Politics & Policy

Celebrate, Earthlings!

It's ain't so bad.

Earth Day is upon us again, and with it come dire warnings that this beautiful blue planet is hurtling toward certain disaster.

#ad#The Earth Day Network, which organizes activities for the annual event, is sounding the alarm: “We are about five minutes to midnight on the climate change clock,” and, “We are dangerously close to moving from a still salvageable world to a permanently unhealthy one.”

But wait, don’t jump in your spaceship just yet. Before we abandon Mother Earth to the desert sands, let’s review some recent environmental news.

The year 2005 saw a couple of important back-from-the-brink stories. The ivory-billed woodpecker, thought to have become extinct in the 1940s, was discovered alive and well in the Big Woods region of Arkansas. Meanwhile, a pink wildflower thought to have disappeared 70 years ago, the Mt. Diablo buckwheat, was rediscovered in California.

The mighty grizzly bear might soon be coming off the endangered species list thanks to a tripling of its population around Yellowstone National Park, where most grizzlies in the lower 48 reside. Conservation efforts under the Endangered Species Act have increased the number of grizzlies in the area from 200 in the early 1980s to about 600 today, and their population is growing by four to seven percent a year.

The grizzly will follow the bald eagle off the endangered-species list. Our national symbol made a comeback from only 500 nesting pairs in 1965 to some 7,500 today.

Statistics are less fun to look at than bears or eagles, but the last few years have seen important developments in biodiversity yardsticks too.

The Catalogue of Life Program, launched in 2001, passed the half-million mark in the number of species listed in its database, while the Census of Marine Life project, which aims for a full inventory of the planet’s ocean life by 2010, has been identifying new marine species at a rate of about 150 a year.

Why is this kind of data important? Because it’s impossible to measure progress or setbacks in biodiversity without benchmarks, and until recently they have been notoriously few. Remarkably, even the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity, which commits 188 nations to reducing the loss of biodiversity, lacks any measure to gauge progress.

What about other environmental indicators? Brace yourself for more good news.

Major air-pollution indicators show improved air quality in cities across the United States.

One reason is that cars and trucks are producing fewer and fewer smog-causing volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These vehicle-produced VOCs have fallen by 74 percent between 1970 and 2003, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Total carbon-monoxide emissions produced by cars and trucks fell by 64 percent over the same period.

Water quality is showing improvement too. In an EPA assessment of water quality in the eastern states, covering 5,000 lakes and 72,000 miles of rivers and streams, it found a substantial lowering of acidity–water acidity being one of the chief targets of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments.

Environmental problems, of course, are global by their very nature. So even if we’re breathing cleaner air at home, we won’t be doing so for long if the rest of the world is moving in the opposite direction.

Some of the scariest environmental stories of the last year have come out of China. With a vast landmass and a population of 1.3 billion, the country’s economic boom has led to a corollary jump in construction and fuel burning of all kinds. Air pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions are up, among other problems.

Even this trend, though, has a silver lining. China will be a major test case for the notion of an Environmental Kuznets Curve, the theory that as countries move from poor to rich, their natural environments at first deteriorate, but then improve dramatically.

Evidence of this curve elsewhere is the reason that the Asia-Pacific Partnership–a six-nation agreement to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions–emphasizes economic development and the eradication of poverty as key prerequisites for coping with climate change.

There is no question that China is moving ahead economically. As it does, it is already enacting environmental laws that resemble landmark legislation introduced in Europe and the United States in the 1970s. The country is also dedicating more and more land for nature preserves. These protected reserves grew from about 154,441 square miles in 1990 to about 501,933 square miles in 2002.

So by all means, mark Earth Day. Go for a swim in a cool, clean a lake, or look for an ivory-billed woodpecker. But there’s no need to go searching the galaxy for another blue planet. Our environmental cup is at least half full, and human ingenuity is filling it further by the day.

Sally C. Pipes is president and ceo of the Pacific Research Institute, co-publisher of the eleventh edition of the Index of Leading Environmental Indicators 2006.

Sally C. Pipes Sally C. Pipes is the president, CEO, and Thomas W. Smith Fellow in Health Care Policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is The False Promise of Single-Payer Health Care (Encounter). Follow her on Twitter @sallypipes.

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