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Earth Day must raise political stakes along with consciousness

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On the calendar this year, Earth Day falls this Friday.

But it also happens to land on Good Friday, the day that Christians commemorate Christ dying on the cross and suffering for the sins of humankind.

Conservationists the world over don't have to be religious to nevertheless feel the pain of a very difficult year since Earth Day 2010.

-- The Copenhagen talks on global warming failed to produce a meaningful alternative to the Kyoto Accords.

-- The U.S. Senate failed to take up a cap-and-trade energy bill passed by the House aimed at reducing greenhouse gases.

-- The earthquake and tsunami in Japan created a nuclear radiation crisis whose environmental and health effects are still unknown.

-- The U.S. Congress and President Obama struck a budget deal last week that will cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal environmental protection budget this year.

At least the Gulf oil spill, which began just two days before the last Earth Day. has been capped and the environmental damage less severe than originally thought, despite at least 84 million gallons of oil spilling into the sea.

Locally, the past year saw one of the more catastrophic environmental events of recent years: a 15,000-acre wildfire that burned most of the eastern slopes of the San Francisco Peaks and led to severe flooding in Doney Park and Timberline. A decade's worth of hard work by the Greater Flagstaff Forests Partnership suffered a significant setback, thanks to one improperly tended campfire.

Earth Day 2011, then, takes place amid a cloud of disappointment over a year that, by most benchmarks, seemed to take more steps backward than forward. The three biggest threats to global survival -- non-renewable fuel use in transportation, power production and agriculture -- seem more ominous than ever.

But at the local level, Earth Day is meant more to raise consciousness by taking responsibility for the sustainability of our own back yard -- to the extent that is possible. The city of Flagstaff has already celebrated Earth Day last Saturday with a litter pickup and full afternoon of education and hands-on activities. NAU will do the same this coming Friday, with other events filling the intervening week.

Economists generally agree that retrofitting existing homes and businesses to use less non-renewable power is the most efficient and effective use of local dollars.

But once all the buildings are converted, then what? Flagstaff by all means should continue to fight the good fight for regional windpower and solar, curbside recycling and alternative energy innovation. But if Earth Day is to be more than a once-a-year pep rally for a greener planet, it has to engage head-on the debate over jobs and a sustainable environment. Public education, at some point, must be tied to realistic political strategies that appeal to more than just the converted.

As we have noted before, the issue of climate change and environmental degradation may be global, but all politics is local, and how members of Congress vote often hinges on how they think a majority of their constituents back home would come down on a bill. The more those voters know about global warming and realistic, cost-effective ways to slow it, the more likely their opinions will count with members of Congress.

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