Read: The GOP just lost its most important climate moderates
Water progress is climate progress. It takes an intense amount of energy to extract water, treat it, and dispose of it, and to clean water when it’s polluted. Nationally, water consumption peaked in 1980 and has dropped steadily, even as the economy and population have grown. That shift, in waterworks and minds, affirms Americans’ willingness to live differently once we understand how painless the better path is. The same will be true for decoupling carbon growth from economic growth, though it may have to wait out Trump: U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions surged last year, even as a near-record number of coal plants shuttered.
If DeSantis, Ducey, and Little can make strides on water, they will also make strides for the Republican Party, said Christine Todd Whitman, a former EPA administrator and Republican governor of New Jersey. “It comes down to issues of human life and safety,” she said, “and that’s what we’re supposed to be all about.” America’s Everglades and Chesapeake Bay restorations, Great Lakes compact, Colorado River drought planning, and other hard-won partnerships have taken decades of bipartisan leadership to bear fruit. By preserving and even strengthening those state-federal alliances in the Trump era, the governors help their party salvage a legacy to which the GOP is entitled.
A half century ago, President Richard Nixon pushed the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Water Act, and other safeguards in response to a broad public outcry over the industrial and sewage pollution then fouling rivers, bays, and coastlines. This June 22 will mark the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire credited with sparking that outcry. But amid all the events and retrospective articles planned to commemorate that date, the more important one to remember might be 1868. That was the first of at least a dozen times the Cuyahoga burst into flames, sparking a century of pollution disasters, some fatal.
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All that time, Americans accepted industrial pollution as an inevitable consequence of progress. Now we don’t have the hundred years we spent watching the Cuyahoga burn to watch the planet do the same. We must hope that the red-state governors’ attention to water will lead them to act on climate change, because the sorry truth is that even the boldest work on water won’t mean much if we can’t also stop warming.
In the early 2000s, Australia faced a drought so severe that abandoning major cities such as Perth seemed like a real possibility; the continent was feeling the water effects of climate change earlier than the rest of the world. For two decades, the Aussies have pioneered desalination, water markets, sewage recycling—and generally some of the most conscientious water habits in the developed world. And yet all that is not enough. It is summer in Australia. This month, record temperatures have contributed to wildfires, horses found dead in dry watering holes, and unprecedented fish kills in the iconic Darling River.
Hundreds of thousands of fish float belly up there, in striking and sickening similarity to Florida’s summer. DeSantis said it best: Water issues “do not fall on partisan lines.” Nor, ultimately, will climate change.