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America’s Choice: Leave a Legacy of Hell or Bequeath Clean Air

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At the turn of the 20 th Century, smoke meant jobs. When noxious fumes spewed from factory stacks, workers brought home paychecks. Industries hired. The future was bright as molten iron flowing from a blast furnace.

In industrial Pittsburgh’s heyday, the smoke was so dense streetlights remained lit at noon. White collar workers changed soot-covered shirts mid-day. The region’s residents suffered high rates of asthma and emphysema. In 1948, an inversion trapped industrial pollution in a small town south of Pittsburgh, killing 20.

Smoke also meant death and disease.

Now, however, good-paying industrial jobs need not exact untimely death from workers and their families. In fact, it’s the opposite. Development of clean renewable energy generators – the likes of wind turbines, solar cells, biomass – would create family-supporting industrial jobs in America and would reinforce traditional manufacturing jobs in the U.S., including those in steel mills, solar cell fabrication plants and wind turbine factories, such as those built by Gamesa in Pennsylvania.

Labor unions and environmental groups are pressing for passage of policies like a Renewable Electricity Standard (RES) and comprehensive climate change legislation that would promote transition to a clean energy economy.

To prod lawmakers to act, the BlueGreen Alliance, a partnership of those labor unions and enviromentalists, conducted a three-week, 17-state, 30-city barnstorm during August in an energy-efficient, American-made, carbon-neutral bus. At events in each city, BlueGreen activists told attendees, “The Job’s Not Done,” and urged them to tell their U.S. Senators it’s not a choice between clean air and jobs. The choice is leaving a legacy of environmental hell or bequeathing climate unchanged.

In an 1868 edition of The Atlantic Monthly, writer James Parton described with awe the atmosphere created by industrial Pittsburgh’s iron and glass works, its foundries and its coke ovens:

“On the evening of this dark day, we were conducted to the edge of the abyss, and looked over the iron railing upon the most striking spectacle we ever beheld. The entire space lying between the hills was filled with blackest smoke, from out of which the hidden chimneys sent forth tongues of flame, while from the depths of the abyss came up the noise of hundreds of steam-hammers. There would be moments when no flames were visible; but soon the wind would force the smoky curtains aside, and the whole black expanse would be dimly lighted with dull wreaths of fire. It is an unprofitable business, view-hunting; but if any one would enjoy a spectacle as striking as Niagara, he may do so by simply walking up a long hill to Cliff Street in Pittsburg, and looking over into--hell with the lid taken off.”

Beautiful as he found it, Parton added this:

“The first feeling of the stranger is one of compassion for the people who are compelled to live in such an atmosphere. When hard pressed, a son of Pittsburg will not deny that the smoke has its inconveniences.”

Pittsburgh took measures to clean its air. Smoke no longer turns the city’s days to night. But the town, like every other, still suffers the effect of pollution. It is the greenhouse gas pollution causing global climate change, which is associated with extreme weather events like the Katrina hurricane that killed 1,800 five years ago, floods this summer that killed 1,600 in Pakistan and 1,100 in China and unprecedented heat and uncontrolled wildfires that killed thousands this year in Russia.

Even former Republican Presidential Candidate John McCain and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce concede climate change is real. They’re just towing the usual Republican party line of “no” to anything proposed by Democrats or the Environmental Protection Agency to correct it. The Chamber, for example says it supports strong action on climate change, including cutting greenhouse gas emissions, but it opposed legislation that would cut greenhouse gas emissions. The Chamber, at one point, called for the EPA to hold " the Scopes monkey trial of the 21st century" to debate whether climate change is man-made.

The Chamber’s position prompted high-profile members to quit, including Apple and public-utility companies Pacific Gas & Electric, PNM Resources, and Exelon.

Another big name company, Nike, resigned from the Chamber board of directors. It explained the defection:

“Nike believes that climate change is an urgent issue affecting the world today and that businesses and their representative associations need to take an active role to invest in sustainable business practices and innovative solutions to address the issue. It is not a time for debate but instead a time for action and we believe the Chamber's recent petition sets back important work currently being undertaken by EPA on this issue.”

Like Nike, Senators should do what’s right – pass a Renewable Electricity Standard and a comprehensive climate change bill.

They need to stop thinking about their re-election and start thinking about their grandchildren. They need to pass climate legislation that would support American jobs and avert hell.