On the surface, Earth Day may seem like another reminder of the 1970s that sounds as outdated as bell bottoms, All in the Family and Apollo space launches.
Yet Earth Day remains as relevant as ever as an enduring opportunity to pause and rededicate ourselves to preserving and protecting our planet. The moment is particularly important for Floridians, because we are facing the greatest threats from rising sea levels, stronger storms and hotter weather triggered by climate change. The future of our tourist-based economy, our neighborhoods and our way of life depend on how we respond.
The original idea behind Earth Day was to build on the energy of anti-war protests and growing concerns about air and water pollution to create broad public support for a cleaner environment. That was an immediate success. The first Earth Day in 1970 helped build bipartisan support for significant accomplishments, including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.
A half-century later, we will celebrate Earth Day on Friday facing a different political landscape and an unprecedented urgency to address climate change. We have yet to reach a national consensus on how to move forward or pass landmark federal legislation that matches the environmental protection laws in the early history of Earth Day. And while many residents may rededicate themselves to recycling and reducing their energy consumption by turning out unneeded lights when Earth Day comes up, the headlines about climate change can be discouraging.
For example, three reports over the last six months from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change detail how the planet is warming and how we are not moving fast enough to slow climate change and reduce the harmful impacts. A remarkable report by the Tampa Bay Partnership released this month estimates the region would have to spend more than $13 billion over the next 50 years to protect the region from flooding and stronger storms. No wonder it’s so tempting to throw up your hands at the magnitude of the challenge.
But on this Earth Day, there are reasons to be encouraged. This month’s Tampa Bay Regional Resiliency Leadership Summit underscored the considerable efforts local governments are making in incorporating sustainability into their decision-making. The partnership’s report calculated the region could save more than $2 on every dollar it spends to combat climate change. And as the mayors of the region’s largest cities pointed out, one of the key ways to combat the causes of climate change is to invest in public transit.
At the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, we plan to expand our all-electric fleet from six to 68 by 2028. We are installing solar panels on our facilities. When SunRunner, the region’s first bus rapid transit system, begins operating later this year from downtown St. Petersburg to St. Pete Beach, we will be using hybrid buses and encouraging more drivers to leave their cars at home.
Of course, there is much more to accomplish. We need to incorporate transit into our major development projects, and we need federal money to replace aging transit facilities like PSTA’s outdated downtown Clearwater facility. We need to ensure Brightline’s plans to extend its high-speed rail from Orlando to Tampa becomes a reality. And we need a more robust regional transit system that connects our region and connects with Brightline.
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On this Earth Day, we can celebrate our accomplishments even as we eye those bigger challenges. We can renew our efforts to recycle and conserve energy. And we can resolve to try harder to get out of our cars, walk, ride our bikes — and use public transit.
Brad Miller is chief executive officer of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.