While there is growing agreement surrounding the need to protect children from gun violence, we continue to ignore another heinous issue that kills 1000 children every day. Protecting children from harm is a cultural universal, but we must concede that we failed to do so at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14th 2012. We must also admit that we are failing to protect our children from the deadly impacts of an ever more polluted planet.
A number of studies indicate that pollution and climate change are far more deadly than gun violence. A few months before the heinous murder of 20 children in Newtown, Connecticut, a study was published called "Climate Vulnerability Monitor". This study indicates that climate change currently kills one thousand children per day and at least 400,000 people annually. The same study indicates that by 2030, climate change will claim 700,000 lives per year.
To put this in perspective, from 1999 through 2006, 23,649 Americans age 19 or younger died from gunshots. From 2013 through 2020 it is expected that more than five million people will perish due to climate change, many of which will be children.
A report issued by the Global Humanitarian Forum claimed that global warming was already causing 300,000 deaths annually in 2009. If we compare these figures with the Climate Vulnerability study, the death toll associated with climate change has increased by 33 percent between 2009 and 2012.
The fifth edition of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Global Environmental Outlook (GEO-5) published in June 2012, indicates that indoor air pollution from particulate matter is responsible for nearly 2 million premature deaths annually - including 900,000 deaths in children under the age of five. The same study indicates that outdoor particulate matter may be responsible for 3.7 million deaths annually. These are staggering numbers that warrant our concern and a consorted effort to address them.
On December 16th, two days after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, President Obama made the following comments during an evening vigil. After offering his condolences on behalf of the nation, the President said:
"I react not as a president, but as anybody else would as a parent…every parent knows there is nothing we will not do to shield our children from harm. …we bear a responsibility for every child because we’re counting on everybody else to help look after ours; that we’re all parents; that they’re all our children.”
What happened in Newtown calls us to create a world that actively engages the threats that endanger children. Those that feel the weight of this terrible tragedy should be looking for ways to do a better job of protecting kids. If we are serious about protecting children from gun violence, shouldn’t we also want to protect them from starvation, disease and deadly weather?
“This is our first task -- caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged. And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we are meeting our obligations? Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children -- all of them -- safe from harm?...And if we're honest with ourselves, the answer is no. We're not doing enough and we will have to change.”
Clearly we are not doing enough to curtail gun violence, nor are we doing enough to combat climate change and eliminate harmful pollutants.
“We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change. We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true…But that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely, we can do better than this. If there is even one step we can take to save another child…then surely we have an obligation to try.”
Although the President’s remarks are intended to address the horrors of gun violence, they can just as easily be applied to dealing with the ravages of environmental decay.
“I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens…Because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine. Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?”
If the President is prepared to do all in his power to address the issue of gun violence, is it not also evident that he should do everything he can to address the deadly threats posed by climate change and environmental pollutants?
There is no doubt that the fight to end gun violence will be contentious, just like the fight to pass climate change legislation will prove very difficult. But as the President said about the Connecticut massacre, ”we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics."
On December 19th, five days after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, President Obama delivered a statement about the policy process the Administration will pursue to prevent gun violence.
"If there is even one thing we can do to prevent any of these events we have a deep obligation, all of us, to try…that conversation has to continue but this time the words need to lead to action….The fact that this problem is complex can no longer be an excuse for doing nothing".
Obama has rightly called for immediate action to prevent thousands of people from being killed by firearms. Surely, we also need timely action to prevent pollution and climate change from killing millions.
The Vice President has been tasked with putting together recommendations for an action plan next month. The President has demonstrated that when motivated, he can marshal the powers of his office to act quickly.
"I will use all the powers of this office to help prevent tragedies like this…saying enough on behalf of our kids...we can make a sensible intelligent way to make the United States of America a safer and stronger place for our children to learn and to grow."
If the President can muster the will to act on gun violence, surely he can find the will to address a threat of the magnitude of climate change and pollution. If we love our children we owe it to them to act before it is too late. Sadly, for some families in Connecticut, it is too late, but it is not too late to reduce our impacts on the Earth.
The perpetrator of the heinous crime at Sandy Hook Elementary school was clearly mentally and morally ill, but if we continue to add to the horrors of climate change, are we not also guilty?
It is not too soon to explore ways of putting an end to these mass shootings, in fact, it’s much too late. Likewise, efforts to stave off the dramatic implications of a warming planet are long overdue. We cannot afford to wait for the world to pass tipping points to make a serious attempt to reign in climate change.
In his victory speech, weeks before the tragedy in Newtown, the President said "We want our children to live in an America…that isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet."
The senseless killing of 20 children and six adults is indeed horrific, but the pollution induced deaths of millions each year is far worse.
The protection of our children is a sacred trust and environmental action is a fundamental part of making the world a safer place.
We do not inherent the earth from our Ancestors. We borrow it from our children.
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.
Image credit: Krissy.Venosdale, courtesy flickr