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On Earth Day, three life lessons for my children

On Earth Day 2014, here are the three life lessons that I will teach my children.
n this Dec. 24, 1968 file photo, the Earth shines over the horizon of the Moon in as seen by the astronauts on Apollo 8.
In this Dec. 24, 1968 file photo, the Earth shines over the horizon of the Moon in as seen by the astronauts on Apollo 8.

On Christmas Eve 1968, Apollo 8 became the first manned space mission to circle the moon. For the first time, images of the Earth taken from space were beamed to the earth’s surface. These photos quickly ricocheted around the planet – before the Internet or social media were even words in our dictionaries!

Astronaut Jim Lovell in a live broadcast from lunar orbit said, "The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth."

Two years later in 1970, under the stewardship of President Richard Nixon, we celebrated the first Earth Day, enacted the Clean Air Act and established the Environmental Protection Agency. A picture really did speak a thousand words. What does our “picture” look like today?  

On Earth Day 2014, here are the three life lessons that I will teach my children:

1. Tell the truth.

We cannot and must not downplay or hide the impacts of anthropogenic climate change, nor the threats that our families, homes, towns, country and planet face. The April 2014 report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the soon-to-be-released U.S. National Climate Assessment lay bare an ominous diagnosis for our people and our planet.

Over 97% of climate scientists from around the world have made it clear that climate change is happening, now, and that it is caused by us. We are doing this to ourselves by producing greenhouse gases, created in large part through the burning and production of fossil fuels -- oil, coal and gas. This reality, however, doesn’t seem to be getting out in a loud enough way. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of elected officials around our country, including many elected to national office, continue to deny the science behind climate change, standing in the way of legislation and creating roadblocks to climate solutions. 

In the name of "energy security" and "job creation," new and dangerous coal and oil refineries, pipelines and liquefied natural gas export facilities are being pushed forward without careful consideration of the impact they will have on the environment. These projects regularly exclude the costs of externalities such as health care, rebuilding infrastructure, fortification and adaptation, and food and national security. 

Telling the truth means understanding and sharing the fact that the dire path we are currently on is not a given. It is still within our power to change the direction we are going.

2. Actions speak louder than words.

All around us, our children, mothers and fathers, and neighbors and friends, are taking it upon themselves to become citizen advocates and climate activists.  

A successful campaign to divest from fossil fuels is alive and growing because of the insistence and perseverance of college students from around the country. Citizen advocates are slowly but surely building recognition for the creation of a carbon fee and dividend program. And on May 2 in Washington, D.C., children will have their day in federal court as they demand that their constitutional rights to a healthy atmosphere and a safe climate be recognized.

In big cities like New York, Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco -- but also in places like Kalamazoo, MI, Minisink, NY, Cherry Point, WA, Atkinson, NE, Winnsboro, TX and Milford, PA -- regular folks are taking bold actions and putting themselves on the line to stop the expansion of fossil fuel production, infrastructure and dangerous byproducts.

In New York State, county executives in Westchester, Putnam, Rockland, Albany, Orange, Ulster, Erie, Onondaga, Oneida, Nassau, and Suffolk counties have enacted fracking waste bans, and many municipalities are following suit. Also in New York State, Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal is leading a citizen call for public protection from exposure to radon from Pennsylvania shale gas, which may already be entering New York homes.

New Jersey and Connecticut are actively working toward statewide bans on fracking waste, and Vermont has already banned the importation and storage of wastewater associated with fracking.

3. Don’t be afraid.

Acknowledging the risks and impacts we face from climate change is terrifying. These fears collide directly with how I define my job as a parent: ensuring a safe, secure and sustainable future for my children. But by sharing the truth with my children, and by helping them see, hear and be part of the myriad thoughtful actions taking place every day to call attention to the magnitude of the crisis, and to find solutions, my fears can begin to be put aside.

I firmly believe that we can create real and lasting opportunities from these great challenges we now face. These opportunities can take away our paralyzing fears. We can start now to retool our aging energy infrastructure, to focus on using only renewable energy, and to leave the oil in the ground. With our words and actions, we can build consensus and drive the political agenda. We can create a “Manhattan Project” for renewable energy. It’s possible and doable, and we can start today.

Happy Earth Day. 

Harriet Shugarman is the executive director of ClimateMama, a member of the Climate Reality Project, and a mom.

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