Global Environmental Perils

A smug, corporate-indentured Congress continues to misread the looming backlash by community groups and citizens against the gross indifference their legislators are displaying toward critical environmental health risks. In the past month, for example, Senators have refused to end a filibuster against a vote on a simple bill to establish a medical warning notification by employers for workers exposed to toxic risks in the workplace. The pro-pesticide industry promoters on the Senate Agriculture Committee refuse to upgrade adequately an old law so full of loopholes and delays as to constitute a mockery of any possible law enforcement to prevent pesticide-caused cancers.

As for Congressional foresight to mandate better fuel efficiency standards for automobiles and other equipment, forget it. So weak is Capital Hill here that some emboldened auto manufacturers want the support of Secretary of Transportation, James Burnley, to jettison the existing standards for cars which have been frozen for three years. These standards, since 1985, have been waived at the demand of General Motors despite the White House’s knowledge of the growing reliance on imported oil and a growing trade deficit.

But around the country, the mood is quite different and far more demanding than the first environmental surge in the late Sixties and early Seventies. It is also much broader-based among its citizen activists.

Rising from the provocation of the polluters right in their

communities are civic leaders against toxic waste dumps, incinerators, nuclear power plants and wastes, and contaminated drinking water. They want action against asbestos, formaldehyde and radon gas. They are fighting for non-smoking spaces in buildings and public transportation. Taken together, these struggles are for a kind of law and order that prevents or reduces this epidemic of silent violence. There are no Republicans or Democrats here; there are no liberals or conservatives–only victims or families at risk.

Now comes what may well be the most stunning scientific evidence about two global environmental perils.

First is a government scientific study regarding the fall in stratospheric ozone levels which form the Earth’s protective shield and screen out harmful ultraviolet rays that could markedly expand malignant skin cancers, and damage to crops and oceanic microorganisms that nourish fisheries.

This report soundly bolstered earlier studies and was conclusive enough to jolt the DuPont Company, the largest producer of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), to announce the phase out of its ozone-depleting product by the year 2000. CFCs are used in refrigerants, foam blowing agents and solvents in this country and, additionally, in billions of aerosol cans abroad.

The somnolent Environmental Protection Agency woke up last week with the announcement by its chief, Lee Thomas, that the international treaty, just signed last September by 31 nations, to reduce CFC production was not strong enough and had to be strengthened.

As if the deteriorating ozone situation was not enough,

other cautious scientists were quoted in the New York Times saying average global temperatures in the 1980’s are the highest measured since reliable records were started over 130 years ago. The suspect: carbon dioxide and other industrial gases are trapping the heat in the atmosphere creating a greenhouse effect.

What is causing this heat buildup is the burning of fossil fuels (coal, gas, oil) and the destruction of forests which absorb carbon dioxide. This warming trend is occurring, said government scientist, Dr. Alan Hecht, even though the other natural factors were keeping temperatures lower during this later stage of an interglacial period. In a phrase, the temperatures should be growing cooler, yet the three warmest years on record were 1987, 1983, and 1981.

Warming of the Earth brings major changes in climate affecting forests and food growing regions, a gradual melting of the polar ice leading to rising sea levels, coastal flooding and other calamities. The more widespread use of solar energy, with its relative equilibrium of heat on the planet, must be the future, even if huge new quantities of fossil fuels are discovered.

Science fiction often has portrayed how an extra-terrestrial enemy prompted warring nations on Earth to set aside their animosities and band together to confront the common foe. No need for science fiction–the reality of global environmental convulsions may become the common bond of humanity sooner than we think.

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