This interview was conducted by Aletta Brady on April 13, 2017. Alexandra Cohen contributed to the production of this story.
Laura Burns is a scientist, children's health advocate, mother, and climate organizer with Moms Clean Air Force. This is her story:
“My name is Laura. I’m a Baptist. I believe that God created the Earth. I believe that what He created is amazing. I think that God created the Earth and He created people and animals and trees and everything else, and I feel like my job is to respect that. I’m also a scientist. In science, you see life at the molecular level, and you look and see artistry. I’m so blown away by how amazing the world we live in is.
I remember my ecology professor in college talking about climate change. I went to a private Christian college that is well known for being extremely conservative. And so, in my conservative Christian college, I’m hearing about climate change. My professor is saying, ‘In 15 to 20 years, it’s going to be different.’ I’m this sophomore in college thinking, ‘Wow, this is something terrible.’ The words from my professor have haunted me over the last couple of years because 15 years has passed, and what my professor predicted would happen, has happened.
I’m from Mansfield, in North Central Ohio. We’re halfway between Cleveland and Columbus. I love snow, probably way too much. It’s the greatest thing in the entire world. Most people want to move south when they’re old, and I want to head north because I love cold air and the chill, and we’re not getting that. I get disappointed when we get these winters with very little snow. When I was 12 years old, my parents moved in February during the worst storm we had that year. I remember the snow being so deep and us hauling boxed stuff. The snow came at the worst possible time, but I was the happiest. I don’t think I will ever forget that storm as long as I live.
Another thing I remember is that as a kid, we always spent our summers at Lake Erie. We would go fishing and swimming and we would sail all over. My grandparents used to dock their boat and we would stare off into the lake. I would take my book and sit at the front of the boat and read and sleep and get sunburned. Out there on the lake—those memories are the happiest times of my childhood. When I first had children, our thought was, ‘We’re going to spend our summers at Lake Erie.’ I used those visuals when I was in labor with both of my kids—sitting there on the front of the boat and watching the water and the waves. No matter how miserable I was, that was what I was focusing on, because it’s such a strong, powerful, good thing from my childhood.
But, Lake Erie is the shallowest of all the Great Lakes and as the temperature has risen, it has created this perfect environment for blue-green algae to grow. When the water is too hot, you end up with so much algae it kills off the fish and kills off the good bacteria and plants, so you wind up with a lake that is starting to die off. If you look at aerial photographs of Lake Erie within the last five years, you’ll see the spread of algae across the lake.
Two years ago, we went to the lake during the summer. They were closing down some beaches because the algae was so bad, but we checked the beach we were going to, and it said there was no contamination. We went. Shortly after that, my daughter started vomiting and having terrible stomach pains. She couldn’t sleep that night. I took her to the doctor and the first question was, ‘Were you at Lake Erie?’ She’s tiny and I just thought, ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’ It was Christmas before she started feeling better.
My daughter recently celebrated her sixth birthday. Her world now revolves around recitals. She dances constantly. She is in ballet and tap. She has developed self-confidence. She’s a little peanut of a person; she’s got a real soft voice, and yet, when she’s dancing, she feels like she can do anything. I love it. But, at this point, it feels like no matter how many wonderful memories I would love to share with my children at the lake, I don’t know if I could go back. It ruined it for me. I built hundreds of sand castles along Lake Erie. These are happy things that kids should be able to do.
In addition to being a mother and a scientist, I am a children’s health advocate. We can keep our environment clean if we deal with climate change, if we deal with carbon pollution. We’re going to create a better world for our kids and their long-term health. That is not about being a Republican or a Democrat, or male or female, it has nothing to do with that. It has everything to do with the fact that as a human being, I have a responsibility to future generations to make sure that they are given every opportunity to live a good life. And if I know something about industry or the environment and I don’t say anything and I don’t do anything, I am not benefitting anybody except those industries.
The reason I am so involved is because I feel, as a Republican, I have to help, because the Republican Party, ‘my people,’ are the ones who created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and now are just saying that money is more important than people. I don’t feel like that’s what we’re supposed to be like. That’s not responsible. That’s not kind. That’s not thinking of others. It’s thinking about the almighty dollar. I want to use my voice and I’m not afraid to use it. I don’t care if you don’t like me, because someone is going to understand the importance of what I'm talking about and then they’ll do something. And then maybe they’ll tell somebody else and somebody else will do something. I’m here for a reason, and I’m not intimidated. It doesn’t bother me to walk into a politician’s office and have the door slammed in my face. I didn’t think I would be here because naturally, I’m a quiet person. I like to stay at home. But when it comes to issues involving the environment and our children, I am on it. So, that’s what I do.
It’s disappointing just how many Members of Congress voted to confirm Scott Pruitt as Administrator of the EPA. I cried that day as I sat there and watched all the votes come in. I was hopeful. I was really hopeful that people would see how bad he is for the environment. They didn’t. But that doesn’t mean that we can throw our hands up and walk away. Why am I still with this party? Overall, I align really well with the Republicans. But, when it comes to this issue, it makes me want to switch. But, if I stay Republican, we have an opportunity to say, ‘We are in your party and we don’t agree with what you are doing.’ When I talk to Republicans, I say that we just can’t be quiet because that’s what we’ve done for so long. Our voices haven’t been loud. This is on us now. And we’ve got to use the voices that we were given.
The day Pruitt was confirmed was such a deep-down disappointing day. Honestly, some days I am so exhausted that I come home and go to my room and close the door. For example, my dad does not get what I do. It drives me crazy because, as a retired person, he spends his time photographing nature, but he thinks, ‘I’m not responsible for anyone else.’
I’ve had people say to me, ‘Why are you focusing on this when you should be focusing on abortions?’ Let’s say, theoretically, we save 60 babies this week. Now they’re going to need homes and will live in a town that is polluted. These babies are exposed to chemicals while they’re developing in utero and become children with asthma. Their brains are impacted by these chemicals. So, sure, you save them from being aborted, but you’ve put them into a life where there are problems. So, when you think about the big picture and about how we have to ‘save all these children,’ we need to consider the quality of life that they would have.
I know people feel like my focus is not biblical, but I think that it is. In the Bible, it says to take care of people. And if you’re not thinking about the environment that people are living in, you’re not taking care of them. You’re taking care of the surface but not ever getting to the root of the problem and helping them stay healthy so they can go to do things. It goes back to Genesis. God created the heavens and the Earth and He looked around at the end and said, ‘This is good.’ It’s something good that I think He wants us to protect and take care of and not just run around willy-nilly using harmful chemicals and ignoring people’s health.
My aunt will be 80 this year and she came to an event I held that was called, ‘We Need the Climate.’ It was hosted by Interfaith Power and Light. We showed a map of the Earth heating up over the last 30 years. My aunt thought, all this time, that I was just being quirky when I talked about these things. I watched her face as she watched the map change. Her whole mindset on the topic changed. She made calls to Senator Portman and Senator Brown. She’s never done anything like that. It was a great moment for me because she’s old and theoretically doesn’t have that much time. And yet, she’s cutting out articles that I send and telling her friends about them. On days like that, this work is so exciting and I feel so empowered that I can’t imagine doing anything else.
If I could tell mothers anything, it would be, we’re all paying for our children’s educational future and helping them with school, but, we need to take into account the fact that if we’re not protecting the environment they live in, how will their health be down the line? We need to take action now. We can't be complacent. We are too focused on measurable successes that we forget that part of being successful is being healthy. If your air is loaded with chemicals and particulates, it’s hard to keep healthy.
If someone is thinking about getting into advocacy or climate change work, I advise them to take care of themselves. Because you can educate yourself and build up your support network and become a wonderful teacher and write good op-eds, but if you’re not taking care of yourself, you’re not going to be able to continue. I’ve been doing this off and on since October of 2011. You watch the politics change and the bills come and go, and the environmental crises come through. One thing has to be constant, and that’s you. Because no matter how sad everything gets and how exciting everything can be, you still have to wake up the next morning and keep going.”
The city of Mansfield is in Richland County, Ohio. It is halfway between Columbus and Cleveland. Mansfield’s population is approximately 48,000. In November 2012, the Mansfield community adopted a Community Bill of Rights into their town charter. This Bill of Rights forbids the injection wells of fracking wastewater on the grounds that this ban will protect the citizens of the community . Another facet of the charter is to prioritize the rights of the community over the rights of corporations, and at the same time acknowledges the rights of ecosystems. [1,3]. Within a similar timeframe, many other cities across Ohio enacted similar Community Bill of Rights to keep fracking activities outside of their borders. This created political tension in the state, as the pro-fracking interests within Ohio have attempted to intervene against municipalities adopting Community Bill of Rights , however, these efforts were unsuccessful.
Another ongoing struggle for environmental activists in Ohio is the water quality of the Great Lakes. Cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, occur in surface water naturally. However, these microscopic organisms can increase in number, creating algal blooms which produce toxins. These toxins have been known to cause illness and irritation in a variety of animals, including humans, and can lead to itching, and in some cases, death. Algal blooms also change the color and odor of water, which poses a challenge for water processing plants . These algal blooms have covered various parts of the Great Lakes, specifically Lake Erie for decades. In the 1970’s, Lake Erie was declared “dead,” however, this claim has been proven false. The Great Lakes region is still a major tourist attraction, as well as a vital location for fishing and other outdoor activities. Algal blooms still do occur in this area: the 2015 algae bloom was the largest recorded bloom in the area. In 2014, drinking waters were heavily affected by the blooms in nearby towns, such as Toledo, Ohio. The 2014 blooms contaminated water of over 400,000 people. Efforts to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency were undertaken by local Ohio environmental groups beginning in 2014. The federal lawsuit was filed April 25, 2017 .
LAURA'S ACTION STEPS
1. Share Laura’s Story.
3. Join Moms Clean Air Force movement today and stay connected.
4. Tell Congress that American must lead on climate!