youth environmental organization Sunrise Movement, through which she’s run climate strikes and legislative advocacy. Perhaps surprisingly, she does not see Earth Day as a relic of an antiquated environmental paradigm.

“I think it does mean something,” Wazer said. “I think the main reason that it means something to me is because it’s a moment when the whole world turns — well not the whole world, but many countries and the U.S. — turn their perspective and we all look at the planet together for a moment. And as much as that should be something we’ve done all the time, it’s not. And so having that time when everybody kind of is thinking about this issue is really valuable.”

Despite failures so far of state legislation she supports — requiring climate education for K-12 and a moratorium on new fossil fuel infrastructure — Wazer said she’s seen progress even in her limited time.

“There’s been a shift in national discourse, and that’s really important and I’m very happy for that. But we have a much greater way to go,” she said.

The problem she points to and where she gets frustrated is what she characterizes as older, privileged political leaders who don’t see the urgency in the climate crisis the way people her age do.

“A lot of the folks in the legislature are not going to feel the consequences of not taking that action,” she said. “But people like myself and my classmates and the students that I work with are.”

She’d like to see the state move forward on environmental justice to make it an underpinning to all environmental action. She would like to see passage of the Transportation and Climate Initiative that so infamously failed in 2021. And having fought the development of the Killingly natural gas plant, she’d like to ensure something like it never happens again.

And while she said she tries to focus on the hopeful aspects of what she does — something she intends to continue doing from within government at some point — she is mindful that there’s not much time left to get emissions truly under control and see them peak by 2025 as the IPCC recommends.

“It’s very, very hard to see that we’ve known about these issues for so long, and we’re still where we are. But with that said, we have a lot of momentum. We have a lot of energy. We have people all across the world and across the state who are really passionate about these issues and willing to help,” she said.

Her message to political leaders: “I want them to sit down and to listen. Like truly listen to us. And listen to the people who are being impacted, as well as the young people I work with every single day, who are terrified about what is going to happen to our future. If we don’t act now.”

Laura Bozzi is the director of programs for the Yale Center on Climate Change and Health. Beginning in 2020 with the report Climate Change and Health in Connecticut she, as co-author, has revealed the unvarnished truths of what is already happening in the state, what lies ahead, and what actions are critical — digging far deeper and more specifically than it’s going to be hotter and sea levels will be higher.

Laura Bozzi
Laura Bozzi

Earth Day was already established by the time Bozzi, now 41, showed up on the warming planet. For her it has meant a lot of folks hitting her up for her expertise on health and climate change, which she’s observed across the nation while working in several states.

“For people that are working in the field, we think about this stuff every day,” she said. “The idea of there being one day that we’re supposed to think about it and make a big deal of it, I find that sort of odd. But I think the point of it is that it’s not for me, it is for other people, and it’s really helpful to have a time to center attention around it, and I get that.”

In her time in the climate change field, she’s seen a shifting focus, especially in the area of climate and health. She said medical journals now provide opinions on climate change, and nurses and doctors now lobby on climate and the environment. Yale School of Public Health now has a concentration on climate change and health.

“It’s growing really quickly,” she said.

Her class called Clinic in Climate Justice, Climate Policy, the Law, and Public Health accounts for most of her interaction with students.

“It makes me feel real old, when I see how much they have changed. The way that they see the world environmental issues is so different than the way that I went through it,” she said.

And that was only 2003. The field was still technocratic, and the idea of environmentalism was still focused on individual action — like signing a petition would be enough. “It was still very white and privileged,” she said.

“All of that has changed so much. Even that framing the students reject. It’s not even a question to them anymore. I think that there’s much more acceptance around advocacy and addressing structural issues. And there is an expectation of intersectionality in environmental work, at least within the students that I come across. It’s so fantastic.”

Bozzi’s report and its follow-up issue briefs point to a daunting number of climate actions Connecticut should be taking. Her suggestion for the first thing to tackle: “I think housing is one of those issues where a lot of the pieces come together,” she said. “So for being resilient to an extreme weather event or to other kinds of shocks that are happening, having stable, high-quality, affordable housing is a really key.

“I think the overall point that I tried to make is that climate change is a health issue and that it is something that’s happening today in Connecticut to people. I think people are coming around to that and things that have happened lately make it harder to ignore than it used to be.”

Leah Lopez Schmalz was introduced to the environmental world that would become her passion and livelihood by her Cajun family in the Louisiana bayou, crabbing and fishing with her grandfather in the Atchafalaya Basin.

Leah Lopez Schmalz
Leah Lopez Schmalz

“I think I’ve always been connected to water,” said Lopez Schmalz, now 47. “Being close to the wetlands of Louisiana and knowing about the threat from an early age of loss of wetlands, always being worried about hurricanes and what that’s going to do to the landscape.”

An environmental lawyer who has 20 years with Save the Sound, now as its vice president of programs, she recalled Earth Day’s early simplicity in slogans like “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute,” making posters and picking up trash. But she admits the dramatic change in environmental concerns and climate change since then has come with a good bit of cynicism as it’s moved from bi-partisan to hyper-partisan.

“Everyone wanted to protect the planet. There wasn’t a debate about whether or not clean air was deliverable and whether or not everyone deserved it. And now, bi-partisan environmental initiatives are about as rare as endangered species.”

On the other hand, she said, in the last three years especially, she’s seen more environmentalists focusing on the intersection of justice and health, as well as more grassroots support in those areas. And she’s seen funders and corporate entities stepping up to support their efforts or take action themselves. She said federal investment in Long Island Sound has gone from $5 million a year to $30 million a year in the 20 years she’s been involved.

Even so, Save the Sound’s Climate Action Plan 2022, released earlier this month, sets out yet another daunting environmental to-do list for Connecticut, a considerable amount of it drawn from the failures in previous years. Lopez Schmalz said a key component she sees is making sure the state is held accountable for implementing and enforcing the environmental policy it puts in place. It’s also important to put teeth into laws such as the one supporting environmental justice, so, for instance, the state can deny permits to a power plant because of its location or the fuel it would run on — something it can’t do now.

And she said it’s time for the General Assembly to stop thinking in terms of partisanship when it comes to climate change policy and other environmental measures to support administration goals.

“I think it’s incumbent upon people from all parties to sit down and think about what the residents deserve for a future as opposed to what’s going to get them elected,” she said.

As for Earth Day, despite the fracturing partisanship, she thinks it hasn’t outlived its usefulness.

“It’s turned into an Earth month,” she said. “I think that the idea of using it as a touchstone to show our progress and how hard change can be, but how successful we can all be whenever we pull in the same direction. And so I think even with all the differences that we have — being able to show ourselves as a country, progress over time to do the hard thing — I think is useful, and I do think it motivates people, and, you know, I think it does motivate legislators.

“I think it was always just kind of a major messaging piece in some ways to draw attention. And to me, that will never outlive its usefulness.”

For Mark Mitchell, environmental justice and health are nothing new. He’s been talking about and advocating for both for nearly a quarter-century, and indeed in 1998 founded the first environmental justice organization in Connecticut, the Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice.

Mark Mitchell
Mark Mitchell

It was an outgrowth of his time directing Hartford’s health department, during which he saw firsthand the unequal treatment of environmental issues in Hartford and the lack of response and support from the public health system for the city’s Black and Latino children.

Mitchell, who is a public health and environmental health physician by trade, uses all of that experience now working remotely from Hartford as an associate professor of climate change energy and environmental health equity at George Mason University.

Given how long it’s taken for the health and environmental equity Mitchell has been so passionate about to be regarded as serious and far-reaching outgrowths of climate change, he’s surprisingly optimistic.

“Now we know that climate change is much more of an issue, much more of a problem than we had anticipated previously,” he said. “I’ve been working for 25 years on environmental justice issues, and now they have taken center stage. People are taking it seriously now and trying to invest in the underinvested communities. So that’s all good news.”

He also sees Earth Day’s track record as pretty noteworthy, since at 65 he can remember the conditions of the times that precipitated it.

“From my perspective, the good news is that the U.S. has been able to solve every major environmental problem that they have had the political will to address,” he said. “We don’t have rivers catching on fire anymore. The brown haze over Los Angeles and lots of other cities has decreased, and in many places, it has disappeared. The hole in the ozone layer is pretty much resolved. The acid rain is much better than it has been. So the major issues of the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s are no longer the major issues that have gotten the attention.”

He realizes that the matter of “political will” is not nothing but says that’s part of the point of Earth Day. “What Earth Day has done is to focus the attention of the public on major environmental problems to garner the political will to address them.”

But he’s concerned about Connecticut.

“I’ve been very disturbed that over the last 20, last 15 years, that the investment in environmental justice has been virtually non-existent, and the investment in community-based organizations and community-based advocacy has dried up tremendously.”

He said that’s one of the reasons the Transportation and Climate Initiative, TCI, failed.

“I think that it crashed and burned because they didn’t involve environmental justice communities early on,” he said. “One of the major principles of environmental justice is we speak for ourselves.”

He said TCI needs to pass, and he thinks it will, now that coalitions are finally being built and at least there’s talk about investing in environmental justice. “Which is something,” he said.

He sees a couple of critical forces at work. He believes public opinion has changed dramatically to become much more aware and much more supportive of actions on climate change. And he also notes what he calls the racial awakening that started with the murder of George Floyd.

“I think that generally public health and environmental justice are now getting a lot closer to the attention that they deserve,” he said.

Margaret Miner is probably best known in Connecticut’s environmental advocacy world for her two decades as executive director of Rivers Alliance. Now 84 and retired from that position — though not much else — her reflections on all the Earth Days that have come and gone are stark.

Margaret Miner
Margaret Miner

“I’m becoming more and more restless with celebrations,” she said. “This year, we’re celebrating the 52nd Earth Day, the anniversary of the Clean Water Act, the anniversary of the Connecticut wetlands act. We’re celebrating all these things, and we’re not doing very well.”

Going back to the 1970s she said, yes, natural resources have improved and the rivers and waters that she cares so much about have improved.

“They’re sliding back. We’re facing an unbelievable crisis from climate change,” Miner said, noting an increase in methane emissions last year. “What are we thinking? We can’t just plant a tree here or there and do cleanups, important as they are. Look at it as a need for more — more confrontational, more energetic, probably more political extensions of the Earth Day spirit.” The hope, she said, is that there actually is change.

That environmental justice and broadened health issues are now part of the climate change concerns, Miner proclaims that it’s “about time” and ticks off a list of indignities including shorter lifespans around the world, high levels of infant mortality, increases in lung disease and others.

“The health of much of the world and obviously of the non-elites in much of the world, by every measure, is not doing well,” Miner said. “It’s like these miners in the coal mine with their canary. The canary drops over dead, and the miners say, ‘Oh, good, more air for us.’ That’s the way we’re looking at it.”

She admits it took her time to realize just how bad the situation was, and her assessment remains sobering.

“The climate news is terrible. The food news is terrible, and the water news is terrible. We don’t have a lot to celebrate,” she said. “It’s good to celebrate. I don’t want to always be gloomy. But I think in every celebration, there should be a serious call either to action, and if you can’t do the action, you should at least participate in the investment. And if you can’t do the investment, you can at least join and do some of the action at a community level. Whatever one could do.”

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