Economic and environmental health are compatible

Augustus Barnette, Contributing Writer

Charles Scribner, the executive director of the Black Warrior Riverkeeper, a local chapter of the national Waterkeeper movement, said politicians should not make it seem as if economic health is incompatible with environmental health. 

Nearly 67% of adults in the United States believe the government is not doing enough to control climate change according to a 2019 Pew Research Center study

In a recent press release, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that inaction regarding the environment and climate will pave the way for future disaster. 

“To avoid mounting loss of life, biodiversity and infrastructure, ambitious, accelerated action is required to adapt to climate change, at the same time as making rapid, deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions,” the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change wrote. 

While the report said the infrastructure and tools necessary to combat climate change are presently available, and the world could halve emissions by the year 2030, emissions must peak by the year 2025 to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, a threshold for continuing on with a comfortable life. 

“When politicians say or imply that folks must choose between the environment and the economy, that is a false choice,” Scribner said. “According to the Outdoor Industry Association, outdoor recreation is a multibillion-dollar industry for Alabama every year. Degrading Alabama’s beautiful waterways and land will diminish public participation in recreation, harming our environment and economy together.”

In 2020, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reported that outdoor recreation makes up 1.8% of the United States gross domestic product, at a little over $370 billion. 

In 2020, the Outdoor Industry Association reported that income from outdoor recreation in Alabama is similar to that of the national level, coming in at around 1.9% of the states gross domestic product, hovering just below $4 billion. 

Ellen Griffith Spears, a New College associate professor with a specialty in environmental history, said the state could be doing more in terms of the environment, especially in comparison with its history.

“In the early 1970s, Alabama passed one of the tougher environmental laws in the southern states. … It added more significant fines for violations than many of its neighbors,” Spears said. 

According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama, the laws covered solid waste disposal, air and water pollution, safe water and surface mining reclamation, and hazardous waste legislation. 

“It’s possible, and there’s a lot more leadership that could be shown at the state level, both legislatively from the executive branch, and from the regulatory agency that handles it,” Spears said.

According to an article by the American Bar Association, in Uniontown, Alabama, residents have been fighting against environmental injustice for decades. The town, which is 93% Black and has 40% of its population living under the poverty line, fought and lost a 2007 battle against a landfill permit allowing 33 states to bring toxic pollution and coal ash into the area. Since then, the Arrowhead Landfill continues to alter the health and lives of the residents.

According to the article, Uniontown is considered a victim of environmental injustice and still “urgently needs attention at local, state and federal levels.” In other parts of Alabama, some local officials have been taking note of the current environmental crises and their effects.

Selected as a welcome speaker for the American Water Resources Association 2022 Spring Conference, Maddox has been nationally recognized due to his response to the 2011 Tuscaloosa tornado, which killed 53 people and injured 1,200 more.  

Extreme weather events like tornadoes are set only to increase in both magnitude and occurrence if the climate is not put under control. 

Maddox has committed himself and the city of Tuscaloosa to environmental stewardship; after the 2011 tornado, the city doubled down on recycling. 

Under Maddox’s lead, Tuscaloosa has worked to protect lakes Nicol and Harris, created an environmental coordinator position to make sure the city follows the law and improved its stormwater management system, winning the city an award from the Water Environment Federation in 2015. 

In 2007, Maddox signed the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement, which vows to reduce carbon emissions along with other climate protective measures. While at the time Tuscaloosa was making strides in using cleaner energy sources for vehicles and more efficient lighting, it is unclear if the city has kept up these efforts to fight climate change, although Tuscaloosa still remains on the agreements’ 2019 list of signatories. 

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has shown skepticism when it comes to the bureaucratic nature of government aid for the environment. In 2017, she disbanded the Alabama Water Agencies Working Group, which was established in 2012 to create a water plan for the state of Alabama and was supported by nearly 80% of Alabama voters.

Although dictated by state code, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management is managed by a small, independent board, leading many environmentalists inside the state to believe there should be more state involvement.

With this oversight by the state, environmental stewardship once again falls into the hands of concerned citizens. This is the type of work Waterkeeper organizations across the country do, including the local branch, Black Warrior Riverkeeper. 

Scribner said this year is the 50th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act, a federal statute that Black Warrior Riverkeeper uses frequently to hold polluters accountable in the Black Warrior River watershed. 

“When Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, they wisely included citizen enforcement provisions because they realized that local, state or federal government agencies may not always be as interested or effective as citizen-based organizations, such as Waterkeepers, in addressing Clean Water Act violations,” Scribner said. 

The Black Warrior Riverkeeper website has resources available for concerned citizens to reach out to elected officials and find environmental agencies and events.

“Additionally, elected officials are often swayed by receiving multiple messages from citizens requesting various forms of environmental action,” Scribner said.

Spears said taking environmental action and weighing the truth of politicians’ promises and claims are important steps for citizens interested in making change.

“The environmental movement has been active with groups like the League of Conservation Voters and making sure that people understand where various candidates might lie in terms of their perspective on the issues. And so making sure that we have full access to voting is really an environmental issue, because we want to make sure that popular opinions about conservation do get reflected in governance,” Spears said. 

This sort of activism is not blindly encouraged; Spears said results have been achieved through this sort of participation, and in Alabama no less. 

Amber Buck, the co-leader of the Tuscaloosa Chapter of the Citizens Climate Lobby, said the organization strides toward education in these fields. 

“They [Citizens Climate Lobby] train folks on how to lobby members of Congress as citizens and how to use various tools to convince members of Congress that this is a particular issue that constituents are concerned for … and then also trying to raise awareness around people in terms of climate change issues,” Buck said. 

Spears and Buck both mentioned the importance of voting with the environment in mind, as marginalized and poor communities both generate less of a response from environmental agencies and will deal with the effects of environmental issues more than their wealthier counterparts. By voting in local and national elections, Americans can make change for the environment.

This story was published in the Environmental Edition. View the complete issue here.

Questions? Email the culture desk at culture@cw.ua.edu.