Each year around Earth Day, communities are encouraged to focus on the environment. In 2009, however, I get the sense that our focus won't end on April 23. For the first time in decades, Americans have reached a consensus that something must be done to reverse some of the damage done to our air and other natural resources.
Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the Clean Air Awards sponsored by Breathe California. Not only is Breathe California the name of an organization dedicated to making the most beautiful place on earth also the healthiest, it's also good advice.
We face many difficult challenges, but we are also presented with many opportunities, if we just stay focused. And to do that, we all should embrace the simple words that I hear every Friday morning at my yoga class: "Remember to breathe."
Recently, I went to the White House Healthcare Forum. Among the many impressive speakers, we heard from Dr. Mehmet Oz, who is vice-chair of surgery at Columbia University Hospital but is probably more famous for being Oprah's doctor. Doctor Oz said something that really got my attention. He said, "If you live within 100 yards of a four lane highway, move. Because there is no way we can clean that air."
Well, like everyone else in the room, I immediately started calculating how far I live from a four-lane highway. In my case, it's El Camino Real. I pictured a football field and tried to place it between my house and the road. I might be more than 100 yards away, but just barely. So I thought: "Should I move? And if so, where would I go?"
I imagined a map of my congressional district, where I have lived my entire life, stretching from San Francisco down through San Mateo County. The 101 freeway runs along the edge of the San Francisco Bay to the east and Highway 1 does the same along the Pacific Ocean to the west, with Interstate 280 between them, running right down the middle. Connecting the freeways is a lattice-work of smaller freeways and four lane connectors: Highway 92, 380, El Camino Real, Hillsdale Boulevard, San Bruno Avenue, 19th Avenue, Mission Street, John Daly Boulevard, etcetera, etcetera.
My guess is that two-thirds of the houses in the 12th Congressional District lie within 100 yards of a four lane highway, as well as most of the schools, hospitals, child care centers, farmers markets and parks.
According to Dr. Oz - a man whose opinion I respect - all of us are in danger because the air can never be made clean enough to be healthful.
So what are we to do? We certainly can't all move.
Then it hit me: An idea so simple, it's brilliant. We just refuse to believe what Dr. Oz is telling us.
There is an historic precedent for simply ignoring that which you don't want to believe. In fact, we recently had an administration in Washington which adopted ignorance as its chief scientific policy initiative. And they were good at it.
They ignored the scientists at the EPA and National Oceans and Atmospheric Administration who repeatedly issued dire warnings on climate change. They ignored evidence that "clean coal" was just a slogan and did not exist in the real world. They even ignored their own rules, refusing to enforce laws that they were sworn to protect.
I'm not talking about doing that.
When I suggest that we simply choose not to believe Dr. Oz's warning about the danger of living within 100 yards of a four-lane highway, I don't mean that we pretend that pollution doesn't exist or that cars don't pollute.
What I am choosing not to believe is that nothing can be done about it.
I cannot accept that the most technologically-advanced people in the history of the world can't find a way to transport ourselves around the planet without killing the planet in the process.
I know that we can learn to be better stewards of our environment because I have seen it happen in my lifetime: From separating our trash for recycling; to bringing our own reusable bags to the grocery store; to just making people understand that littering isn't cool. We get it, when we want to get it.
The quality and security of our environment is in our hands. We don't throw garbage into the ocean anymore and we can certainly stop doing the same to the air we breathe.
We are not such a hard-headed people - despite the example of recent leaders - that we can't make the changes necessary to save our own lives; to keep our children from developing asthma at record rates; to make it possible for our parents to take a walk without having to roll an oxygen tank behind them.
So, Doctor Oz, I appreciate your sentiment and I thank you for your passion, but I reject your conclusion. There is a way to clean the air near our roads. There is a way because there must be a way. There is a way because our very survival depends on it.
The way we clean the air near our roads is the same way we stepped up to the challenge of developing the next generation of microchips and creating the internet. It's the same way companies, right now, right here, are providing green-collar jobs to propel us to a cleaner and more sustainable future. We do it the way America has addressed every problem that has come our way: Through ingenuity, innovation and the entrepreneurial spirit.
Simply put, we will clean the air in our communities by developing technologies that will help us prevent it from getting soiled in the first place.
Ultimately, our carbon-burning cars and trucks will be replaced by clean-running electric cars. But that is still a decade or so from becoming a reality and in the meantime, there is much work to be done. For starters, a whole fleet of electric cars won't do much good if the electricity used to power them is still made by burning coal.
I have the privilege of serving in the House of Representatives on the Select Committee on Global Warming and Energy Independence. There, we are working - along with President Obama - to redefine the way our country produces, delivers and consumes energy. For decades we've known that to be a sustainable society we must advance cleaner technologies - like harnessing the wind, sun and tides - now, we're finally doing it. But we're not stopping there. Congress and the President have committed billions of dollars toward supporting new technologies such as cleaner-burning fuels and components of a smart electrical grid.
In my congressional district alone, there are dozens of companies that are pushing the envelope on clean energy and their results are very exciting.
In San Bruno, GreenBox Technology is developing a smart meter that will tell you how much energy each of your appliances is using so you can control your costs and consumption. They have launched pilot programs around the country and my office is working to get PG&E to work with them to reduce the amount of electricity all of us waste without even knowing it.
In San Carlos, a company called Cleeves Engines has developed an engine that is 90% more efficient than what is used in automobiles now.
In South San Francisco, Solazyme is feeding agricultural waste products - like wood chips and saw dust and grasses - to a variety of algae and then harvesting the oils that the algae produces. These oils can be used for everything from cooking oil to clean bio-diesel and even jet fuel. While I was there, I drove a conventional, unmodified American car that ran, not on gasoline, but on locally produced, clean-burning fuel from algae oil.
Our nation desperately needs rapid advancement in the development of new fuels. Ten years ago, our government pushed for wider use of ethanol as a way of weaning our nation from our dependence on foreign oil. (Well, that and because corn farmers wanted it and Iowa grows a lot of corn and any path to the presidency starts at the Iowa caucuses.)
But corn-based ethanol production requires massive amounts of fuel and water to grow and harvest the corn. In addition, the switch to ethanol produced dire unintended consequences as millions of poor people who rely on corn to survive were cut off from their supply as more and more acreage was dedicated to fuel production at the expense of food production.
What really inspired me about my visit to Solazyme (besides some ridiculously good brownies made from algae oil) was that the company didn't ask for a government hand-out to get their product to market. What they did ask for was simple sanity in the way government sets standards. Rather than picking a product like ethanol and putting the full energy and power of the United States government into encouraging its production and use, they suggested that the government set technology-neutral standards for low-carbon fuels, then step out of the way and allow the scientists, innovators and entrepreneurs to race to the top.
This approach makes so much sense that it's not surprising the government doesn't employ it. But change is in the air and the air itself is in need of change.
To get there, we need both short- and long-term solutions. While the goal is a fleet of fully-electric vehicles with advanced batteries that enable us to travel great distances, we must also develop solutions that serve us in the meantime.
Last month, I introduced The Clean Car Rebate Act, which will provide a direct-to-consumer cash rebate to anyone buying a new fuel-efficient car. If you purchase a 2009 car that gets a combined 28 miles per gallon, you'll get $1000. For a 30 mpg vehicle, the rebate is $1500, topping out at $2500 for an automobile that gets 33 miles per gallon or more. For 2010 and subsequent years, the qualifying miles per gallon will rise by 2 miles per gallons for each category and in future years, the formula will change to allow measurement, not just of mileage, but emissions.
This is, admittedly, a small step. But small steps still get us to our destination if we have the wherewithal to keep taking them.
There are many powerful political forces aligned against clean air. It's ironic, because their lobbyists and CEOs breathe the same stuff we do. Fortunately, there are groups like Breathe California and others who, with all of our help, can be just as formidable. Recently I sat down with representatives from the American Lung Association who listed five action points necessary to improve the quality of our air:
ONE: Clean up coal-fired power plants.
The coal industry spends millions of dollars selling something called "clean coal", which Al Gore likened to "healthy cigarettes." Problem is, like the cigarette that's good for you, clean coal doesn't exist. The coal we burn to power many of our power plants still spews the same cancer-causing toxins that it always has - toxins we don't allow in our food or our toys but have no problem pumping into the air we breathe.
TWO: Voluntarily strengthen the EPA's own 2008 ozone standards.
The Obama administration has already taken steps to do this, including listing ozone as a dangerous substance.
THREE: Clean up ocean-going vessels.
The amount of pollution, especially particulate matter, that comes from cruise ships and cargo liners is choking port cities around the world and killing our oceans - the survival of which is absolutely essential to the continuance of life on this planet.
FOUR: Improve the decaying monitoring network.
Air pollution monitoring equipment was installed across our country and around the globe more than thirty years ago. The information gathered by these monitoring stations has been essential to identifying and analyzing problem areas. Unfortunately, the equipment is deteriorating, sometimes as a result of the very pollution that it monitors. We need to upgrade, improve and expand the monitoring system to provide us with the most reliable information possible.
FIVE: Enforce the law.
There have been real advancements in laws designed to curtail harmful pollutants, starting with the 1970 Clean Air Act, signed by President Nixon. But without the commitment to enforce the laws and to honor science by listening to the experts and heeding their warnings, the laws are no more than ink on paper and themselves, a source of pollution.
So, I have to ask everyone reading this to do something. I know there are many important issues that we care about - education, healthcare, fixing the economic mess that greed and deregulation have wrought on us - but we can't let those very important concerns distract us from this most basic need.
Because, without clean air, education is just a pile of books.
Without clean air, healthcare is just treating the symptoms.
Without clean air, our economy will not survive - but that's okay, because neither will we.
Please, keep this cause at the very top of your agenda and don't believe anyone who suggests that we can't afford to combat climate change and rethink our energy policies. The truth is, we can't afford not to.
Most of all, never forget the words of my Friday morning yoga teacher: Remember to breathe!