I Spent 12 Years in the Marines. The Inaction on Climate Change Shocks Me | Opinion

When I joined the Marines, I took an oath to protect the people and land of the United States. After 12 years of service, including deployments in Iraq, Kuwait and Bahrain, I came home and was astonished to see how policymakers were failing to protect our people and land from climate change.

Climate change is causing drought, extreme heat, wildfires, sea level rise and flooding that puts military personnel and installations at risk. I live in Florida, which is the canary in the climate coal mine. The swamps around my home in Orlando are flooding. The streets of Miami are also flooding. Our beaches are getting smaller because the sea level is rising. Along the Florida coast are more than 20 military installations that are threatened by flooding. There is no question that climate change strains our military readiness and compromises national security.

I take this seriously since military roots run deep in my family. My father was also a Marine. My grandfather was in the Army and my nephew is on active duty in the Air Force. Like all military families, our family has sacrificed a lot for this country. All we ask in return—for our family and all families—is that we have the foundation for a healthy future: a stable environment, safe water to drink and clean air to breathe.

And yet, my mother can't go outside because she has a respiratory condition and the heat and air pollution make her breathing worse. I see the same respiratory problems in my fellow veterans when I visit the VA hospital. My 20-year-old daughter worries about finding a place with clean air and water when she is ready to start a family. She wonders whether she should bring children into this world.

We have all the tools we need to build a more climate-resilient country, if we can muster our collective will. Cutting methane pollution is one of the fastest and most effective ways to slow climate change and protect the health of children and families. Methane, the main ingredient in natural gas, is a powerful greenhouse gas pollutant that is fueling the climate crisis. Methane is leaking from the oil and gas sector at the rate of more than 16 million metric tons a year—the equivalent of the climate pollution from all of the nation's passenger vehicles in a year.

A protestor holds a sign
A protestor holds a sign reading "Protect Future Generations" during the Climate Justice March in New York on Nov. 13, 2021. KENA BETANCUR/AFP via Getty Images

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is considering a rule that will cut methane and other harmful air pollutants from newly built and existing oil and gas operations. For the first time, there will be methane standards that limit pollution from our country's nearly 1 million older, existing oil and gas operations. This is an enormous step in the right direction, but there are gaps in the proposed rule that would let large sources of methane pollution go unchecked.

First, the EPA needs to strengthen its proposal by requiring frequent inspections of smaller wells, which are exempt under the proposed rule. Hundreds of thousands of smaller wells across the country generate only a small amount of usable oil or gas, but make an outsize contribution to methane pollution. The exemption is a major problem, because smaller wells may be more prone to equipment failures and are significant polluters.

Second, the EPA should eliminate the routine practice of "flaring." Some oil and gas companies have not invested in equipment updates that would allow them to capture and sell all the gas they drill, but instead burn it off as a waste product. This burning or flaring emits air pollutants that harm the health of nearby communities and contribute to climate change.

As a Latina, this issue is close to my heart. There are close to 2 million Latinos living within a half mile of oil and gas facilities. We are three times more likely to be negatively affected by air pollution because of where we live and work. Our kids are more likely to die of asthma and miss 112,000 days of school per year because of air pollution. Everyone is affected by air pollution and climate change, but Black and brown communities, people with low incomes and others on the front lines are being hit the hardest.

In the Marines, I lived by the credo "leave no one behind." Now that I am in civilian life, I am urging our policymakers not to leave any of us behind. No matter where someone lives or how much money they make, everyone must have the basic human right to clean air, water and a safe environment. The EPA must finalize the strongest and most comprehensive rules to protect our families from all sources of oil and gas methane pollution, including small wells and routine flaring. We demand justice with every breath.

Yaritza Perez is a second-generation Puerto Rican, mother, U.S. Marine Corps veteran and organizer with Moms Clean Air Force. She lives in Orlando, Fla.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.