History, History Column

Taking Care of Mother Earth

by ©2022 Sarah Becker

The amount of future warming Earth will experience depends on how much carbon dioxide [CO2] and other greenhouse gases [GHG] we humans emit in the coming decades. GHG are any of the gaseous components that trap heat in the atmosphere.

The most abundant greenhouse gas, CO2 is the product of burning fossil fuels [coal, natural gas and oil; solid waste and trees, and chemical reactions like with cement]. In 2019 carbon dioxide accounted for 80% of U.S. greenhouse gases, methane 10%.

“There is no good reason why we should fear the future,” President and conservationist Theodore Roosevelt [R-NY] said in 1905, “but there is every reason why we should face it seriously, neither hiding from ourselves the gravity of the problems before us nor fearing to approach these problems with the unbending, unflinching purpose to solve them aright.” Today’s U.S. Western mega- drought is “the worst in 1200 years.”

Earth Day was first celebrated 52 years ago—on April 22. Why, to advocate on behalf of environmentalism.

“Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, crippling drought, and more powerful storms,” President Barack Obama [D-IL] said in his 2013 Inaugural Address.

“The path towards sustainable energy sources will be…difficult,” Obama continued. “But Americans cannot resist this transition…We cannot cede to the other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries.” Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Catalyst is investing $1.5b in clean technology projects including direct air capture, green hydrogen, long-duration energy storage, and sustainable aviation fuel.

“Now is the time for the unstoppable courage to preserve and protect our health, our families, our livelihoods,” the Earth Day website insists. “We need to act (boldly), innovate (broadly), and implement (equitably). It’s going to take all of us…Businesses, governments, and citizens—everyone accounted for, and everyone accountable.” 2021 was America’s fourth warmest year on record.

“[W]e have only a few years left to avoid a climate catastrophe,” John Kerry, special presidential envoy for climate explained.

The United States rejoined the Paris Agreement on January 20, 2021—by Executive Order. “The Paris Agreement is an unprecedented framework for global action,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken noted. “Its purpose is both simple and expansive: to help us…build resilience…to the impacts.” One -fifth of the world’s largest 2,000 companies have committed to net-zero target emissions. The agreed upon deadline: 2030-2050.

CO2 is naturally “sequestered” when it is absorbed by plants “as part of the biological carbon cycle.” Historically speaking forests, farms and grasslands capture about 25% of our carbon emissions. Another 30% is absorbed by the upper layer of the ocean. The latter however raises the water’s acidity level, and ocean acidification makes it harder for marine animals to build their shells. How does one explain this malady to ocean loving shrimp and oysters, to hungry dinner guests?

“Now, as momentous as our joining the Agreement was in 2016—and as momentous as our rejoining is today—what we do in the [future] is even more important,” Blinken continued. “You have seen and will continue to see us weaving climate change into our most important…conversations. In these conversations, we’re asking other leaders: how can we do more together?”

The “other leaders” ask, “how can” the Biden White House “do more together” with the Democrat-controlled Senate.

British born engineer and renowned architect Benjamin Latrobe [1764-1820] first acknowledged the need for a well-designed waterworks system in 1798— following Philadelphia’s Yellow Fever outbreak. In 1799, the same year Congress passed the National Quarantine Act, “an Act respecting quarantines and health laws,” Latrobe was hired by the city of Philadelphia to construct America’s first municipal water supply system.

Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence assumed Philadelphia’s Yellow Fever epidemic was caused by unsanitary conditions, contaminated water especially. He advocated pumping fresh water into the city…washing the docks and the streets in warmer weather; emptying toilets, and cleaning sewers. Fast forward to today.

“Stop using the sky as an open sewer!” former Vice President Al Gore exclaimed on January 13, 2022. Climate change impacts are many: public health threats and economic shifts are two.

Last year’s increase in U.S. GHG emissions was reportedly “fueled by a rise in coal-generated power and pollution from trucking.” Transportation accounts for approximately one-fifth of the world’s CO2 emissions. Less than half of those emissions come from passenger vehicles such as cars and vans. In Alexandria in 2018, energy consumption (residential and commercial) accounted for 58% of the city’s GHG emissions; transportation 34% and rising.

The Earth’s temperature has risen by 0.14o F per decade since 1880. The rate of warming over the past 40 years is more than twice that: 0.32o F per decade since 1981.” From 1900 to 1980 new temperature records were set on average every 13.5 years; from 1981-2019 every three years. Mt. Everest’s Sol Col Glacier took roughly 2,000 years to form: has melted in just 25 years.

“We have become great in a material sense because of the lavish use of our resources,” President Roosevelt told State Governors in 1908. “But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils shall have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields, and obstructing navigation.”

How would Theodore Roosevelt respond to news of global warming and today’s climate change debate? Historian Douglas Brinkley suggests Teddy “would have been on the side of science.” More than 70 environmental groups have launched a joint campaign to protect old-growth trees on federal lands from logging.

Theodore Roosevelt died in 1919, his conservation work unfinished. Five Presidencies later, President Herbert Hoover [R-CA], a geologist cum mining engineer, appreciated his predecessor’s concerns. “I cannot state too strongly that pollution of waters under Federal control is destroying not only our fisheries, but is also destroying our beaches and endangering our harbors,” Hoover said in a 1924 telegram.

Hoover was an avid fisherman. The Hoovers Virginia Presidential retreat Rapidan Camp included 164 acres of Shenandoah forest land. “We do know what the attainment of [our] ideals should be,” President Hoover said in his 1929 Inaugural Address, “the sustaining of education and the advancement of knowledge.” It was an increased understanding of pollution that caused President Richard Nixon [R-CA] to establish the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA].

“Since 1970, the EPA has made significant progress,” Administrator Andrew Wheeler said on December 2, 2020. “Historic milestones include setting the nation’s air quality standards to protect human health, regulating the quality of public drinking water, creating the [1980] Superfund program to clean up hazardous waste sites, protecting children from exposure to lead-based paint, and recently, launching the first ever United States Federal Strategy for Addressing the Global Issue of Marine Litter.”

As of 2022, the countries with the highest CO2 emissions are: [1] China with 9.9 billion tons of CO2 emitted, coal especially, [2] United States with 4.4 billion tons of CO2 emitted, coal included; and [3] India with 2.3 billion tons of CO2 emitted. Eighteen Republican AGs, led by the coal industry now claim the EPA has no authority to broadly regulate power plant-related GHG emissions, the Clean Air Act included. [West Virginia v. EPA, 2022]

Former EPA Administrator Wheeler, a coal enthusiast, is Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin’s choice to lead Virginia’s Department of Natural Resources. On January 15, 2022, the Governor signed an executive order aimed at withdrawing Virginia from the 11-state Regional GHG Initiative. According to the Virginia Conservation Network, Wheeler “silenced climate science on the EPA’s website [and] sought to slash the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay [cleanup] Program’s budget by 90%.”  Coal, first dug in Virginia in 1748, is mined in five southwestern counties.

Al Gore published his environmental tome, An Inconvenient Truth more than 15 years ago. Today Gore “is encouraged by the rapid growth of solar and wind power, of electric vehicles.” EVs, plug-in hybrids, and traditional hybrids “provide energy efficient transportation while lowering or eliminating tailpipe emissions; diminishing noise and reducing operating costs.”

After attending the 2021 the United Nations Climate Change Conference Gore decided “2022 is the year world leaders need to…actually start cutting their GHG emissions.” His primary concern: accountability. His high tech solution: Climate TRACE.

“We harness satellite imagery and other forms of remote sensing, artificial intelligence, and collective data science expertise to track human-caused GHG emissions as they happen,” the Climate TRACE website explains. “Climate TRACE’s emissions inventory is the world’s first comprehensive accounting of GHG emissions based primarily on direct, independent observation.”

According to NOAA, “last year the U.S. experienced 20 separate billion-dollar weather and climate disasters.” At least 688 people were killed and damages totaled $145 billion. Bottom line: “scientists are declaring a code red for humanity.”

“Even from space the effects of climate change are visible,” French astronaut Thomas Pesquet said on January 24, 2022, “especially the rise in extreme weather events.”

“The rise in weather and climate extremes has led to some irreversible impacts as…systems are pushed beyond their ability to adapt,” the United Nations 2022 Climate Impact Report concluded.

My question: How well will those countries unable to cope with the COVID pandemic manage the changes—economic and behavioral—needed to deal with climate change?  Yes, the so-called blue economies focus mainly on ocean sustainability. But we humans have yet to really take heed; to turn environmental theory into every day practice? The ten warmest years ever recorded have all occurred since 2005.


Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007. Email abitofhistory53@gmail.com 

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