Our river-on-fire moment

Story highlights

  • The world is in a state of environmental crisis, CNN's John Sutter says
  • From climate change to the Flint water crisis, we need to take cues from history, he says

John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion who focuses on climate change and social justice. Follow him on Snapchat, Facebook and e-mail.

(CNN)We've done it before.

In 1978, when the toxic waste tragedy at Love Canal came to light, we didn't sit back and sulk. We created the Superfund program to address future crises.
In the 1980s, when it became apparent that acid rain was corroding buildings and killing forests, we devised an innovate cap-and-trade system for sulfur dioxide pollution.
    And in 1969, when Ohio's Cuyahoga River caught fire because it was so polluted, public outcry eventually led to the creation of the Clean Water Act.
    None of these solutions was perfect, to be sure, but they show the United States, when faced with an environmental tragedy, knows how to respond with resolve.
    We desperately need to channel that sense of purpose now.
    Because we're living through another river-on-fire moment.
    Several of them, actually.
    Consider three recent news items:
    First, climate change. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Wednesday announced something everyone paying attention already knew: 2015 was the hottest year since we started keeping records in 1880. That's thanks in part to El Nino, sure, but also because of our inability to ditch fossil fuels and stop deforestation. Those of you who spent the holiday season in the United States or Europe felt one data point on this longer term trend. New York saw temperatures of 66 degrees (19 C) on Christmas. Heatwaves such as that are expected to become more common. But that's just part of it, of course. Drought, extinction, disease -- all of those will get worse and more troublesome as we continue to warm the atmosphere and the ocean.
    Next, the Southern California leak. Attention for the natural gas leak near Los Angeles has waned since it was reported on October 23. But it is worth noting that something like 20,000 kilograms of methane still are spewing into the air each hour. That's a health risk, and it also contributes to climate change. In all, according to the Environmental Defense Fund, more than 87,000 metric tons of gas have been released. That's $13.6 million wasted. If the gas continued leaking for a year at about the current clip, the leak would produce the same global-warming effect as adding 1.4 million cars to the road, according to the BBC. Yet all of this is invisible. Natural gas -- which is 70% to 90% methane -- is odorless and colorless. If we could see this tragedy, as you can in the infrared video below, we'd be more outraged, and we might pass regulations to prevent this sort of thing.
    Finally, Flint. An untold number of children have been exposed to dangerous lead that's leached from pipes and into drinking water. The pipes hadn't been a problem until the Michigan city had its water source changed to the polluted Flint River amid a budget crisis. Shocking details abound. Some parents are bathing their children in bottled water. Some homes have tested for "toxic waste" levels of lead in the water. Lead is a neurotoxin and can lead to irreversible and lifelong problems. Most of these issues likely could have been avoided, according to news reports, by adding a $100-a-day chemical to the water.
    Alone, any of these items should be a wake-up call.
    Together, they should sound an incredible alarm.
    They tell us the way we humans treat the planet is far beyond disrespectful. It's dangerous. It's dangerous to our health (in addition to the above examples, more than 3 million people die each year because of air pollution, and that toll could be 6.6 million by 2050 without rapid action to slow pollution and lessen climate change). It's dangerous to our economies, which are far too dependent on dirty sources of energy. And it's dangerous to the survival of our planet. If global temperatures are allowed to warm 4 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, which is entirely possible without rapid changes to the way we produce energy, the actual viability of our planet comes into question.
    I understand this is the kind of thing no one wants to hear or read about. There are plenty of other things a person could worry about, from ISIS to guns to Donald Trump and his drill-happy sidekick.
    But we can't let these tragedies go unnoticed.
    As we have in the past, we must use them as catalysts for change.
    As the Environmental Defense Fund suggests, we can tighten reporting and inspections for oil and gas industries. "For too long," the group says on its website, "we have gone without federal and state standards that require sufficient leak and safety inspections for oil and gas facilities, and industry has shown it can't be trusted to fix the problem on its own. When leaks do occur, they may go unnoticed indefinitely, since methane is colorless and odorless."
    We also can take steps to ensure the safety of public drinking water supplies, and we can spend the money it will take to clean up Flint's water and help poisoned children.
    As for climate change, which is the most persistent of these threats, we can start by passing sensible legislation that puts a price on carbon pollution. With energy prices low, now is the right time to do it, and the concept has support from the World Bank and Exxon Mobil.
    President Barack Obama has taken several needed steps to curb emissions and reduce the country's dependence on dirty fuels. Most recently, on Friday, the administration announced it would stop approving, at least temporarily, new coal leases on federal land. That's a massive statement from the feds while a review process gets underway. But it's ultimately part of a piecemeal strategy Obama must pursue while Congress blocks further action. We're heading in the right direction, but the scale of the problem demands comprehensive fixes.
    It's not enough to be outraged by what's happening to the planet.
    We must work together to do something about it.