Cardin on Earth Day 2020: We Must Learn from the Coronavirus Pandemic

“Right now, we need to be doing everything possible to protect our planet, not make it more vulnerable.”

(BALTIMORE – April 22, 2020) – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a senior member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, made the following remarks on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, April 22, 2020.

In 1970, Earth Day was first celebrated when Senator Gaylord Nelson brought more than 20 million Americans together to mobilize in defense of our planet. In the half-century since, our nation has benefitted from a passionate environmental movement that has pushed lawmakers, businesses, and communities to foster a healthier Earth. While this movement has yielded significant progress, we nonetheless must do more to address the gravest threat to our environment: climate change.

I recognize that in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it might be difficult to wrap our heads around a second crisis. But today, on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we have an important opportunity here to learn from one global emergency about how to navigate another.

The first lesson from the COVID-19 pandemic: we must listen to experts.

Public health experts have long forecast the risk of a viral pandemic. Still, our leaders failed to prepare for COVID-19, and even denied the magnitude of the threat we faced when it was at our doorstep. The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has now claimed about 40,000 lives in the United States, a death toll higher than any other country’s. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, believes that at least some of these lives could have been saved had the Trump Administration heeded public health officials’ advice earlier.

We are witnessing a parallel problem with climate change. For decades, experts have warned that human-caused climate change is heating the Earth. 97% of the world’s scientists agree on this. And scientists are no longer just predicting the future implications of this crisis; they are pointing out the very real consequences of climate change that have already arrived.

These include the rise in extreme weather events like floods, hurricanes, and wildfires that we have experienced across the United States in recent years. In Maryland, we have seen communities like Ellicott City devastated by flash flooding from increased rainfall. And our state’s many miles of low-lying coast make us particularly vulnerable to high tide flooding and storm surge. The longer we wait to address climate change, the more natural disasters we will face.

Nevertheless, many of our nation’s leaders continue to ignore and deny the science of climate change. President Trump has nominated several individuals to oversee environmental regulations despite their concerning lack of expertise. Federal agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Department of Agriculture have suppressed climate science while carrying out crucial environmental research. And the Administration has advanced a policy agenda that unravels critical environmental protections.

Right now, we need to be doing everything possible to protect our planet, not make it more vulnerable.

Experts tell us that we have a short and critical window for action before the climate crisis becomes far direr. According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we have ten years to reduce global carbon emissions by 45%, or the Earth’s ecosystems will likely begin to collapse. That will mean even greater sea-level rise, more high-tide flooding, more devastating hurricanes, more and faster-spreading wildfires, and more global infectious diseases.

It is vital that we listen to experts and take steps to curb the development of climate change before it’s too late.

The second lesson: we must work with the international community to tackle this crisis.

Much of President Trump’s foreign policy seems to rest on the assumption that the United States can become stronger through isolation. But the spread of COVID-19 makes it painfully clear that we are part of a global community, and that there are certain threats that we will either overcome or succumb to together.

Climate change is one such threat. As the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gas, America’s failure to improve our environmental practices will have enormous impact on the rest of the world. Likewise, America’s long-term security depends on other countries’ efforts to protect the environment.

For example, as climate change continues, the number and severity of natural disasters in the United States will increase, which will take a substantial toll on our economy. A report that I requested from the Government Accountability Office shows that the 14 climate disasters in 2018 cost the U.S. at least $91 billion in damage. And today, taxpayer spending on federal disaster relief in the U.S. is almost ten times what it was three decades ago.

We need help from our friends around the world in order to avoid these repercussions of climate change. And if we ask for help, we had better be prepared to do our part, too.

It is therefore extremely disappointing that President Trump is finalizing the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement, which we joined alongside more than 190 other countries in 2016. Parties to the agreement committed to lowering carbon emissions with investment in clean and renewable energy sources, placing them at the forefront of the fight against climate change. America’s retreat from this Agreement undermines our global credibility and leadership, and threatens devastating environmental consequences.

Having led the U.S. Congressional Delegation to the conference where the Paris Agreement was originally adopted, I could not stand by and watch that important work be undone. So, I introduced a bipartisan resolution expressing support for the Agreement and calling on the U.S. to continue working with the global community to address the causes and effects of climate change. It will be up to leaders at the local, state, and national level to ensure that the United States pulls our weight in this worldwide effort.

The third lesson: meaningful progress is within reach if Americans commit to urgent and bold action.

Though it pains me to see the suffering that the COVID-19 pandemic is causing, I have been proud to watch communities across the country make the adjustments required to slow the spread of the virus and keep each other safe. People are staying home, teleworking, helping their kids learn remotely, and isolating from friends and family. Health workers, first responders, and other essential employees are inspiring us with their bravery and dedication. And in Congress, we are working in a bipartisan fashion to pass major legislation that will help us weather this storm.

The resilience of the American people in the face of this public health emergency gives me faith that we can similarly pull together to combat climate change if we recognize it for the life-threatening emergency that it is. After all, the World Health Organization predicts that climate change will kill an additional 241,000 people per year by 2030, and the World Bank estimates that, by 2050, it will force more than 140 million people out of their homes.

The good news is that, unlike with COVID-19, the adaptations that will help us tackle climate change will also create jobs and stimulate our economy. The U.S. clean energy economy employs more than 3.3 million workers, a number that has been on the rise for the last five years.  Furthermore, producing renewable energy is cheaper in the long run than continuing to rely on coal: by 2025, almost every existing coal plant in the country will cost more to operate than building replacement wind and solar plants nearby. And crucially, energy efficient infrastructure will strengthen communities by lowering utilities costs, improving residents’ health, and increasing economic development.

For my part, I will keep working as a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to advocate for laws that protect Americans by protecting our planetThis Congress, I was able to get the first ever Climate Title included in the surface transportation reauthorization bill in order to reduce vehicular emissions, the single the largest source of U.S. carbon pollution. I have also cosponsored bills that will lessen our dependence on fossil fuels and increase the development of renewable energy technologies by supporting the wind and solar industries.

As always, I will continue to defend the vital wetlands and marshes of the Chesapeake Bay. As climate change causes severe weather patterns to increase, these ecosystems will act as pollution filters and buffers from storm surge and flooding, minimizing the damage to Maryland homes and businesses. The Chesapeake Bay restoration program is a model for the local, state, and federal cooperation that is needed to reach our environmental goals. I am confident that we can address the climate crisis as a whole in an equally collaborative manner.

Now is the time for all hands on deck. Just like we have in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans must urgently work together, on Earth Day and every day, to slow the causes and consequences of climate change. If we do things right, then perhaps on the 100th anniversary of Earth Day, someone will be standing here, thanking her predecessors for protecting the Earth and looking forward to many more golden anniversaries in our beautiful home.”

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