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Dear Earth: How can we help you?
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Published April 19, 2008

As Earth Day approaches, eight leaders concerned about environmental policy in Wisconsin reflect on what has been accomplished since the first Earth Day — and what remains to be done

A pivotal moment for the environment

Earth Day long ago achieved the principal aim of its founder, my father, Gaylord Nelson: to give the environment a prominent place on the national political agenda.

But it has accomplished more than that, as evidenced by the predicted participation of nearly a billion people worldwide in Earth Day activities this year. Earth Day, and the awareness it spawned, has created a generation of Americans with what my father called an "environmental ethic" - an understanding that we are responsible for preserving the planet's finite and dwindling resources.

Our challenge is to transform that understanding into action, and there is no question that climate change must be at the top of our action list.

We are at a pivotal moment. Unless we act quickly and dramatically to alter our current energy path, climate change will trump all other efforts to protect and preserve our water, air, land and wildlife. Our challenge is to rapidly develop and deploy technologies that put us on a sustainable energy path before irreversible climate change overwhelms us. It turns out this challenge also is an opportunity to transform our economy and assert our energy independence and, in doing so, improve our security as a nation.

The first steps require us to look both outward and inward. We must, as so many did on and after the first Earth Day, demand action from government at all levels, and we each must take personal responsibility for making environmentally sound choices every day. Changing to Earth-friendly light bulbs is just one simple way to contribute to the solution. Having Earth-friendly leaders, though, could be the most enlightened way of all.

Tia Nelson, executive secretary of the Wisconsin Board of Commissioners of Public Lands, is the daughter of Earth Day founder Sen. Gaylord Nelson.

We have the ingenuity we need

Reflecting on the many environmental challenges we face, we should recognize the tremendous progress made since 1970. Our air and water are much cleaner because of the movement spearheaded by Gaylord Nelson. Some argued that regulation would damage our economy. Instead, we adapted. New technologies were developed, and a strong environmental ethic was created. We are much better off because of the changes driven by Earth Day.

Today's challenges include mitigating climate change, protecting the Great Lakes and reducing mercury. Our utility, Wisconsin Public Power Inc., owned by 41 Wisconsin communities, takes very seriously its obligation to provide reliable, affordable electricity essential to health, safety and comfort, while protecting the environment. This means leading by example, helping customers save energy and fostering renewable and clean energy technologies. We have decreased WPPI's own energy consumption 15%, increased our conservation programs and will meet the state's 2015 renewable energy standard in 2009.

We should be optimistic. Power plants built today are much cleaner than those operating on the first Earth Day. Supercritical plants like Elm Road in Oak Creek will emit about 96% less sulfur dioxide. According to the Alliance to Save Energy, we would be using approximately 40% more energy today if not for the energy conservation measures adopted since 1973.

But we need to do much more. The utility of the future must be dedicated to enabling customers to use less energy without sacrificing productivity or comfort. This should be our primary strategy to meet the major environmental challenges we face, including climate change. It is our least costly alternative. We know how to do it, and it's effective. At the same time, history tells us we have the ingenuity to develop new, clean generation to protect our planet.

Roy Thilly is president and chief executive of Wisconsin Public Power Inc.

From nice to necessary

I can remember one of the first Earth Days when I brought a little oak seedling home from school and planted it in our backyard almost 40 years ago. It strikes me that interest in environmental sustainability has transitioned over the decades from something that was nice to do to something that is necessary to do. Concern over global warming and climate change dominates the environmental agenda, and the growing consensus is that significant steps must be taken to reverse the current trend of increasing greenhouse gases.

The McKinsey Global Institute completed a recent study that shows that energy efficiency improvements in buildings and vehicles are the most cost-effective ways of reducing greenhouse gases. Energy efficiency improvements in new and existing buildings can have an immediate impact on climate change by leveraging existing technology and resources. Energy efficiency investments are low risk and pay for themselves through energy cost savings. State and national policies that encourage large-scale energy efficiency improvements would also create significant numbers of local community "green collar" jobs. Additional policies to support research and development and manufacturing of hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicle technology also would create job growth and assure timely development of cost-effective technology to address climate change over the long term.

The Johnson Controls Energy Efficiency Indicator survey (, a study of how business leaders were responding to rising energy costs and environmental issues, last week revealed the combination of economic pressure and environmental awareness that will motivate people to make smart investments that have a big payoff going forward.

Recent announcements regarding federal and state government plans to address these issues are signs of progress, but more needs to be done. We need to take significant action now to promote energy efficiency and invest in key technologies to ensure long-term sustainability.

Clay Nesler is vice president of global energy and sustainability for Johnson Controls Inc.

We're still off track

Much has happened since the first Earth Day. Besides being more tuned in to our relationship with our surroundings and our role in protecting air, water and natural resources for the future, we're witnessing economic development in countries with soaring populations, increasing demand for energy and raw materials.

As such, we can no longer continue along as we did when we celebrated the first Earth Day with Gaylord Nelson in 1970.

Americans are fed up. Polls show that more than 80% believe America is off track. The public is getting squeezed by record gas prices that drive up the costs of food and other goods while their home energy bills skyrocket. We can't continue the old ways that embrace oil, coal and the other polluting fuels.

Instead, we need to move into a clean energy economy that creates opportunities and jobs.

We now sit at the crossroads: Do we dabble at the edges or aggressively adopt new technologies and philosophies on energy production and consumption?

This Earth Day, join Sierra Club in learning how we can do it. See how others are changing their energy footprint, saving money on energy bills, making money in the business of new energy technologies and helping save the planet.

With American ingenuity and the help of like-minded people in the faith, union and business worlds - and with the assistance of our friends and neighbors - we can increase the use of affordable, renewable energy; we can make our homes, cars and buildings more energy efficient; we can save money, boost the economy and create jobs; and we can reduce global warming - all while leaving a planet that's safe and clean for our children.

Eric Uram is conservation chair for the John Muir chapter of the Sierra Club.

Protecting our waters

"The ultimate test of man's conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard."

Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day

When millions of Americans participated in the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, they delivered an unprecedented environmental call to action to our nation's politicians. A call answered by enactment of such groundbreaking laws as the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. What's more, it is clear that the environmental movement accomplished something beyond historic legislation. Over the years it slowly but surely altered our national mind-set.

Just in time, too, because we have reached a point in the Earth's history where we need every advantage we can muster. As Wisconsin's environmental champion, Gaylord Nelson, acknowledged in the years before his death, these are increasingly complicated times. We must grapple with environmental challenges far and near, including issues vital to our own state's future such as renewable energy, global warming, invasive species, environmental justice and groundwater protection.

In Wisconsin, we are poised to enact the epic environmental achievement of our generation - the Great Lakes compact. Only through a strong compact and state implementing bill can Wisconsin and the region protect, conserve and sustain our vital Great Lakes system in an increasingly thirsty world. We must ensure its passage in Wisconsin and its ratification by Congress.

With these and other challenges before us, we are fortunate to live in a state whose citizens deeply value its natural resources and expect state legislators to respond in kind on Earth Day and every day.

Jodi Habush Sinykin is Of Counsel for Midwest Environmental Advocates.

Protecting our sweet water sea

I have the profound pleasure of spending my work days a stone's throw from the Lake Michigan shore, almost directly under the belly of the Hoan Bridge. On days when the gleam of sun on water is delightfully blinding it makes me proud to be part of a community that works so hard to protect this lake.

It's not just regulators and policy-makers who are the watchdogs for our source of drinking water, ensuring habitat for wildlife and providing a place where we can go to refresh our spirits. True, they pass the laws and write the rules and regulations that provide the lake with much-needed defenses, but we all play a part in determining the future health and well-being of our Great Lake.

Eighty years ago - a good 40-plus years before the first Earth Day - workers at Milwaukee's wastewater treatment plant already were putting sewage sludge to beneficial re-use by manufacturing it into Milorganite. Every April, thousands of children and families crowd the riverbanks and shoreline to pick up litter and clean up waterways. Rain gardens are springing up everywhere to retain and filter precious rainwater before it makes its journey back to Lake Michigan.

Though many challenges remain for our sweet water sea, I like to think of the schoolchildren who are so much smarter and more aware than my generation was regarding water quality and the environment. We owe it to them to give them the best answers we have to their tough questions about the well-being of the lake - and to be honest when no answers exist. It is in finding the answers to those questions that the future of Lake Michigan lies.

Joyce Harms is communications/community relations manager for Veolia Water, Milwaukee.

Meeting the challenge with technology

There is much to celebrate in Wisconsin on Earth Day 2008. In the 38 years since Wisconsin's own Gaylord Nelson first announced plans for a nationwide grass-roots demonstration in support of the environment, the air we breathe has become dramatically cleaner.

At We Energies, we are proud that we have increased our electric capacity by 150% to meet the growing needs of our state's economy while reducing our emissions of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide more than 60%. Rather than create landfills, we recycle all the ash that remains from our electricity production. We're one of the few utilities to do so.

Advancement in technology has played a significant role in our achievements, and it will remain key to meeting a vital public policy challenge of the future - reducing carbon emissions while keeping our product affordable for our customers. Meeting this challenge will also require leadership.

Our power plant in Pleasant Prairie is investigating a promising technology to address greenhouse gas emissions. We are working on keeping coal, our country's most abundant resource, viable by testing a process that is designed to lower the cost of removing carbon from the emission stream of a power plant.

Developing cost-effective carbon capture technology is one of the most important environmental challenges facing the utility industry in the 21st century. We must take steps now to achieve a long-term technology solution.

Kristine Krause is vice president, environmental for We Energies.

Still a long way to go

Much has been accomplished since the first Earth Day, but more needs to be done.

The Clean Air Act amendments passed in 1970 aimed to make our air healthy and to keep it that way. But we still have unhealthy levels of smog and soot in much of Wisconsin, especially in the summer.

The Clean Water Act passed in 1972 had a goal of making our lakes and rivers "fishable and swimmable" by 1983, but years later we have beach closings due to excessive pollution and health advisories warning us not to eat too many fish due to mercury contamination.

Certainly, these landmark laws and others have resulted in environmental improvements. Additionally, sewage treatment plants drastically improved some waters such as the Wisconsin and Fox rivers that were largely devoid of aquatic life in 1970 due to the dumping of raw sewage. Yet we still have sewage overflows and excessive nutrient and chemical loading into our waters from polluted runoff.

And some things never seem to change: In the 1970s and today, coal-burning power plants remain our largest sources of air pollution. Several large coal plants were built 30 years ago; today, we have three more under construction. As Wisconsin begins to seriously address global warming pollution, these new coal plants, and 14 older dirty ones in our state, will make significant reductions of greenhouse gases a major challenge.

The first Earth Day holds special meaning for Clean Wisconsin: We were founded that same year. We've helped Wisconsin become a national leader in addressing acid rain, air toxins, mercury emissions, waste recycling and other sources of pollution. But 38 years later, we have a long way to go before our air is healthy, our water is clean, our communities are sustainable and Wisconsin is doing its part to curb global warming.

Keith Reopelle is program director for Clean Wisconsin.

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