Stepping up to the Environmental Plate

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Written by Samantha Thorne

Washington, DC—Environmentalism is not monopolized by the federal government. As local, state, national, and international levels are all affected by Earth’s environmental welfare, organizations of differing geographical scopes can participate in ecological activism and protection. Gina McCarthy, the former head of the EPA, is one proponent of concerted and localized activism in addressing issues like unclean water in the absence of an ecologically-focused federal government. She argued at the 2018 Truman Conference that while the United States withdrew from The Paris Agreement, there is cause for hope in a tumultuous climate change landscape as grassroot organizations, the rising generation, and public-private-partnerships step up to the plate of American environmental leadership.  

Alternatives to Federal Authority

McCarthy argued that while America’s position in global environmental discourse has deviated under the current administration, it is vital that the United States maintains its environmental leadership.

“How do we make clear to the rest of the world that the federal government does not dictate, always, the values of this country, and that other people can do things?” McCarthy questioned.

Noticing that governments are key to making systemic ecological progress, McCarthy conceded that progress can still occur through other avenues. Though they have historically been environmentally involved, McCarthy praised states and “cutting-edge” cities for their role in innovatively addressing climate change dilemmas.  Such grassroot movements date back to the 1960’s as local groups inspired newfound ecological action. As McCarthy argued, it wasn’t until the Obama administration that environmentalism really became a federal focus.

McCarthy additionally cited the rising generation as a group to provide environmental leadership. She credited young adults for “not [tolerating] the kind of inequalities in the world that [the older generation] created” in regards to climate change affecting the most vulnerable citizens. McCarthy linked this intolerance to both the availability and accessibility to information and young adults’ detestment to tradeoffs.

Unclean Water as a National Security Threat

New environmental leadership is needed to combat climate change’s most pressing issue. Unclean and unreliable water sources, McCarthy asserted, are the greatest environmental concerns facing the United States and the rest of the world. This logic flows from unclean water being a threat to both national and international security.

“Water is what is causing tremendous instabilities, tremendous migration—it’s about arable land, it’s about food to feed people,” McCarthy commented. “So, when you’re looking at the areas in which we have to worry, the United States isn’t secure in its water systems today.”

However, water issues in the United States are not very amenable nor easily fixable. This is because of the complexity of American water laws, which McCarthy espoused as being slow, deliberate, and legally convoluted due to the shared authority with states and inaccessibility of drinking water contamination data. She additionally cited issues of Flint, Michigan and water transportation to California as examples of poor responses to drinking water challenges.

Recognizing that American water systems require significant investment, McCarthy asserted the need for other industries and organizations to fill the “void of American leadership” to alleviate water stresses. Public-private-partnerships, specifically, address both public policy and private investment requirements needed to overcome current drinking water problems.

“Opportunities that arise with new technologies can address these issues more quickly,” McCarthy stated.  “And we’re going to need private investment and new solutions and new technology.”

City and state organizations, young adults, and public-private-partnerships are the players up to bat, on deck, and in the hole to fill America’s currently absent leadership role in batting against climate issues like unclean drinking water. These three groups have different scopes of influence than the federal government but can use their separate competitive advantages to improve the environment. Whether or not the United States government will maintain a passive environmental role in the future will determine whether individuals, cities, states, and partnerships will have a temporary or permanent environmental leadership role. However, even if the federal government becomes more ecologically involved going forward, efforts should be done as a team to ensure optimal problem solving.