Imagine this scene: Some maniacs have tied your children to a train track–then hopped on the train, released the brakes, and sent a mighty engine roaring down the track. Right for your children.
That’s what’s going on in Washington DC right now.
The train is, literally, the TRAIN Act of 2011, and next week, the House will vote on a bill (HR 1705) that was designed to cripple Clean Air Act regulations and intimidate the Environmental Protection Agency. The TRAIN Act requires a committee of cabinet secretaries to re-analyze the costs of public health protections. That’s right: RE-analyze. For a third time. Because when a bill is introduced, its costs are analyzed during the comment period, and again by the White House Office of Management and Budget.
The TRAIN ACT is busy work for politicians whose stated goal is to block any and all environmental protections–no matter what the cost to our children’s health. Mercury, lead, arsenic, acid gases–these are the poisons spewing from coal plants that EPA, in any administration, is required by law, under the Clean Air Act, to regulate. These are regulations that save hundreds of thousands of lives, and cut health care costs by trillions of dollars.
On top of it all, polluters and politicians want you to believe that regulations kill jobs and cripple the economy. This is absolutely untrue.
We do not have to choose between jobs and clean air. We can have both.
Air pollution isn’t just dirty. It is poisonous.As a mom, I’m furious–and you should be too. Politicians can play politics with each other all they want. But they cannot play politics with my children.
Parents have a chance to make a difference, this week and next. Mothers’ voices will make a difference. Let Washington know that you are paying attention. Let Washington know that you want pollution to be controlled. Let Washington know that clean air saves lives.
Write to your representatives and let them know that they must stop that TRAIN speeding towards our children. Tell them to stop playing politics with our children.
Recently, I attended the kickoff for an EDF Climate Corps training session in Boston. Sitting in a classroom full of disconcertingly young and bright MBA students, we were presented with this question:
Do you know the difference between energy conservation and energy efficiency?
Here’s a test: Which actions have to do with efficiency?
EDF's Climate Corps fellows: They make things better
Installing solar panels
Using different bulbs for the same amount of light
Using the best technology [check]
Making fewer copies of documents
Properly using existing equipment
Installing sensors for lights
There was a buzz as the students responded. Hands went tentatively up and down. But within 15 minutes, they (and I) were getting it — the key to one of EDF's most innovative projects is helping companies maximize energy efficiency.
"You are creating a movement," Victoria Mills, EDF's managing director for corporate partnerships told the 57 new Climate Corps fellows. "Business is an important force for change, especially at a time when legislative activity around climate change is stalled." (Read Victoria Mills' reflections on three years of EDF Climate Corps results.)
Her message fell on receptive ears. "We need change," said Esra Kucukciftci, who was looking forward to evaluating the energy efficiency of Facebook's new headquarters in Menlo Park, CA, this summer. "We need to reach a tipping point on energy use. We need social momentum. What better place to get that conversation going?"
Being a change agent is a high-flown ambition. But at Climate Corps, that means getting down to the nitty-gritty. The summer program embeds MBA students, called Climate Corps fellows, at major corporations, where they ferret out opportunities for increasing energy efficiency.
As soon as they arrive at their sponsoring companies, the fellows dive into the daily, even hourly, details of heating and cooling systems, when and what lights are on or off, what sort of automated controls govern computer terminals.
They must find mentors, partners and guides on the inside, who will help them understand the infrastructures they are dealing with, and champion their cause with other employees. They are expected, at the end of their ten-week stint, to submit a formal report to their superiors, with a list of energy-efficiency recommendations and estimates for how much money and carbon pollution will be saved if they are adopted.
Now, back to our quiz.
Conservation involves using less energy: Wear a sweater so you can turn down the heat; make fewer copies so you use less paper. Efficiency means using less energy while maintaining or enhancing productivity — getting more bang for your buck.
Both approaches can be helpful to any company looking to cut costs and reduce its environmental footprint. But efficiency is key to doing that and growing at the same time.
It's amazing how much money literally flies out the window in an inefficiently run building. As Gwen Ruta, EDF's vice president for corporate partnerships, put it: "It's as if companies across the globe were walking around with holes in their pockets, with coins dribbling out nonstop."
In fact, the Corps slogan could be: Buildings Matter. (And there's a lesson here for all of us as we look at our electricity bills.) Fellows pore over facilities' spending records, but, like anthropological sleuths, they also pay attention to how people actually behave.
In 2009, for example, one fellow couldn’t understand why an area in the building she was studying was always very cold. Her supervisor had noted the mysterious deviation, but no one could figure out the problem, which was costing a great deal of money.
One evening, the fellow, working late, took a stroll around the hallways and noticed an intense Ping Pong game in that room. As she watched, one player, overheated, jumped on the table, pushed up a ceiling tile, and changed the AC setting. Only when the game was over, the players forgot to switch the AC back — that's why it stayed so cold.
The fellow solved the problem by first putting up a sign by the AC thermostat to remind employees to return to the original setting after their games. Then, in her final report she recommended a longer term solution: installation of programmable thermostats that would allow the facilities team to program a schedule to automatically adjust the temperature.
Faces of EDF Climate Corps
During the three-day training fellows are trained to be sensitive to the culture of their host corporations.
"This is where MBA culture meets Old-School facilities culture," said Trish Kenlon, a former fellow who is now the manager of sustainability for Ann Taylor. "People are anxious about conservation. They see you coming, and they think they will be less comfortable, or less safe, or less productive. Your job is to communicate why your ideas are going to make things better."
So far, EDF Climate Corps has racked up an impressive record. Since 2008, the program's first year, the fellows have identified opportunities for companies to save $439 million in net operational costs and cut the equivalent of 985 million kilowatt hours of energy use annually — enough to power 85,000 homes for a year. The fellows' recommendations could also avoid 557,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually — equivalent to taking more than 86,000 SUVs off the road for a year.
In fact, eBay's senior manager for operational sustainability said he feels like he got ten months of value from eBay's EDF Climate Corps fellows in the ten weeks they spent on the job.
That kind of success is fueling growth. The first EDF Climate Corps class had seven fellows; this year, 57 MBA students will join 49 companies, half of which are repeat participants. Among the new companies that have signed on this year are Citigroup, Microsoft, Union Pacific and Facebook.
Three fellows are headed for Facebook to study their new campus in Menlo Park, CA, noted an excited Esra Kucukciftci. "People in the Bay Area have an ethos of caring about the environment," she said, "and it is important for a company like Facebook to make a big statement by having energy efficient buildings. Think about it: 600 million users. That's their reach. That's the kind of platform it is going to take to reach a tipping point on energy use."
Why, given the success EDF Climate Corps has had, aren't companies doing the job themselves? After all, it's entirely in their interest to save money. Jason Jay, a lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, tried to answer that question in a talk he gave to the fellows in Boston.
"You would think EE [energy efficiency] is a nobrainer, right?" he said. But he pointed out that many companies, while they may form "green" teams or committees or councils, aren't really focused on getting results. The only way to get "high organizational capacity for EE [energy efficiency]," he said, is by setting goals at the highest levels of management, with clearly delineated lines of authority to make changes and motivate staff.
"I remember when we didn't have IT departments," Jay added. "Now, no one operates without one. Soon, all companies will have EE departments. Best energy practices will be captured — and spread."
Listening to the MBA students talk about their hopes for their fellowships, I was struck by another EE factor: emotional energy. EDF Climate Corps fellows are investing themselves in the future of our environment. They are optimistic. And they are looking to drive change on a large scale. They see a bright green future.
Cynthia Shih, a student at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, said it best. "I plan to make energy efficiency….really cool."
Is it possible to be green without being political?
It is puzzling that the protective maternal instinct doesn't extend to the public world, where politicians and corporations make decisions that have huge impact on our children’s health.
I've been thinking a lot about this recently, while working on the launch of a new campaign called Moms Clean Air Force. Our goal is to use the power of blogs and other online communications to reach out to, and energize, mothers and mothers-to-be — the people who have the most at stake in protecting the strength of the Clean Air Act.
The Clean Air Act is one of the jewels in the crown of our democratic process. Since 1970, when it was signed into law by President Richard Nixon, the Clean Air Act has made it possible to make enormous progress in cleaning up air and water pollution. It is one of the best, most effective environmental regulations ever passed.
Last month, the EPA released new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, which have been in the planning for twenty years. These standards will ensure that all coal-fired power plants cut down their emissions of poisons like mercury, lead, arsenic, and other toxicants. These plants are responsible for most of the toxic emissions fouling our air. The technology to clean the emissions exists — and it is cost effective.
But some powerful polluters and politicians in Congress are trying to gut funding for the EPA and weaken the Clean Air Act, including the new standards. "They are trying to unravel the legal fabric that has protected the health and safety of our families and our neighborhoods from dangerous air pollution for over forty years," warns Vickie Patton, EDF's chief legal counsel. "We face an unprecedented assault on vital, time-tested clean air protections for our children."
Supporters and opponents of the standards can comment on the proposed regulations. During this comment period, we must send a simple message to polluters, the politicians they work with — and to those who oppose them and need our support: We share the air. Keep it clean.
Dominique with her son, nephews & niece.
Over the past twenty years, scientists have learned more and more about the poisonous effects of air pollution. And it is most poisonous of all to the most helpless among us. Fetuses — whose brain architecture is still developing — and infants and toddlers are terribly vulnerable to the neurotoxins being spewed into our air.
The political threat to the Clean Air Act, combined with our growing understanding of the health dangers associated with pollution, make this what Patton calls "a defining moment" for our country. "Moms and dads, grandparents, uncles and aunts," Patton says, "all of us must reaffirm our commitment to healthy children, and clean air in America."
Everyone knows how vigilant moms can be in protecting their babies. There's endless activity online, in blogs, tweets, and Facebook postings, to prove it. Whether moms are looking for the right baby bottles, or having a sleeping schedule crisis, or confused about bed-sharing, help is a click away.
So it is puzzling that the same protective maternal instinct doesn't extend to the public world, where politicians and corporations often make decisions that have the greatest impact — for better and for worse — on our children's health.
There is actually very little in the blogosphere that directly addresses the political issues that should be of great concern to families — truly enormous challenges like toxic chemical reform, global warming, food safety, air and water pollution.
Moms Clean Air Force is dedicated to doing something about the pollution. We want to bring the power of moms — their numbers, their passion, their determination to keep their children safe — to bear on polluters and the politicians who endanger the health of our children.
Meet the Moms
A powerhouse group of bloggers have joined the campaign for clean air.
When I began to talk to mom bloggers in the green community about our efforts, I was surprised by some of the responses. "Oh, we're not into advocacy." "We can’t do anything that would upset our sponsors." "Advertising dollars are too important to jeopardize."
Surprised? I was stunned. It was like the old days in the magazine industry, the days when we argued about whether or not to carry cigarette advertising, and if we did carry it, we argued about whether or not to run a story that made the advertiser so angry they would pull their expensive pages.
I began to wonder why people have become so wary of being viewed as "political"? What are we afraid of? What kind of sponsors would be upset by association with mothers who are fighting for clean air and water? In fact, why wouldn't they be using their political clout — and joining in? Surely the rapidly growing number of corporations that have publicly committed themselves to sustainability would understand the benefits of sound environmental regulations.
I also began to wonder what good does it do for any of us to buy "green" diapers, and BPA free bottles, and CFL bulbs, if we don't also attack our problems on a much larger scale?
All our individual choices won't make a dent in addressing toxic chemicals, or climate change, or air and water pollution, if we don't safeguard the regulations — and the government's power to enforce them — that make our world a better place. The only way to do this is to become politically active. That's at the heart of what it means to be a citizen in a democratic society.
At Moms Clean Air Force we've identified a wonderful, independent group of mom bloggers, and a dad, too, from all over the country. More bloggers join in everyday. Now we need more moms to make this movement powerful. We need to fight for clean air, by blogging, phoning, letter-writing, tweeting, and posting on Facebook pages — and marching if we must.
"We're just moms. We can't change the world," someone told me.
But we can. We're the ones who care fiercely about keeping our children safe. And when we're up against the billions of dollars being spent by the polluters, our determined hearts are our best weapons. They're pretty powerful. Now let's use them.
Landing in Delhi after fifteen hours on a plane, I was eager for fresh air. But as I walked out of the airport terminal, I was enveloped in a cool, yellow-tinged mist that made me cough and my eyes water.
Doctors are noting a rise in strokes among teenagers.
"What is that smell?" I asked our tour guide.
"Oh, just the fog," he said.
"But it smells like something is burning."
"No, no. Just winter air. Always the same."
Not wishing to seem rude, I fell silent. The smell was vaguely familiar. Then it hit me: Air pollution. I had entered a time machine. Memories crowded in, of the air trapped in New York City's high-rise canyons and the blanket of smog suspended over Los Angeles. It had been years since I had breathed such noxious stuff.
No western traveler to India can help but be struck by its pollution. India is ranked as the seventh most environmentally hazardous country in the world. Lakes and rivers are clogged with garbage, plastic bags and bottles, metal junk, animal waste and raw sewage. India relies heavily on coal for its energy; everywhere in the surrounding countryside of Rajasthan, thick black soot pours out of the towering smokestacks attached to power plants, along with cement plants and brick kilns.
Delhi, where almost 1,000 new cars are added daily to the four million already on the streets, is choking in traffic and exhaust fumes. Vehicle emissions are responsible for 70% of the country's air pollution. At times, the fog of pollution around Delhi is so thick as to be blinding; plane and train schedules are disrupted. Sunlight cannot penetrate to reach winter crops.
On my return to the United States, I talked to Richie Ahuja, EDF's India program director. Ahuja was born in Agra, home to the Taj Majal. The pristine white marble of that splendid monument was turning yellow, due to air pollution, until in the late 1990s the Indian Supreme Court ordered more than 200 factories in the area to stop using coke/coal fuel under threat of being shut down.
When I told Ahuja that India's pollution was overwhelming, he surprised me by his optimism. "I'm actually feeling very heartened these days," he said. "People used to say, ‘Oh, the pollution, you get used to it.' But now, there are many rumblings in the press, and in city streets, about how serious a problem it is. Even in tiny, isolated villages, people, especially women, are beginning to understand how pollution is connected to their children's health."
Change through Film
Aarohan (A New Beginning) is a docu-drama that shows many solutions to climate change are local and low technology. Learn more »
Ahuja believes that India can restore its environment and fight global warming by empowering rural populations, and specifically women. Indian local elected community leaders (Panchayats) — at least one-third of who by law are women — are demanding cheap, local solutions to global warming and deforestation. In January, EDF and our partners helped organize a meeting of 100 community leaders from remote villages who gathered to discuss the impact of climate change.
Change, in India, will come from the bottom up. The needs are many. EDF and partners are helping expand a program to install biogas converters in rural homes in Southern India in a project it hopes will become common. The converters transform animal waste into natural gas for heat, light and cooking. Using less wood reduces the deforestation that plagues India. The goal for this year is to install 30,000 converters.
Ahuja described a recent visit to some of the villages around Bagepalli, near Bangalore. "Before the biogas, the house would become so smoky before mealtime that the children had to go outside," Ahuja said. "Now, the family sits together while the mother cooks, because the gas burns cleanly. The number of hospital visits is dropping. The women don't have to go into the forests in the morning to collect firewood — which can be dangerous. They have time to make their children breakfast, and get them to school on time."
India is changing fast. It is the only country where the working population will continue to increase in the next 25 years, as will its wealth. Already, educated young people are bettering their standard of living. Doctors in Delhi — who have documented a rising incidence of strokes among youngsters due to environmental pollution — are beginning to press the government for better controls.
How disheartening, then, to witness the continuing assaults on the environment at home. As I was leaving for India, some leaders in the U.S. Congress — with the support of industrial polluters — were ramping up a charge to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency. They want to undo the Clean Air Act by weakening EPA's power to regulate dangerous emissions like the mercury, lead and acid gases from coal plants.
I have a fantasy of sending every pro-pollution congressman, lobbyist and executive on a bus to tour a country that has never enjoyed the benefit of strong anti-pollution regulation. As they hack black soot into their handkerchiefs, they will see for themselves how lucky all of us are that, since 1970, we've had the EPA to look after our air and water.
Our air still isn't clean enough, as any mother with an asthma-stricken child will tell you. But it is so much better than it was. Congress's reckless attacks on the EPA should spur every American to action.
As developing nations begin to tackle pollution, they look to the United States for what can be achieved. They know the price of filthy air — its exorbitant cost to health and economic growth. Have we already forgotten?
Yes! Prop 23—a proposal in California, underwritten by Texas oil companies, to repeal the strongest clean energy law in the nation—was resoundingly defeated on Election Day. But apart from that victory, media pundits seem to believe that around the country, environmentalists and their concerns were soundly trounced. I think they are reading the wrong tea leaves.
Eco Moms express simple values: cherish natural resources; keep the world clean.
The Tea Party may be full of science Luddites, but there's another important activist group in the U.S. and it is growing fast. It isn't run by anyone, and has no political candidates—yet. I'm calling it the Green Tea Party, and it is made up of millions of women I think of as Eco Moms. It is going to be–it is already–a game changer.
I count myself among these women. EcoFocus Worldwide, a marketing research consultant, estimates that "the EcoAware Moms market includes more than 50 million women, 69% of [all] moms, and has more than $1.45 trillion in buying power." Best of all, consumer power can translate to political clout.
Most of us wouldn't say we're out to save the planet. And we don't walk around numb with fear, gloomy about the future. Raising children is anxiety-provoking enough. But we want change. We want global warming addressed. We want to protect our homes from toxic chemicals. We want the government to which we pay our taxes to keep our families safe.
Eco Moms teach our children not to keep the water running while they brush their teeth, to switch off the lights when they leave the room, to walk or bike to a friend's house, to unplug chargers and shut off computers at night, not to let the engine idle at the mall. We're about small actions that, within a family, express simple values: cherish natural resources; keep the world clean.
"Our children are growing up differently than we did," says Lori Yanes, an Eco Mom from West Orange, N.J., who has three sons. "If I forget to recycle something, my kids are all over me. Being green is a way of life for them."
These days, the news is full of reports that our lives are awash in toxic chemicals. They are hidden in plastics, in detergents, in beauty products, in foods—things no one worried about a generation ago. While there is only so much we can do, as individuals, about climate change, there is a great deal we can do about day to day pollution—especially exposure to toxic chemicals, whether they're in baby shampoo, or in a child's bracelet.
I had spent the summer ridding my own house of plastics with BPA (including those microwave popcorn bags with plastic liners), explaining to my sons the damage this chemical, an endocrine disrupter, can cause and how it can leach into food from plastic that is heated. BPA has even been found in some of the thermal paper used for cash register receipts—and it rubs off on our hands.
BPA is only one of many toxins we're bringing into our homes. Every day, Eco Moms are learning about problems with chemicals, networking for advice and information about safe products. New websites and new support communities are springing up to keep us informed about the latest findings.
Judy Shils qualifies as one of the world's most devoted and influential Eco Moms, and her work provides a model of how values are transmitted to the next generation. In 2005, while she was setting up the Marin Cancer Project to investigate why cancer rates there were soaring, she began working with a group of teenagers who were interested in what toxins were lurking in their beauty products. Teens for Safe Cosmetics played a key role in the passage of the California Safe Cosmetics Act in October 2005, and the Toxic Toys Bill in 2007.
To take on broader issues, Shils also founded Teens Turning Green which engages young people from 12 years old through college age. The student-led movement started around her kitchen table in the Bay Area and now has a presence in schools across the country.
Video: Eco Mom Judy Shils
Teens Turning Green founder Judy Shils on youth enthusiasm for safe, green products. (via Natural Products Expo)
"There is a tremendous surge of green energy coming from Moms these days—and now it is coming from their girls, too," says Shils. "We have an opportunity to mentor and support a new generation of change makers, and wow, are these young women ever powerful! When they see an injustice, they want to fix it. They will heal the world."
The power of Eco Moms extends beyond idealism. We also have enormous purchasing power, especially when it comes to deciding what products we allow in the house. Increasingly, we are demanding stuff that is safe and respectful of our values. The result? So-called "green" product lines are proliferating.
Ten years ago, there was usually one choice: go to a health food store and look for Seventh Generation. Today some of the biggest brands in household products have started green, natural lines. Gerber introduced Gerber Organic Baby Food. White Cloud has Green Earth bathroom tissue, and even Scott tissue is up to 40% recycled in their "Naturals" line. A couple of years ago Clorox launched its Greenworks line (the company also bought Burt's Bees).
But there's also been a tsunami of bogus or misleading green claims to go with this shift, and it can be hard to sort out the truth. It's instructive, then, to see how clear Clorox has made its Greenworks labels. (I learned that the secret cleaning ingredient in their products, alkyl polyglucoside, is extracted from coconuts.) And the Greenworks website is a model of communication; it is upbeat, even humorous, and offers easy tips for keeping unnecessary chemicals out of the house.
Manufacturers are going to the trouble of appealing to Eco Moms for a reason: they are influential early adopters of products. If we buy what you're selling, you are likely to profit from the connection. The lesson for Eco Moms is that our everyday decisions are important. They give us a sense of control over our environment, a way to feel we are making smart choices, doing something good for ourselves and our planet. But these decisions also acquire critical mass in the commercial world.
Yes, rampant consumerism is part of the problem. Too much of what we buy is disposable or just wasteful. But the rising power of Eco Moms gives me hope for a change in values. We are asking, in hundreds of different ways, for healthier, more sustainable choices. And we are getting answers. But with the counterproductive regulations in place now, we cannot know the full extent of harmful chemical exposure from the products we use daily.
Now it is time to leverage consumer power into legislative clout. We have to make our voices heard in Congress. Let the new 112th Congress know that Eco Moms want immediate reform of our scandalously inadequate chemical safety laws. It is up to us to make sure that the laws that are supposed to protect us from toxic chemicals actually do. We can get this done in 2011: Never underestimate the power of mothers of nature!