Earth Day Offers Opportunity To Refocus Environmental Priorities

As we celebrate the 37th annual Earth Day this Sunday, April 22, we’re given a great opportunity to consider the state of the world’s environment, and what we can do to make a difference.

This year’s Earth Day celebration offers a unique chance to engage even more people in thinking green, as well as provide a rallying point for those environmentalists who’ve been at the front lines of every war on pollution since the holiday was instituted in 1970.

With Al Gore’s Oscar win for his documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, to the Live Earth concerts scheduled for this summer to raise awareness on global warming, green has become the new black. With the celebrity community providing vocal support for efforts to sustain our Earth for ourselves and future generations, environmental causes are benefiting from an unprecedented level of visibility.

As a long-time environmental advocate, I would hope that we can capitalize on that visibility to push for a green agenda, at least on the State level, to improve the immediate quality of life for all New Jerseyans and preserve the Earth for our children and grandchildren.

Serving as chair of the Senate Environment Committee, I know that some environmental battles are easier fought than others. Sometimes, environmental conscience overcomes lobbying from groups who would prefer status-quo pollution standards and business-as-usual environmental regulations. Often, when we have the support of the people, we can surmount even the greatest odds to promote a cleaner, greener Garden State.

Such was the case when New Jersey adopted the Garden State Preservation Trust in the 1990’s. With voter approval, we were able to amend the State Constitution to provide dedicated funding for open space acquisition and preservation which was necessary to halt suburban sprawl and development build-out in New Jersey.

This year, we face a difficult challenge, as the Garden State Preservation Trust is drying up, and funds are not available to continue our efforts to conserve open space. I have sponsored a bipartisan bill, along with Minority Leader, Senator Leonard Lance, to supplement the State’s open space funding through a $150 million annual dedication from the New Jersey’s sales tax.

Development pressure continues in New Jersey, affecting our drinking water supply, air quality and land quality. Unless we take the steps to ensure a healthy open space funding mechanism, New Jersey will not have the resources to fight encroaching sprawl and provide parks and recreation areas for all of the State’s residents to enjoy.

Another major challenge facing the Committee this year is the impact of global warming. According to some projections, global warming is the number one threat to the Earth’s ecosystem, and if trends continue, much of the Jersey Shore could be under water in the very near future. Global warming also contributes to changes in weather patterns, with the possibility of storms on the horizon that would put Hurricane Katrina to shame, and would cause untold devastation around the world. New Jersey has to take an aggressive tack to reducing emissions which contribute to global warming, and we need to convince our neighbors to act as good global citizens and follow suit.

In the New Jersey Senate, we’ve been pushing a number of legislative measures focused on alleviating global warming. We’re providing State incentives and support for “green buildings,” which use clean forms of renewable energy, including solar and wind power, to offset the energy needs from polluting sources, such as coal-burning power plants. We’re working to cap greenhouse gas emissions from power resources and manufacturing plants. And we’re trying to cut emissions from automobiles, by promoting tax credits for cleaner cars, tax penalties for gas guzzlers and more car / van pooling.

These measures must be adopted sooner rather than later, to change the course of climate change in the world. While the federal government drags its heels on meaningful environmental reform designed to halt the progress of global warming, States need to take a stand, and show that their citizens want real environmental protections, not lip service to polluters.

Earth Day gives us a chance to reassess our priorities and educate our friends and family about the importance of good environmental choices. Ultimately, State or federal environmental regulations will not make a difference without the support of everyday citizens, pitching in to promote a greener tomorrow.

So how will you spend your Earth Day? Will you allow the day to slip by without taking time to consider your personal impact on the environment? Or will you devote yourself to working towards a better future for yourself and your family? Your decision could have lasting ramifications for the fate of the Earth and humanity in the years to come.

Senator Bob Smith represents the 17th Legislative District in the State Senate, which includes parts of Middlesex and Somerset Counties. He serves as Chair of the Senate Environment Committee.