- The Washington Times - Monday, April 22, 2002

On this 32nd anniversary of Earth Day, it's important to remember that the Jeremiahs of the environmental movement actually do have it right. One day, life as we know it will be wiped off the Earth.
It has happened before, and it will again, not as a consequence of evil corporate capitalism, but rather devastating orbital dynamics. There are about 1,000 large asteroids capable of hitting the Earth flying around the solar system at a speed and recklessness that defy comparison. They hit hard, too. About 65 million years ago, a chunk of space rock hit near the Yucatan Peninsula, exterminating 75 percent of the life forms living on Earth at the time, including all the dinosaurs (except for Fidel Castro). Other asteroids have had similarly deep impacts on the Earth's ecology.
Alarmingly, NASA scientists recently calculated that a fairly large rock innocuously named 1950 DA has a chance of ruining the weekend plans of everyone on Earth.
So where is the outrage? Where were the people carrying the "Down With Asteroids" signs during this past weekends protests against everything in Washington? Why isn't the World Wildlife Federation demanding that Congress do something to end this threat to world wildlife? Why didn't Al Gore denounce President Bush for failing to counter the threat from above during his 35th or so coming-out speech in Florida?
Probably because anti-asteroid activism doesn't pay the bills or procure the votes. NASA scientists consider 1950 DA "a greater hazard than any other known asteroid," but calculate that its chances of causing an Armageddon are only 1 in 300. Besides, that close encounter that won't come until 2880, a distant threat that is death to fund-raising and ballot-box appeal. Instead, environmental activists and Democratic operatives will spend today attacking big producers, big polluters and big Republicans, who, if you believe the rhetoric, have nothing better to do than kill spotted owls, drop arsenic into the water and breathe sulfur dioxide into the air.
However, the quality of the U.S. environment has never been better, according to the "Index of Leading Environmental Indicators 2002," a study just released by the Pacific Research Institute. Authors Steven Hayward and Julie Majeres noted that the total emissions of six "criteria" pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Acts have declined by almost a third since 1970, even though the U.S. economy has grown by almost the same amount since then. Water quality is up, releases of toxic chemicals are down, and supplies of energy are still abundant, despite the best efforts of Senate Democrats.
That shouldn't be surprising, since most Americans want a clean, safe environment, even if they don't bother to join the Sierra Club. Yet most of them also realize that neither they nor their children can be protected from all hazards at all costs.
Last year, NASA spent $4.5 million on the Near Earth Object Program, which is designed to identify and discover 90 percent of the 1 kilometer and larger asteroids in near-Earth orbit by 2008. That's .03 percent of it's $15 billion annual budget, two-ten thousandths of a percent of the $2.13 trillion budget for fiscal year 2003 that President Bush sent to Congress. The NASA scientists I talked to seemed to think the level of funding was about right, based on the low-risk nature of the threat.
Defense got a much bigger chunk of our tax dollars, and rightfully so. After all, Osama bin Laden probably isn't hiding in the asteroid belt. A less distant, but also less certain threat is global warming, allegedly caused by industrialized countries' increased emissions of carbon dioxide. Those releases could be cut by an infinitesimal amount by following the strictures of the Kyoto Protocol, but only at a catastrophic price. According to skeptical environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg, the $150 billion cost of one year's worth of compliance with the Kyoto treaty would be almost enough to buy every inhabitant of the Third World basic access to sanitation, water, health and education twice.
Those sorts of cost-benefit calculations are supposed to be a basic part of political decision-making. Yet ironically, many of the same politicans and activists who apply a pragmatic approach to procuring votes and demanding dollars will spend today demanding environmental protection at all costs.
Still, there's still reason for optimism this Earth Day. After all, the sky isn't scheduled to fall until 2880.

Charles Rousseaux is an editorial writer and an editor for the Commentary pages of The Washington Times.

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