Smoke from Canada’s wildfires casts a haze over the Philadelphia skyline (Photo by Joe LambertI/AFP via Getty Images).
By Joseph R. Powers
The debate over climate change reached an inflection point this Spring. Each day the news seemed to be more alarming. Global sea surface temperature hit an all time high. A new study said that the Arctic’s floating sea ice could melt in summers as early as the 2030’s.
And then, of course there were the wildfires that ravaged Canadian provinces. More than a million acres burned in one day, more than in California in all of last year. Predictably, smoke from wildfires of that size traveled all down the Atlantic coast. (Experts say that 87% of forest fire smoke travels to other countries).
Sure enough, large parts of Pennsylvania were turned into something resembling a Martian landscape. Those who ventured outside were forced to deal with burning eyes and difficult breathing. Normal landmarks disappeared behind a smokey haze. Schools were closed and flights delayed.
Just as scientists had predicted for decades, man-made emissions were causing, among other things, melting polar ice, rising seas, and unprecedented wildfires.
At least there was a silver lining to all of this. The gathering climate crisis could no longer be ignored. It was as plain as the nose on your face – if you could see that far through the smoke.
In fact, both the public sector and private sector have started to take drastic actions to deal with the deteriorating climate situation. The largest seller of homeowners insurance in California, State Farm, announced that it would stop selling policies in the state because of climate risks. In Arizona, the state government announced it would no longer approve new housing construction permits in Metro Phoenix for structures that rely on groundwater.
Not to be outdone, the Pennsylvania Legislature jumped into action as well.
On June 7, the Republican-controlled state Senate voted 28-22 to change the name of the Department of Environmental Protection to the Department of Environmental Services.
The measure is sponsored by Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming, an ally of the fossil fuel industry, who chairs the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, which has oversight of the agency.
No, this isn’t some kind of “Onion” parody. At the very same time that the people of this state were gagging for breath, senators passed a bill to remove the word “protection” from the name of the state agency charged with, well, protecting the environment.
Protection of the environment was precisely what the agency was formed to do when it was created in 1995 by Republican Gov. Tom Ridge.
Before that, there was a Department of Environmental Resources. The governor and the Legislature decided to bifurcate that department in order to create one agency charged with overseeing the state’s parks and forests, and another agency that was to be responsible for enforcing the state’s environmental laws.
And it’s not just environmental laws that the department must enforce; it’s also a constitutional mandate: “The people have the right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historical and esthetic values of the environment …… As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all of the people.”
And yet, according to one article, a senator said that the agency charged with carrying out that mandate acts more like an intimidator and regulatory bully.
Bully? Really? If anything, it is often the public employees who are the bullied. The word bureaucrat is now used almost as an epithet.
I worked in the Department of Environmental Protection for six years as the Executive Deputy Secretary and briefly as Acting Secretary, and all too often I saw DEP employees being harshly criticized and never even given a chance to respond.
In truth, employees in state agencies are like people in any profession – doctors or lawyers – or legislators for that matter. There are some good ones and some who are not so much, but mostly there are people who are just trying to do their jobs. I have always rebelled against putting everyone in any profession in one box and condemning everybody in that box.
In DEP, in fact, I met people who were general heroes.
There were the mine safety officials who went out on a field in a small town in Somerset County called Quecreek and, using nothing but their own savvy and outdated maps, said “we drill here.”
If they were right, nine miners had a chance to live. If they were wrong, they would assuredly die. The mine safety people were right. And the entire nation watched as all nine miners were safely brought to the surface.
There were the professionals in the Radiation Bureau who realized that a hospital wasn’t actually reviewing mammogram exams and that potential breast cancer cases might not have been correctly diagnosed. A team was sent in and each of the exams was correctly reviewed.
There were the dam safety officials who came to me and said that the state had over 100 unsafe high hazard dams that could cause major loss of life if the dams failed. This one was like the dog that didn’t bark. You never read about dams collapsing in Pennsylvania because each of the suspect dams was dealt with.
Bullies? These people were life savers.
And so are the DEP employees dealing with oil and natural gas permitting and inspection, the area that seems to be causing the most tension.
Can the permits be issued faster? Maybe.
So give the department the resources to do it right. But don’t ignore that second part — making sure the drilling is done the right way.
There is, after all, that constitutional right for Pennsylvanians to have clean air and pure water. And there is the world-wide need for controlling emissions as closely as possible.
So, here’s a plea. Let’s stop the name-calling and the name-changing.
The climate crisis is here and it’s real and it must be dealt with. Does anyone really want our kids and grandkids to have to live on a regular basis in the smokey soup we had to endure from those Canadian wild fires?
Instead, let’s get serious about dealing with the deepening climate catastrophe.
And let’s start with actually supporting the agency charged with enforcing the environmental laws and the constitutional mandate: The Department of Environmental PROTECTION.
Joseph R. Powers, a former acting secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, teaches political science at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. His work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.
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