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On Earth Day, Public-Sector Leaders Consider What Lies Ahead

From regulation to restoration, the work of environmental stewardship falls largely on the shoulders of those in government. For Earth Day 2022, Governing asked public-sector leaders how they see the path forward.

The earth as seen from space.
Earth Day is the planet’s largest annual civic observance. Almost 8 billion passengers now crowd what Buckminster Fuller called “Spaceship Earth,” and 1 in 8 of them are expected to participate in Earth Day events.

It’s easy to forget that before the first Earth Day in 1970, there was no U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, no Occupational Safety and Health Administration, no Clean Water or Endangered Species acts. The American Industrial Revolution, and its conquest of nature, had a head start of almost 150 years by the time Earth Day ignited citizen demand for government to take action.

Thankfully, Harvard biologist George Wald’s Earth Day 1970 prediction that civilization would end within 15-30 years, “unless immediate action is taken against problems facing mankind,” has not come true. Paul Ehrlich’s most frightening scenarios for a planet strained by population growth have not all become reality, but his warning that air pollution could cause 100,000-200,000 deaths within years of 1970 underestimated what was to come. The World Health Organization now says that air pollution is a factor in as many as 7 million premature deaths each year.

Communities and public officials face enormous challenges in 2022, from the impacts of warming to pollution, environmental illnesses, habitat and species loss to continuously rising demand for finite natural capital. At the same time, there has never been greater abundance of data, innovation, technology and commitment to sustainability, enough to sustain real hope that it’s possible to pave the road to a resilient future.

The ”ecosystem” of public-sector leaders who have responsibility for making this future possible is complex and varied. On the occasion of Earth Day 2022, Governing asked a number of them to share their thoughts about the path to progress. Their responses embody just some of the facets of the public sector’s role in environmental stewardship.

Maryland Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, sponsor of the Climate Solutions Now Act

With Congress immobilized, states must take the lead. My state of Maryland has just passed the Climate Solutions Now Act which sets a 60 percent reduction by 2031 (from 2006 baseline) and calls for numerous actions, including emission reductions in large buildings, replacing state fleets and school buses with zero-emission vehicles, creating a green bank, setting up a climate corps to employ young people to work in disproportionately affected communities and, finally, institute an environmental justice lens to all reform efforts.

Individual actions are not enough. We must change institutions and governmental bodies that have the responsibility to lead by example.

Erica Bornemann, president, National Emergency Management Association; and director, Vermont Emergency Management

At the core of every dedicated emergency manager is a drive to help people in the community and state they serve. This is a fundamental element that focuses the work of an emergency manager every day. This mission is becoming more and more difficult to achieve with hazards posed with climate change, the complexities posed by technical hazards such as cybersecurity and addressing concurrent disasters. At the same time, emergency management personnel have been grinding for years managing many aspects of the nationwide pandemic response in addition to the many disasters that have occurred.

Despite those challenges, emergency managers are making a difference on a daily basis to prepare their jurisdictions for the next disaster and it is because of this fundamental drive to help people.
Closeup of a purple flower.
(Carl Smith, Governing)
Wendy Wert, civil engineer, Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts; and vice president, American Academy of Environmental Engineers

As we honor the 52nd anniversary of Earth Day, I am struck by the grand challenges of our era and the resilience of our profession and the people we serve. There have been incredible achievements and yet there remains much to do. The western United States is in the grip of severe drought. From July 2020 to June 2021, California received the least amount of rainfall since people began keeping records. Since 1962, the Sanitation Districts have been producing recycled water that provides a safe, reliable, drought-resilient source of water for the region.

As we strive to do more, I continue to be grateful for the tremendous commitment and teamwork, which result in great service to our community.

Rep. Patty Acomb, Minnesota House of Representatives

As a state legislator I want to act boldly to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. However, in our state we have a divided Legislature and unfortunately this issue has become partisan. So, I approach it from the position of how I can get support from my colleagues to address this crisis and still make a difference. I have found that to make progress I need to highlight the potential multiple benefits. I may focus on the long-term economic benefits of renewable energy or the environmental benefits of improved water quality by implementing natural climate solutions. I may point to the many large corporations in our state that have made climate goals and use them as a model for what we as a state need to be doing.

Earth Day is a great example of the power of collective action. A billion people recognize it each year, and use the opportunity to step forward and make a difference. What I know is that all of us working together will solve this climate crisis.

Jonathan Reckford, CEO, Habitat for Humanity

In the U.S., and around the world, low-income households are among those considered most vulnerable to the substantial and far-reaching impacts of climate change. When a natural disaster occurs, it is families with limited means who struggle most to rebuild. To mitigate these impacts, Habitat builds, repairs and rehabilitates homes with hazard-resilience and sustainability in mind.

By building stronger, energy-efficient homes, we can help increase both the immediate and long-term economic security of families, while also reducing a home’s environmental footprint.

Frank Cownie, mayor, Des Moines, Iowa; and president, ICLEI

Earth Day’s history is steeped in the voices of local communities demanding an end to the pillaging of our one home planet. In the face of compounding crises — the climate emergency, biodiversity loss, threats to peace, health, and justice— these voices demand our leaders take action. As mayor of the first city to declare 24/7 carbon-free electricity and president of ICLEI, the largest network of local governments taking climate action, I know that the local level is where Earth Day’s founding principles are being put into practice.
A sunset on the ocean.
(Carl Smith, Governing)
Scott Cassel, founder and CEO, Product Stewardship Institute

On April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day, recycling was in its infancy, as was the environmental movement, which emerged from the conservationism of John Muir and the science and fortitude of Rachel Carson, who exposed pesticide manufacturers as responsible for the health and environmental impacts of their products. We are now aware of the responsibility we all have to safeguard our habitat and the ramifications of not taking that responsibility seriously.

To ensure a healthy planet for all, we can learn from those who plowed the ground on which we, as environmental stewards, now stand.

Darwin Bass, director, Department of Public Works, Kent County, Mich.

As we think forward about the future of managing municipal solid waste, we can no longer perpetuate the idea that it’s simply OK to throw resources away by landfilling them. Individually, we make decisions daily that whatever it is we’re “throwing away” no longer has value. As communities we need to think differently. While it may be cheaper today, the reality is our current approach and decision to manage trash by burying it in the ground, whether as a municipality, company or individual, creates externalities carried by all. We have a choice and there is a path to recapturing the value of what is deemed garbage and destined for landfill.

We’re proving out that our region can recapture natural resources and commodities to drive economic development, job creation, private investment in technology and provide renewable energy. We can make the best use of these resources all the while protecting the environment for future generations.

Brian Castrucci, president and CEO, de Beaumont Foundation

The biggest challenge of our time is the spread of disinformation. Disinformation has undermined science, divided communities and stymied policy that is critical to protecting the safety, security, and economic prosperity of our nation. We are no longer debating the right response to universal challenges like global warming and the COVID-19 pandemic. We are debating their actual existence, which should be incontrovertible scientific fact. The insidiousness of disinformation is that it is not about being anti-science, as people have found scientists that agree with their viewpoint, indelibly changing factual discourse into debates with differing points of view.

The existential question is whether a society can survive if there is no agreement on basic facts and science — and when truth becomes open to interpretation simply based on your own personal point of view.

Kate Wright, executive director, Climate Mayors       

From the pandemic to climate change, our world is changing at a rapid pace. Over the last two years we’ve seen how interconnected and resilient we are as human beings. During times of stability, we accepted inefficient, ineffective systems, but the time of distress made us clarify our priorities, and remove barriers that seemed impossible to tackle before. What will we take with us moving forward? We can’t go back to the status quo that deprioritizes health, equity and sustainability.

To build a stronger path forward, we must take what we’ve learned from the pandemic and use the unprecedented levels of federal funding to emerge into a brighter season.
Closeup of golden sycamore leaves.
(Carl Smith, Governing)
Carl Sedoryk, general manager/CEO, Monterey-Salinas Transit

As we found creative ways to first respond to, and now recover from the pandemic, the experience of the last 24 months made us realize that we had to think beyond the bus in serving our communities. However, we lacked a way to clearly state our newfound purpose in an inspiring way. Over the past several months we have defined that purpose and developed a simple statement reflecting the values of our employees, passengers and communities we serve, and which guides our behavior, strategic decisions and capital investments.

At MST, we are “Connecting communities. Creating opportunity. Being kind to our planet.”

Greg Brudnicki, mayor, Panama City, Fla.

As public servants, one of our first responsibilities must be ensuring that our citizens have trust and confidence in their government. This includes the faith that our natural resources are being protected for future generations. One of Earth Day 2022’s main priorities is The Canopy Project, which aims to plant trees and reforest areas worldwide. In our community, we are pursuing a similar goal through Panama City’s ReTreePC program.

Our goal is to unite the community and replant 100,000 trees uprooted by Hurricane Michael in 2018. By doing so, we can improve quality of life for citizens while also protecting our shared environmental heritage.

Minal Mistry, Business Initiatives Lead, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality

This Earth Day, I am reflecting about what makes our planet unique. This feels essential as so many things are poised on delicate precipices — disaster on one end and expectant becoming at the other. Sadly, the swing in between is all too real. But while it carries enormous weight, it also carries much potential. I am glad for all the people who are still thinking about and promoting ways of preventing wicked problems from taking root.

I am hopeful for those proposing to break free from the business-as-usual mantra of “more-more-more-more.” And that enhancing well-being is inclusive and each of us can make our own “good old days” right here and now.


Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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