By Liz Haigney-Lynch
An Earth Day message worth repeating: Never underestimate the power of voters’ voices, especially with a planet on the line.
At an Earth Week Environmental Defense Forum hosted in Little Falls by NJ 11th For Change last week, talk revolved around policy challenges, threatened funding cuts and the growing impact of climate change. Across the board, speakers emphasized the vital role of concerned citizens.
Moderated by astrophysicist Matthew Buckley of Rutgers University, founder of the NJ March for Science, the panel included:
• Assemblyman John McKeon (27th District)
• Lori Heiger, Steering Committee member of Coalition Against the Pilgrim Pipeline (CAPP), Founder of #Get2Work, Member, NJ 11th For Change Research Team
• Mark Brownstein, climate and energy program, Environmental Defense Fund
• NYU climate scientist Sonali McDermid
• Dan Hartinger, Parks and Public Lands Defense Campaign, Wilderness Society
• Jamie Pang, policy specialist, Center for Biological Diversity
• Julia Somers, executive director, New Jersey Highlands Coalition
With environmental protections under attack and the effects of climate change accelerating, it’s important to remember that “all of us as individuals have much more power than anyone realizes,” Brownstein said.
Scientific data on climate forms a clear and disturbing pattern, said McKeon. “It’s so easy to connect the dots.”
Climate scientist McDermid noted that nine of the top 10 record-setting temperature years were recorded since 1990, with the effects of climate change piling up far faster than anticipated. “Our models are not keeping up” with the pace of rising sea-surface temperatures and Greenland ice-cap melt, she said. A crucial question is “how to build resilience in our communities.”
Meanwhile in Washington, a concentrated legislative assault is underway on environmentally responsible policies. The Wilderness Society’s Hartinger cited four major tactics:
• rolling back protections on national monument sites
• selling off public lands
• opening of public lands to corporate use
• regulatory approaches that favor corporate priorities over environmental protections
By requiring action to protect the habitats of threatened wildlife, the Endangered Species Act has saved 227 species since 1973, but it is constantly facing corporate pushback. Endangered species whose habitats overlap territory desired by fossil-fuel companies are especially targeted, said Pang of the Center for Biological Diversity. This is why it is important to protect rules requiring verifiable science to take precedence over economic considerations in managing vulnerable species and ecosystems.
The Highlands Coalition’s Somers talked about the current state of the landmark federal 2004 Highlands Conservation Act. In 2014, Congress failed to re-authorize this protective legislation. As a result Highlands conservation funding is now a spending authorization rather than a dedicated federal budget line, leaving the program more vulnerable to cuts in budget negotiations. Although NJ-11’s Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen introduced a bill (HR-894) calling for the act’s reauthorization through 2023, the act remains in limbo. (The companion Senate bill, S-2652, is sponsored by New York’s Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.)
Bill riders are a key tactic for opponents of environmental protection, said Hartinger. A “rider” is a provision tacked onto a bill which has little connection to the bill’s actual subject matter. Riders are a classic way of pushing legislation that is too controversial to pass on its own.
Public pressure remains essential in fighting for environmental protections, the panelists agreed. As chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, NJ-11’s Frelinghuysen has a powerful say on bill riders. Hartinger urged NJ-11 supporters of the environment to make a simple call to Frelinghuysen: “No riders on the appropriations bill.”
The panel was also united in praising NJ 11th For Change in fostering increased voter engagement, pointing to Frelinghuysen’s late-breaking opposition to changes in the Affordable Care Act as an example of constituents successfully pressing for responsive representation.
With radical policy changes being pushed in Washington, and the governorship on the line this November, panelists agreed New Jerseyans must speak up now. It’s “a powerful time to send a message about what kind of society we want,” Brownstein said.