Mr. President: 5 Ways to Salvage Your Environmental Legacy (and Our Future)

Few things distract our nation like the selection of its leader. But while we were obsessing over polls, swing states and Paul Ryan's workout photos, the calculus that determines the future of life on Earth only got grimmer.

The climate crisis is deepening, rare plants and animals are vanishing at an accelerating clip, and politicians -- well supported by the polluter class -- are freshly emboldened to chip away at laws that protect our water, air, environment and wildlife.

To be blunt, when it came to tackling the most important environmental issues of our age, President Obama's first term was a disappointment. He has a chance to salvage his legacy (and ours) in his second term. Here are the five places to start:

1. Address climate change and ocean acidification. There's no crisis bigger than the one that's rapidly transforming the world's climate and oceans. We need to fix this, and fast. 2012 is on track to become the warmest year on record; some 40,000 temperature records have been shattered in the United States this year, while Arctic sea ice has melted to a record low.

The urgency of this crisis is manifested in the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, record droughts, massive wildfires, disappearing coral reefs, floods and a terrible, continuous stream of bleak headlines. Left unchecked, climate change threatens millions of people around the globe and countless species already on the brink of extinction. It's time to stop waiting for someone else, including Congress, to lead. The best way to start: Fully harness existing laws like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act to reduce carbon pollution.

2. Stem the extinction crisis. Plants and animals around the globe are going extinct at an astonishing rate, up to 10,000 times faster than normal in some cases. Unfortunately federal agencies in charge of saving endangered species have yet to respond on a scale that meets the speed and magnitude of this massive loss. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service need to work aggressively to protect the backlog of species that federal scientists say need protection denied to them so far.

Federal agencies must also do more to protect large swaths of habitat to ensure that wildlife have ample room to find suitable homes as climate change transforms the landscape. Acute crises must also be promptly addressed, including white-nose syndrome, which has wiped out nearly 7 million bats in North America; pesticides that sicken and kill our wildlife; and pollution and habitat loss that are threatening freshwater fish, turtles, salamanders and mussels in the Southeast.

3. Keep politics out of the Endangered Species Act and other vital environmental laws. If you're glad that grizzly bears, wolves, bald eagles and peregrine falcons are still around, you can thank the Endangered Species Act. If you like breathing air and drinking water that won't make you sick, you can thank the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. These laws have built an enviable record of success over the past four decades -- but there's a growing movement in Congress to cripple them. Rather than focusing on science and public health, these politicians are focusing on profits and right-wing zealotry.

We saw it when Congress made an end run around scientists to strip Rocky Mountain wolves of their Endangered Species Act protections; when a series of hearings were held criticizing the Act for failure despite clear evidence that it's put hundreds of species on the road to recovery; when the pesticide industry pushed a provision to allow unregulated dumping of pesticides into U.S. waters; when the NRA sought to ban environmental agencies from protecting wildlife from lead poisoning.

America's bedrock environmental laws work well, but not when we let special-interest politics get in the way.

 

 

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