A Cuyahoga Moment

The politicians can see it and now they must act

Paul Greenberg

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The Freedom Tower at “Ground Zero” in Manhattan (photo by Cesar Kastoun)

On the morning of June 22nd, 1969, a slick of oil floating atop a notoriously polluted Ohio river called the Cuyahoga, burst into flames and burned for half an hour. In the end the blaze was extinguished and caused about $50,000 in damage. Though the fire was not particularly harmful from an economic point of view, the image of something so illogically toxic, the image of water on fire, burned itself into the retina of the American public.

Within a year this image of a river in flames became a rallying cry for political action, spurring the suite of laws that made the United States a global beacon for environmental reform: The Clean Air Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and a federal Environmental Protection Agency to put it all into action.

We now have a Cuyahoga moment for the new millennium. We have a “Freedom” Tower bathed in Martian smoke, radiating to the world the punishment that freedom from regulation brings.

With the Mars-ification of New York City’s air this week from climate-change-enabled wildfires, we at last have an iconic image of the extreme peril into which this generation of lawmakers have plunged us. The smoky, orange haze has literally draped us in mourning — mourning for the lost clean air that we were privileged to breath since the Clean Air Act was passed; mourning for the birds and other wildlife that cannot go indoors and escape the asphyxiating cloud; mourning for the precious time we’ve lost battling ignorant indifference to scientific fact.

How ironic that this terrifying image should come after a Supreme Court majority, put in place by a minority of American voters, should effectively defang the Environmental Protection Agency not once but twice. First by ruling a year ago that the EPA literally had no agency to place limits on carbon dioxide emissions. Second, this very year, by invalidating a broad swath of the Clean Water Act that promises to do to our waters what the present wildfires are doing to our air.

In our present distracted media moment, words and verbal sparring can only go so far. It…

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Paul Greenberg

New York Times bestselling author of Four Fish as well as The Climate Diet and Goodbye Phone, Hello World paulgreenberg.org