Greens push Earth Day agenda

Environmental groups are marking the 44th Earth Day on Tuesday with an assault on the Keystone XL pipeline, greenhouse gas emissions and other issues related to climate change.

Activists hope to use the day to press the case against Keystone, which they say would worsen climate change, while spotlighting the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) upcoming rule to limit greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants.

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“It’s an opportunity for not only environmental groups but decision makers across the country to take stock of what we’re doing, but specifically what we’re not doing, because we’re losing ground in the fight against climate change,” said Bruce Hamilton, conservation director at the Sierra Club.

“And we’re not going to solve the problem if we keep incrementally approving another coal mine here, another KXL pipeline there. It’s just leading us down the wrong path.”

The State Department recently delayed its decision on whether to approve construction of the controversial pipeline, which would ship Canada’s oil sands to refiners on the U.S. Gulf Coast. The decision may not come until after this year’s midterm elections.

Green groups say the project would drastically increase greenhouse gas emissions, and plan to stress that message on Tuesday and throughout the week.

The Sierra Club plans later this week to bring farmers and American Indian representatives from near the pipeline’s route to Washington to rally against Keystone XL as part of its “Reject and Protect” initiative.

“Earth Day is a time for Americans everywhere to stop and ask ourselves why we would want some of the dirtiest oil on the planet to be piped through the bread basket of America to be refined on the Gulf Coast and sent overseas,” Bob Deans, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said of the Keystone XL pipeline. “It’s not a plan to help our country. It’s about big profits for big oil and it needs to be denied.”

While Keystone has become a rallying cry for green groups, they are also focused on ensuring that President Obama comes in strong with his proposed limits on power plant emissions.

“These power plants are about 40 percent of our carbon pollution as a nation,” Deans said. “Right now, there are no limits at all on the carbon pollution that these plants can cough up into our atmosphere.”

Environmental Defense Fund spokesman Keith Gaby called the rule for power plant emissions “the most important environment issue in terms of real impact on the climate.”

EPA has pledged to propose the new rules in June, finalize them a year later and enforce them in June 2016.

While green groups push for major federal action to stop climate change, many Republicans in Congress are skeptical that man-made climate change is happening.

“The alarmists of man-made climate change tend to support big government policies and believe that Washington knows best how to take care of the people rather than the local communities and families,” Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), one of the most vocal climate-change skeptics on Capitol Hill, said recently. “These policies limit freedom and make it more difficult for people to pursue the American dream.”

Tuesday’s Earth Day agenda also reflects a broader shift in the environmental movement.

The first Earth Day in 1970 focused largely on removing air and water pollutants such as lead, sulfur and phosphates that could directly harm humans or animals.

Now the focus is on the hot-button issue of climate change, a shift that advocates say reflects the movement’s successes.

“We got rid of the phosphate pollution, we got rid of e coli bacteria,” Hamilton said.

The science behind climate change has also grown significantly, advocates say, causing environmentalists to rally behind reducing greenhouse gases as their main priority.

“There has been a huge amount of positive change,” Gaby said.

Gaby listed reductions in acid rain, closing of the hole in the O-zone layer, removing lead from paint and gasoline and the fact that grey wolves, bald eagles and grizzly bears are no longer endangered as examples of Earth Day successes.

“There are several huge issues — led by climate change — that we haven’t fully addressed globally,” he said.

Hamilton said about half of America’s bodies of water have been cleaned to EPA’s standards, as well as the air in about two-thirds of major cities. That is a stark contrast from 1969, when the pollution on the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire and it was difficult to see across the street in Los Angeles.

Adam Rome, an environmental historian at the University of Delaware, said some of Earth Day’s most notable accomplishments are in policy and environmental awareness.

“Politicians definitely got the message that this was something people cared about far more than even they had thought,” Rome said of the first Earth Day.

Rome credited Earth Day with pushing U.S. policymakers to establish EPA and pass the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and Toxic Substances Control Act.

But Earth Day also created an “eco-infrastructure,” which included environmental beats at newspapers, books about the environment, community recycling and lobbyists, he said.

Earth Day was also responsible for “a whole generation of people committed to working on these issues for years and for the rest of their lives,” said Rome, who wrote a book about Earth Day.

Earth Day in 1990 marked a shift toward encouraging individual environmental contributions, like the book “50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth,” which was published shortly before Earth Day that year.

While green groups rally to stop the Keystone XL pipeline and limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, the country’s leaders are also using Earth Day to push environmental messages.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy will tour the country to promote the Obama administration’s efforts to stop climate change. The tour started Monday night with an appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and will include throwing a pitch at a Red Sox game in Boston Tuesday and a climate change event with the Hip Hop Caucus in Atlanta on Thursday.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz will join McCarthy for some of her tour, including the baseball game and an event for teens at the New England Aquarium.

The Federal Trade Commission is using Earth Day to remind consumers that federal rules dictate how companies can advertise products’ environmental credentials. Companies need specific evidence to say products are free of a certain substance, non-toxic or contain low amounts of volatile organic compounds.