Earth Day was last week. Earth Day is an annual event that started in 1970 and is an important opportunity for our society to examine how well we are protecting the environment. And this year’s Earth Day occurred at a critical juncture: the planet is heating up as the result of human activities, most notably the burning of fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal).
Yet, the national government is now under the control of those who ignore the basic science of climate change. They have been hell-bent on rolling back the limited climate change policies that are in place.
The science is clear: the burning of fossil fuels has ravaged the atmosphere and climate. People are already suffering and will suffer more. A hotter planet will mean more drought, harm to food supplies, dislocation and misery for hundreds of millions. The hotter planet will destabilize governments and trigger conflict, resulting in violence and horror. The impacts are already becoming clearer.
But the burning of fossil fuels is not the only way the use of oil, gas and coal harm the environment. The mining, the transportation, the distribution, and the industry’s infrastructure also harm the environment on the ground.
In a report released last week, environmentalists revealed the impact that one company has had in New York. The report showed that oil giant ExxonMobil and its corporate predecessors have been identified by New York State government to be apparently responsible for an estimated 3,500 spills and leaks. Some of these spills were small, some staggeringly large. These spills and leaks occurred all over New York State; from Buffalo to Albany, from the Hudson Valley to the tip of Long Island.
According to extensive government and corporate documents obtained under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, in many cases these spills have impacted the environment and in some cases, pose threats to the public’s health. Most alarming is that in many instances these spills have not yet been cleaned up to state standards for decades.
It’s not surprising that New York, which has been an industrial state for well over one hundred years, would have environmental pollution resulting from that legacy. What is surprising is that those spills have not yet been cleaned up. ExxonMobil is one of the most profitable companies in the world and has the resources to clean up its messes.
So how is it that the oil, gas and coal lobbies can wreak havoc by warming the planet and despoiling the earth while the national government looks the other way—or worse acts as industry handmaiden? The industry has tremendous political clout and is able to use its muscle to protect its corporate interests – even if that results in tremendous harm to the public interest.
Without question, there is a significant difference in the policy orientation of the federal government, which has so far shown a fawning relationship to the industry, and New York government, which has been significantly tougher and in many ways enlightened when it comes to the future of energy production.
But the fossil fuel industry is powerful. And the industry has been using its power to create an atmosphere of doubt around the science of climate change. It is their public relations and political campaigns that have allowed it to have a stranglehold over national policies.
But those campaigns of deception are now under the scrutiny of the New York State Attorney General. In 2015 New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced an investigation into ExxonMobil over whether it misled investors and the public about the reality of climate change. His investigation came shortly after media reports revealed that, as early as the 1970s, top executives at ExxonMobil were well informed about the climate risks resulting from the use of their products based on their own research. Yet, instead of issuing warnings, the company reportedly spent decades investing in major disinformation campaigns to sow doubt about those risks and undermine the urgency of policy action.
It’s important that New Yorkers’ back Schneiderman’s efforts to find out the truth about ExxonMobil. He’s got scientists in his corner: as part of the run up to Earth Day’s “March for Science” events, over 100 scientists from across New York state sent a letter urging the New York Attorney General to pursue his investigation into ExxonMobil to “the fullest extent of the law.”
Earth Day was last week. The fairest assessment of the state of the environment is that the situation is alarmingly bad. But the problem is not a scientific one – it is one caused by the failures of policymaking.
The public response has to be one of advocacy – demands that the federal government take actions to curb the burning of fossil fuels; demands that state government force the clean ups of all toxic hazards, including oil spills; and demands that corporate leaders be held accountable for their decisions that harm the public interest.