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Public-Sector Leaders See Challenges and Hope in Earth Day

As the 53rd Earth Day approaches, leaders with a wide range of responsibilities describe big problems — and big possibilities — that lie ahead.

Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders took this picture as he orbited the moon. He is said to have exclaimed, “Oh my God, look at that picture over there! There’s the Earth comin’ up. Wow, is that pretty!”
In Brief:
  •  Earth Day was conceived as a “teach-in” on the challenges of preserving natural resources.
  •  State and local governments are now at the forefront of stewardship, and have significant new resources.
  •  For Earth Day 2023, leaders from the public sector share their views on what lies ahead for a campaign that began a half-century ago.

  • Earth Day was conceived as a day of learning, inspired by teach-ins examining the political, military and moral consequences of the war in Vietnam. But as divisive and tragic as that conflict was, Earth Day founder Sen. Gaylord Nelson didn’t see it as the biggest challenge the country faced.

    “Winning the environmental war is a whole lot tougher challenge by far than winning any other war in the history of man,” he said in a speech on April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day.

    Over the next 10 years, the “decade of the environment,” legislation was enacted to create the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to protect air, water and endangered species, to reduce the risks from toxic substances and pesticides and to conserve natural resources. For the most part, this work had bipartisan support.

    In a message to Congress in 1972, President Nixon spoke of an “environmental awakening” dawning in the nation. “It is working a revolution in values, as commitment to responsible partnership with nature replaces cavalier assumptions that we can play God with our surroundings and survive,” he said.

    The federal picture is more complicated in 2023. The most significant climate legislation ever put forward by Congress was enacted without a single Republican vote. A Supreme Court ruling in 2022 limited the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, sparking concerns that future lawsuits might weaken other efforts to enforce environmental protections in federal law.

    Sen. Gaylord Nelson speaks on April 21, 1970, just before the first Earth Day.

    Leadership and Necessity

    State and local leaders, who must deal directly with the consequences of warming and environmental degradation on the ground, have emerged as a steady, generally bipartisan “army” in the war Nelson described. Thanks to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act, they have more money than ever to increase green energy production, increase building efficiency, protect water systems, foster sustainable industries and address environmental inequities.

    This opportunity is matched by urgency. The UN Biodiversity Conference in 2022 was characterized as a “last chance” to halt the decline of the web of life on which human survival depends. Greenhouse gas emissions from energy production increased slightly in 2022, a year in which the U.S. experienced 18 billion-dollar weather and climate disasters.

    New studies show unprecedented rates of sea level rise in communities along the Gulf of Mexico and America’s southern coast. Production and release of synthetic chemicals, none of them ecological “nutrients,” has reached levels so high that it’s no longer possible to monitor them or assess their impact.

    Despite decades of progress in environmental protection, the “war” Nelson described is unrelenting. Underneath controversies about strategy, the public counts on the fact that government will not walk away from it.

    As Earth Day approached, Governing reached out to public leaders with a wide range of roles and responsibilities, asking for their take on the challenges and opportunities before them at this time. Here is what they had to say.
    (All photographs by Carl Smith/Governing)
    “California is blessed with some of the most beautiful ecosystems on Earth — from the peaks of the Sierra to the sandy beaches of San Diego. But the science is clear: Our planet is in peril. We can see the impacts of climate change all around us: from devastating floods, to raging wildfires and record heat waves.

    "At the California Department of Justice, we’re working hard to protect our planet and its vital resources. We’re holding corporate polluters accountable for dumping toxic chemicals into communities, launching investigations into the petrochemical and fossil fuel industries for spreading misinformation about plastics, and defending California’s nation-leading climate programs. This Earth Day, we’re recommitting to the important work of protecting our planet. We’ll continue fighting for environmental justice, clean energy and beyond.” 
    —Rob Bonta, Attorney General, Calif.

    “I am inspired by the opportunity we have as individuals to harness our collective power to advance bold policies and deliver investments to protect the health of our communities and the planet. Through our collective power, I believe that we can create a more sustainable, more reliable and more affordable energy system that provides communities with the tools and resources necessary to tackle the climate crisis. We also have an immense opportunity to take advantage of this moment of rapid transformation — in technology, our economy and society — to redesign how we reduce waste and cultivate innovation within the recycling industry and advance environmental justice.

    "It is also vital to recognize the continued importance of fighting to ensure that communities across the country have access to clean drinking water and that we establish strong protections for our freshwater resources."
    —State Rep. Abraham Aiyash, Majority Floor Leader, Mich.

    There is much work to be done.

    “I am constantly reminded of the impacts that cities have on our natural environment. We have championed sustainability, clean energy, and emissions reductions and have achieved many wins, but there is much work to be done. Despite challenges ahead in protecting people and the planet from the climate crisis, now more than ever, cities have an opportunity to leverage federal funding and work together to make sustainable cities a reality. I am inspired by our beautiful planet and the dedication of my fellow mayors to investing in a more equitable and resilient world."
    —Satya Rhodes-Conway, Mayor of Madison, Wis., and Chair, Climate Mayors

    “It does not seem long ago that many of us associated Earth Day with a time for planting trees and rigorous recycling. Today, the climate change crisis casts a much larger — and more poignant — shadow across our society.

    "One thing has become clear: We cannot afford to treat climate and health as ‘only’ an environmental crisis. We must practice stewardship in all areas impacted. In public health, this means talking about the climate crisis in the same breath as vector-borne diseases, sustainable housing, mental health, and access to healthy food and water. There are no bright lines between these issues. When we in the public sector pretend that there are, we deny ourselves the opportunity to be better collaborators and more effective change-makers."
    —Michael R. Fraser, CEO, Association of State and Territorial Health Officials

    [E]ach person has the power to have an outsized impact ....
    “While all levels of government must proactively take steps to address big challenges like air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and clean water, each person has the power to have an outsized impact on preserving and protecting our world’s most precious resources. As legislators, we have an enormous opportunity to incentivize people to transition to a more clean, green and sustainable lifestyle.

    "Actions like offering rebates for people to purchase an electric vehicle, providing tax incentives for businesses who invest in renewable energy or providing resources for low-income families to weatherize their homes can empower individuals to act. These policies will help us protect and preserve our planet for future generations.”
    —Del. David Fraser-Hidalgo, District 15, Montgomery County, Md.

    "New Mexico is a unique and beautiful place — with abundant natural resources and a variety of open spaces from our mountains to our open plains and plateaus, and all the way down to our gorgeous national parks. My family has deep roots in New Mexico, as farmers in southern New Mexico. I grew up hiking, camping, hunting and skiing throughout this beautiful state and am raising my kids the same way.

    "As attorney general, I am committed to using all the tools and resources at my disposal to hold those accountable who would destroy and pollute our environment. We have seen damage caused by the storage of chemicals seeping into our groundwater. There has been damage to ancient, native communities caused by mining spills and negligence by bad actors. My office has and will continue to hold these polluters accountable so that we can protect our natural resources and ensure it is protected for future generations."
    —Raúl Torrez, Attorney General, N.M.

    [T]he public sector often neglects to integrate affordable, climate-resilient and energy-efficient housing into the climate action agenda.
    “Housing and climate change are inextricably linked and yet the public sector often neglects to integrate affordable, climate-resilient and energy-efficient housing into the climate action agenda. By 2030, 3 billion people around the world — representing our most vulnerable communities — will need access to safe, affordable housing. Communities at greatest risk of flood, heat and rising sea levels must be protected and given access to housing built to withstand the impact of climate change.

    "In the U.S., local governments must ensure our collective response to our warming planet includes climate mitigation and adaptation policies that prioritizes access to weather-resilient housing, without further exacerbating the growing deficit of affordable, safe homes. These policies will not only help us to achieve a net-zero future for carbon emissions, but they will also strengthen the world’s environmental, societal and economic well-being."
    —Jonathan Reckford, CEO, Habitat for Humanity

    How ironic that we need to rely on the Earth to save itself from us.

    “Humans, plants, fish and wildlife all rely on water to survive, but water that is free of pollutants is needed to thrive. It is shocking how quickly rainwater can become contaminated once it falls onto human-altered surfaces, with paved streets resulting in some of the most polluted stormwater runoff. Even if we eliminated our use of fossil fuels to power vehicles, brake dust and tire wear particles would continue to run off roadways constructed before stormwater treatment was required. Fortunately, most pollutants of concern are filtered out by plants and soil — these are the fundamental components of green stormwater infrastructure that many municipalities are now embracing.

    "How ironic that we need to rely on the Earth to save itself from us."
    —Torrey Lindbo, Water Resources Science & Policy Manager, City of Gresham, Ore.;
    Co-Chair, Green Infrastructure Leadership Exchange; and Vice Chair, Oregon Association of Clean Water Agencies

    When designing environmental policies, we must be looking around the table to see who isn’t there ....
    “The research is clear: We are still missing the perspectives and leadership of people who are not white, not male and not middle or upper class. Winning this race relies on advancing clean energy policies that don’t favor corporations over ratepayers who can’t afford higher costs. It relies on reducing transportation emissions that disproportionately harm communities of color by improving public transportation and complete streets, and not solely by advancing electric vehicle policies. It relies on integrating housing policy with conservation needs.

    "When designing environmental policies we must be looking around the table to see who isn’t there, turning back toward our communities with intention to elevate those missing voices, and incorporating their expertise into solutions."
    —State Sen. Alana DiMario, District 36, R.I.

    “Local governments can’t ‘invest in our planet’ without public finance officers. Public finance officers architect how financial decisions are made. Consider capital asset investments. The finance officer can introduce capital project selection criteria that speak to the environmental impact of a project. This can foreground environmental impact in determining which projects go forward. The finance officer can highlight the environmental desirability of capital projects with potential purchasers of the government’s debt. This could increase market demand for bonds that fund such projects.

    "The finance officer can encourage the government to direct funding to keeping infrastructure in a state of good repair. For example, keeping a road in a state of good repair saves energy over the long term for both government and drivers. These opportunities occur across all areas of public finance."
    —Shayne Kavanagh, Senior Manager of Research, Government Finance Officers Association
    Inyo Mountains.jpg
    We also have an immense opportunity to take advantage of this moment of rapid transformation — in technology, our economy and society ....
    “Keeping the worst impacts of the climate crisis at bay will only be possible with political will and robust investment. With the historic passage of the Inflation Reduction Act — which allots billions in funds for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, bolstering environmental justice, securing sustainable infrastructure and advancing clean energy — cities have a prime opportunity to address the most challenging issue of our time.

    "This Earth Day, we recognize that a viable future for people and the planet is the ultimate return on investment."
    —Kate Wright, Executive Director, Climate Mayors 

    "Today, society faces three major challenges in the built environment: ensuring building safety, improving sustainability and addressing our affordable housing crisis. Modern and innovative building codes are the first line of defense for society to address these imperatives, and the International Code Council is dedicated to providing communities with the resources they need, including construction and public safety codes that ensure the health, safety and welfare of the people who live in, work in and visit communities around the world.

    "It’s possible to strike a balance between safety, sustainability and affordability, and we will continue bringing the industry together to learn from one another's successes."
    —Dominic Sims, Chief Executive Officer,
    International Code Council

    “Oklahoma’s geographic location is optimal for wind and solar and other renewables. We have a history of understanding and succeeding in the energy economy, so we are best positioned to adapt to green economy opportunities. Also, 85 percent of Oklahoma’s land overlaps in areas where 39 federally recognized tribes have sovereign influence. By leveraging the economic leadership of First American tribal nations in Oklahoma with green economy opportunities, Oklahoma should be making a positive difference.

    "To take advantage of these opportunities, policymakers in Oklahoma are challenged with finding ways to overcome political resistance by focusing on the economic opportunities that the green economy offers right now and in the immediate future."
    —State Sen. Mary Boren, Okla.

    “The U.N. Panel on Climate Change has released its most terrifying assessment. By their best scientific estimates, we have 10 years to change course to save the future of humanity. For many years, we have left the necessary actions up to the nations of the world. It’s clear in this latest report they are not doing enough.

    "It is essential that leaders at every level, and especially local governments, step up to the plate. Local governments are nimble. Local governments are creative. Local governments are closest to the people. And the people are increasingly alarmed and desperate to know what they can do. So this Earth Day, I urge people at every level to demand action, and to step up and do everything they can."
    —Brigid Shea, Commissioner, Precinct 2, Travis County, Texas
    San Gabriels.jpg


    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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