The opportunity for those in government is pretty straightforward: elected officials implement and enforce the many rules we live by. However, protecting the environment is a bit more complex than simply passing laws that compel people to conserve.
For one thing, elected officials may still face resistance from their constituents. For another, politicians must make decisions on how to allocate limited funding resources. The U.S. government recently committed billions of dollars to help Florida restore the Everglades. The same modest sum of money could help protect half of the world's remaining rainforests (Cyril T. Zaneski, "Anatomy of a Deal," Audubon Magazine, July-August 2001).
If more cities like Seattle and states like Massachusetts pledged themselves to offsetting their greenhouse gas emissions, some of it by restoring endangered habitat, then we could simultaneously protect the climate and species from going extinct.
ACT NOW: Offset your greenhouse gas emissions now.
Here are some ideas for elected officials and city planners that merit attention:
Plan roads better
Of all the environmental problems that cars themselves cause, few people appreciate the footprint left by roads. In addition to soil disturbance and the dangers that animals face when trying to cross roads, the noise from roads can disrupt songbird nesting a mile away. Roads also fragment ecosystems and produce potentially harmful access to formerly remote areas.
Politicians who work with city or highway planners on new roads should consider using newly developed Road Effect Zone (REZ) maps. These maps locate all the ecological variables of an area on a transparency, which is then placed on top of a proposed route to help planners visualize the full impact of a proposed road.
The farther people live from where they work or shop, the more likely they are to depend on cars for transportation. That means more cars, more pollution, more roads, and less wilderness. No, not everyone can or wants to live right downtown. But cities can improve access to public transportation, even for those who live in the 'burbs. Perhaps more important, they can make biking easier and more desirable by adding and improving trails and access to trails.
Promote car sharing
Cars are probably here to stay. It seems everyone needs one at some time – but not necessarily all the time. One of the best ideas for reducing road congestion is car sharing, a European idea that's catching on. For an effective model, see Portland, Oregon. A government entity, CarSharing Portland, owns twenty-five vehicles for which members pay to have access to ($100 annually plus, $2 per hour and 40 cents a mile). If you don't drive more than 7,500 miles a year, it's cheaper than owning and it's about a million times more convenient than renting.
Buy solar photovoltaic electricity systems
People sometimes associate dramatic costs with conversion to solar energy. But like any new technology, the cost of solar cells will decrease dramatically the more widespread they become. In his book, The Official Earth Day Guide to Planet Repair, Denis Hayes points out that in the 1960s, the cost of integrated circuits (computer chips) was astronomical – until the U.S. Defense Department, recognizing the benefits of this innovative technology, began buying them in huge quantities. The cost of computer chips dropped 95 percent in six years, making them commercially viable.
Hayes proposes a four-year government-buying program (total cost, $5 billion) to give the same boost to solar cells. Green welfare? Hardly. Getting solar technology off the ground would create new jobs and a new global market for U.S. companies. And it would dramatically decrease the country's dependence on foreign fuel.
Stop subsidizing bad behavior
For all its efforts to protect the environment, the government still does it much harm. Some subsidies for agriculture and livestock grazing encourage inefficient farming practices. Federally subsidized flood insurance means developers are less reluctant to build near rivers or coasts. Federally owned dams have wreaked all sorts of unintended ecological havoc by dramatically altering natural river patterns. Government officials need to do a better job of factoring long-term environmental costs into their decision-making.
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