Once upon a time lead paint was promoted as a “clean and healthy” alternative to dusty wallpaper. This was part of a PR campaign by the lead industry after the medical community began sounding the alarm that the metal was a neurotoxin that was damaging and even killing children. The lead industry’s campaign delayed regulation to protect families and children for 50 years.
Putting profit over the public good is nothing new. Today Exxon and other oil companies are spending millions to cast doubt on climate change — with the full knowledge of the role their industry plays in heating up the planet. The fact that Exxon is being investigated for its deception by the attorneys general from New York and California isn’t likely to halt its deceptive, delaying tactics.
Climate change, and the fossil fuel industry’s continuing efforts to sabotage our response to it, is the largest environmental crime ever perpetrated. Fifteen of the 16 warmest years ever recorded have occurred since 2001, with last year topping the record. The Earth’s climate is changing faster than species can evolve and adapt, and scientists believe we are at the onset a mass extinction event. Our changing climate will continue to challenge all our expectations and assumptions about rainfall, crop production, and weather-related health and safety issues.
In Santa Barbara County, oil companies have attempted to take over our county government. Donations from oil companies to candidates for Santa Barbara County supervisor would be illegal in Ventura, Los Angeles, or San Diego counties, which have donation limits. In Santa Barbara County, anything and any amount goes. This year, a former campaign manager for the oil-funded No on P campaign (to defeat an anti-fracking measure) is helping head up Bruce Porter’s campaign for 3rd District supervisor. In 2015 the local oil industry fought efforts to regulate planet-warming CO2 from oil production. If oil companies get their way, and their say, via local government offices and appointments, emissions in our county will skyrocket.
The international Climate Agreement signed by 195 countries in Paris established a crucial benchmark to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius at the very most. There are encouraging signs we can do this. We have a burgeoning renewable energy industry and real alternatives to gasoline, such as electric cars. Local county and city governments are currently studying a Community Choice Energy program that could set us on the path to 100 percent clean energy.
The upcoming 2016 elections will determine whether we meet our obligations under the Paris agreement or not. So far, instead of reining in fossil fuels, Congress recently overturned the oil export ban. This opens the door to more dangerous, unconventional oil production — not for our own use but to export to the international market. In California, the oil industry has been making a concerted effort to fight state climate laws and our ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
When people wake up to environmental crimes and demand change, history shows they can prevail. Lead has gradually been regulated out of paint, pipes, and gasoline, but it took a huge effort to overcome the lead industry’s obstruction. It takes constant vigilance to promote the public good. The recent case of lead in the water in Flint, Michigan, shows what happens when anti-regulators control local government.
On Election Day, June 7, we have an opportunity to vote for environmental champions, candidates who are not afraid to stand up to polluters: Das Williams and Joan Hartmann for supervisor, Hannah-Beth Jackson and Monique Limón for state races, and Salud Carbajal for Congress. All are endorsed by the Sierra Club and League of Conservation Voters. After last year’s disastrous oil spill into the ocean at Refugio, Das Williams and Hannah-Beth Jackson successfully introduced and passed legislation to better regulate oil pipelines. This Earth Day, let’s do our part to save the planet by voting for people who cherish it as we do and will work hard to conserve it.
Katie Davis is chair of the Santa Barbara Sierra Club.