The president is taking Air Force One to Florida this week. He is going there, unsurprisingly, to make a speech. On Earth Day, about climate change. He could make the speech in Washington, of course, but he needs a prop—in this case, will be the Everglades, which he describes as “one of the most special places in our country. But it’s also one of the most fragile.”
Climate change, President Obama will say, threatens the Everglades as, “Rising sea levels are putting a national treasure — and an economic engine for the South Florida tourism industry — at risk.”
Maybe so. But if he wants to raise the alarm and do something – and do it soon – about climate change, then there might be better props and more immediate actions he could undertake. The president could fly out to Las Vegas – Harry Reid’s home turf – and give a speech in front of the impressive, but empty, nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain, where he could make the case for quickly building more nuclear power plants.
Nuclear plants generate reliable electricity. They do not care whether the wind blows or the sun shines. And they do not emit greenhouse gases. But they also produce nuclear waste and that is a problem for the people who live near those plants and also a security risk. So Yucca was designed and built, at great expense, as a solution to this problem. It is a vast underground storage area, blasted and drilled out of solid rock. But it is empty and has been since it was completed many months back. Harry Reid’s constituents don’t want spent nuclear fuel moved into their “backyard,” and he has, until now, been powerful enough to keep them happy and Yucca empty.
President Obama could probably change that with a forceful speech about how we owe it to our children to leave them with both reliable sources of energy and a clean planet. That human ingenuity has made it possible to do this by using the power of the atom and safely storing the waste. That, in fact, human ingenuity may one day find a way to make this waste into fuel suitable for generating electricity. And so on.
Initiatives of this sort, however, are not in the spirit of Earth Day. Too practical. Insufficiently idealistic; not to say, messianic. The Earth Day enterprise came about, 45 years ago, at a time when apocalyptic environmentalism was in the air, with people like Paul Ehrlich telling us we had two or three decades, at most, to shape up or lose the planet. Virtually all that Ehrlich predicted has not come to pass. But we still have Earth Day even though the apocalyptic agent is no longer world-wide famine or, as Newsweek predicted back then, a new ice age. The new threat is, of course, climate change.
So the president will use the Everglades as a prop to illustrate what we stand to lose if we don’t take action. It is an odd choice.
The Everglades are, indeed, hauntingly beautiful. What Marjory Stoneman Douglas called a “Sea of Grass,” is a place of epic quiet and abundant life – especially the birds. Kites, ospreys, roseate spoonbills, egrets. There are also the gators, some of them very large, but indifferent to your presence. There is the rich green of the mangrove leaves and the intricate and fascinating web of their roots. There is an overall sense of fecundity about the Everglades, which you can smell when you are up in the interior where the fresh and salt water mingle.
There is no denying that the Everglades are worth saving and it would be interesting if President Obama were to use his Earth Day opportunity to speak about how they were nearly destroyed long before anyone ever talked, or thought, about climate change.
One hundred years ago, the Everglades were viewed as a vast reclamation project and the chief reclaimer became … the government. Especially in the form of the Army Corps of Engineers. Rivers were “straightened,” canals were dug, dikes were built. All with the objective of denying the Glades the sheet flow of water that nourished the grass. The Glades shrunk and those portions that were gone became agricultural lands. There were people who objected to this vast engineering scheme but they were steamrolled by the Army Corps and its allies. By the beginning of this century, the Everglades were receiving less than 1/3rd of normal water flows and had shrunk, in area, by half.
The federal contribution to this undertaking took the form of political muscle and vast amounts of money. A flood control project budgeted for slightly more than $200 million in 1948 went ten years past deadline and $100 million over budget and just about finished the Everglades in for good.