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Doing a Disservice to Earth Day By: Tom Tanton
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, April 20, 2007


Earth Day is now in its 37th year but are people generally more aware of the state of the environment? Is the environment better or worse than when Earth Day began? Equally important, are thoughtful discussions occurring, as was the goal of Earth Day's creation? Answers to these questions may be found in The Index of Leading Environmental Indicators.

Now in its twelfth year, the Index provides factual assessment of everything from forest health and water quality to air quality and climate change. The 2007 edition adds some important features to those of past years, highlighting the lack of meaningful indices for some environmental attributes.

The authors note that scientists and policy makers are still unable to draw on consistent data over time in many areas of environmental concern. We lack standardized measurements, and even lack a common environmental language. We still have substantial data gaps in important areas, and the gaps may be growing larger. Further, bad news skews our priorities and blinds us to ways of transferring our successes to areas where there has been less progress.

The significant, and often destructive, impact of the media's obsession with the negative, as it relates to the overall question "are things getting better?" is also an eye-opening addition to this year's Index. These two negative trends are most evident in the hot topic of the day, global warming. 

Far too much attention is paid to whether a scientist is an "alarmist" or a "skeptic."  Neither term has anything to do with the facts behind that person's position; one might just as well call them optimists or pessimists.  Worse, some have ratcheted up the calls for the silencing of some very credible scientists who have studied the issue for decades. This is hardly in line with the goal of Earth Day to improve the discussion of environmental topics. The availability of long-term consistent data is also problematic. 

Because there is no single measure of "global temperature" scientists must rely on averages of many monitoring stations, as well as proxy data.  Unfortunately, some of those stations closed due to a variety of factors, such as the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  The loss of many stations in colder climates is bound to skew the "average" towards indications of a warmer climate, even if there is no actual warming.

With some environmental areas, there is simply insufficient data to determine if things are better or worse.  But why assume they are worse? Why not look to successes in areas such as air quality and venture forth with a sense of optimism?

Nations with higher levels of freedom and wealth are inevitably cleaner environmentally. Unfortunately, the politicization of the issues usually leaves this idea behind and has overwhelmed the goal of the environment. This is especially evident when activists seek to deny access to energy supplies to both the impoverished and the wealthy.

This will only keep the impoverished from ever climbing out of their dilemma.  Truly modern energy supplies will maintain affluent countries while allowing others to becoming wealthier and improve their environment.

The origin of Earth Day was to bring discussions of environmental conditions into politics, not to bring politics into environmental discussions.  Unfortunately, in many regards, that is exactly what some activists have done, hindering meaningful progress. Those who miss the optimism of spring would do well to read The 2007 Index of Leading Environmental Indicators, and change their outlook on the future.

Tom Tanton, a fellow in Environmental Studies at the Pacific Research Institute, is a vice president and senior fellow with the Institute for Energy Research.


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