December 24, 2008

My Letter to the Other Santa Claus

By Javier Sierra

Dear President-Elect Obama:

My daughter has already written her letter to Santa. She’s been well behaved all year long, so we are sure she will see her wishes come true.

But Santa comes only on Christmas, and what I am going to ask you, unfortunately, can only be achieved after Jan. 20, when you take over from the Bush administration.

Regardless of our strongest desires, you still are not our president. But with the solid energy and environment team you have already put together and your record for the most Hispanic administration members in history, we await your arrival in Washington restlessly but hopefully.

The legacy that awaits you under the White House chimney, however, resembles more a lump of coal than a welcome present, which leads me to my first wish for you.

In America there are some 500 coal-fired power plants that spew 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) every year, the country’s largest source of global warming pollution. This gargantuan cloud is an endless source of soot, smog and mercury, which causes 25,000 premature deaths, 38,000 heart attacks and 21,000 hospitalizations every year. A disproportionate percentage of those tragedies are inflicted on the Latino community, one of the most punished by air pollution in the country.

Currently there are plans to build some 100 more coal plants throughout the country, which would generate 480 million tons of CO2 every year —about as much as 100 million cars. Please, stop the construction of these plants and opt for alternative sources of energy that are clean and renewable, such as solar, wind and geothermal.

And speaking of global warming, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has estimated that to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius, developed countries must reduce their emissions by 25-40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. This means that our country will have to reduce its emissions by at least 35 percent by 2020.

This can only be achieved through caps on carbon and other pollutant emissions, both here and overseas. Internationally, these efforts will have to include curbing deforestation in tropical forests, such as those in the Amazon, assistance in sustainable development plans and helping the least developed countries adapt to the impacts of climate change that cannot be avoided. President-Elect Obama, if you fulfill my wish, all Latin American and Caribbean nations and I will be eternally grateful to you.

Meanwhile, here at home, the state of California has long been a leader setting tough vehicle emissions levels, including setting the first standards to reduce tailpipe emissions of CO2 by 30 percent by 2016. More than a dozen other states wish to follow the example of California, whose levels are tougher that the federal ones. But the Bush administration has denied the necessary waiver to implement those standards.

If you overrule this arbitrary decision, more than half of the country will be able to take a gigantic step to fight pollution, oil addiction and global warming.

And finally, on the campaign trail you pledged to address the destruction caused by mountaintop removal coal mining. Coal companies in Appalachia have blown up 475 mountaintops and buried more than 1,200 miles of streams using this devastating extraction process.

The Bush administration has just made it even easier for coal companies to continue their mining, regardless of the fact that this devastating practice supplies only 4 percent of our energy needs. This is a small percentage that could very well be substituted by energy coming from clean, renewable, non-destructive sources of energy, such as solar, wind and geothermal.

My wish is for you to re-establish the original definition of fill material under the Clean Water Act, which your predecessor has weakened to unprecedented levels with disastrous results.

So here I am, just like my daughter, with my heart full of hope that you will fulfill my wishes. After all, enduring eight terrible years makes us all deserving.

Feliz Navidad y próspero año nuevo.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Visit

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