In these challenging times it will not be surprising if President Obama glosses over critical environmental issues in his State of the Union address January 25. The nation is struggling to find jobs for the unemployed, we are still at war in two countries, and recent tragedies deserve to be addressed. But the State of the Union is also the opportunity to lay out for Congress but more importantly the public what the President hopes to do this year. And while working to restore people’s economic and security confidence, the President must also promote policies that will protect public health by protecting the environment.
While addressing the state of this Union, the President cannot ignore the very environment in which we live. If we were writing his speech to the people of the United States, we would include the following items.
Coal Pollution: The mine collapse that killed 29 coal miners in West Virginia and the Gulf oil disaster remind us of the imperative to shift from fossil fuels to energy efficiency and renewable energy sources that are available today. 24,000 other tragedies passed without public fanfare in 2010 – the number of individuals dying of lung cancer, respiratory, and heart problems caused by the air pollution from coal power plants. And headlines of jobs lost ignored that dirty energy like coal is in the way of an American recovery: every coal job in the U.S. means that we lose out on three jobs that we would have from producing the same energy with clean, renewable energy. Dirty energy companies are attacking the Clean Air Act, which could help clean up the nation’s dirtiest coal plants and cut dangerous mercury, smog, and carbon pollution.. For our health and our country, President Obama must stand strong against this country’s worst polluters.
Protect Oceans: Three quarters of global fish stocks are suffering from overfishing and 90% of top marine predators are gone, jeopardizing the food supply of hundreds of millions of people. The President’s leadership is desperately needed to create a network of large scale parks in the ocean protected from fishing, drilling, and mining, in order to restore our fisheries and protect biodiversity in our coastal waters and on the high seas. We must learn from BP’s disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and deny BP and Shell permits to risk an even more catastrophic spill in the remote, pristine waters of the Arctic. And there is no better time for President Obama to stick to his pledge to oppose commercial whaling, as it is increasingly clear even to the people of Iceland, Norway, and Japan that killing whales for profit is no longer viable.
Preserve Forests: Over the past 50 years, the Earth has lost 20% of our ancient forests. In the U.S., only 5% remain. From the mountains of Appalachia to the peatlands of Indonesia, forests – particularly tropical rainforests – are the safeguard of the diversity of life on Earth and absorb vast amounts of global warming pollution. President Obama has voiced support for initiatives to reduce tropical deforestation; 2011 is the year to provide the funding promised to save the world’s tropical forests.
Don’t Bet on Nuclear Power: In a time of anger about ballooning budgets and taxpayer bailouts, we certainly don't need loan guarantees or a "dirty energy standard" mandate for new nuclear plants that Wall Street says are so uneconomical that they are "corporation killers" and "a bet the farm risk". The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has said that these new nuclear loans pose a greater than 50% chance of default, in which case taxpayers would be left holding the bag. In the State of the Union, President Obama should support his own Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chief, who says that the U.S. can produce all new electricity without any new nuclear or coal power plants.
Protect People from Toxic Time Bombs: Across the country more than 300 chemical plants still use ultrahazardous poison gases that put more than 110 million people at risk of a Bhopal magnitude chemical disaster. Safer, cost effective processes are available for virtually all of these plants. As we approach the tenth anniversary of September 11th, it would be irresponsible for Congress to fail again in requiring these high risk plants to use safer chemical processes everywhere they are feasible.
The 112th Congress is threatening to roll back 40 years of environmental progress. The President can only win by standing tall and fighting for clean air for our children, a world of diversity and wilderness for our grandchildren, safe and secure forms of energy, and communities safe from toxic and nuclear disasters.