By Arpita Bhattacharyya, Center for American Progress
President Obama’s strong remarks on climate change yesterday left the environmental community hopeful that actions will soon follow his words. The Center for American Progress has laid out a blue print for how the President can move forward on climate change and energy, and most of those recommended actions can be taken now through executive orders, including setting carbon-pollution standards for existing power plants, oil refineries, and other major industrial sources under the federal Clean Air Act.
If President Obama takes these up, he will inevitably face push back from members of Congress who falsely claim that the economic costs are too high for crucial Environmental Protection Agency public health regulations. In reality, these regulations have saved thousands of lives and strengthened our economy. China’s extreme air pollution earlier this month serves as reminder of why we can’t let anti-public health rhetoric shake our resolve on crucial live saving regulations.
Air pollution levels in Beijing literally went off the charts earlier this month. On the normal scale of 1 to 500 for measuring small pollution particulates harmful for health known as PM2.5, the U.S. Embassy monitors in Beijing recorded 755 on January 12th. To put that in context, 50 or below is considered good air quality by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index. 301 to 500 is considered extremely hazardous and people are advised against going outdoors. The 755 rating surpassed the “crazy bad” pollution record set two years ago in China. The Chinese government responded by pulling government vehicles off the road and limiting activity at construction sites. Meanwhile, hospitals were full of patients with heart and respiratory ailments. China’s challenges with pollution serves as a reminder for Americans on how important Environmental Protection Agency regulations are for protecting public health.
While China’s air pollution problems may sound extreme and incomparable to air quality here in the U.S., we actually did face a very similar environmental situation during its industrialization. The reason? Tight regulatory standards for public health didn’t exist yet. In the 1940s and 1950s, smog had blanketed major cities while sewage and industrial waste infected U.S. rivers. In 1948, pollutants trapped over the industrial city of Donora, Pennsylvania killed twenty and permanently injured hundreds.
Slowly, the American Public became more aware of the effect of pollution on public health and demanded action.
In 1962, the publication of Silent Spring on the harmful impacts of DDT on animal and human health lit a spark among environmentalists and the general public alike to address industrial pollution. As the decade went on, teach-ins, TV shows, and various forums educated the public on threats the humans and the environment faced from pollution. Then in June 1969, the Cuyahoga river caught on fire (for the umpteenth time) due to oil slicked debris and pollution from decades of industrial waste. The flaming river was a powerful symbol of the costs of unchecked industrialization, and Americans demanded government action to clean up pollution.
At the end of 1969, President Nixon and Congress sprang into action to address public concerns on the environment. Congress passed the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that declared a national environmental policy, promoted efforts to protect the environment and public health, and encouraged deeper understanding of the threats humans and ecosystems faced.
On New Year’s Day, 1970, when President Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), he said he was:
“[C]onvinced that the 1970s absolutely must be the years when America pays its debt to the past by reclaiming the purity of its air, its waters, and our living environment. It is literally now or never.”
As the year progressed, President Nixon decided that a new independent agency was necessary to coordinate the environmental work across the administration. On December 2nd, 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency opened with Assistant Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus at the reins. By the end of the month, Congress had passed the Clean Air Act, giving the EPA the authority to establish national air quality standards, national standards for significant new pollution sources, and facilities emitting hazardous substances. With NEPA and the Clean Air Act as bookends to 1970, President Nixon and the 91st Congress paved the way for the vital health standards that protect Americans today.
President Nixon set up the regulatory system that continues to protect us today. Notably, a Republican President was able to hear the public and take sweeping action to clean up our air and water, action that the anti-regulation Republican party of today repeatedly fights against.
But the reason that the U.S. doesn’t make headlines for extreme pollution like China is that we continue to fight for public health with new and improved air quality standards. The EPA bases its rulemaking on the most current, best available science. As our knowledge grows about new and old pollutants alike, the EPA is legally bound to set new standards to ensure healthy environments surround our schools and workplaces.
For example, science in the last decades has proved beyond doubt that carbon pollution will be harmful for human livelihoods. In June 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia unanimously declared that the EPA is “unambigously correct” that the Clean Air Act requires it to regulate carbon pollution. As science evolves, our policies must as well. Our work is not over just because our air quality isn’t as “crazy bad” China’s.
In his second term, the Obama Administration has the opportunity to fight for public health standards through the reduction of carbon pollution and smog. Let’s continue protecting Americans families and ensure they have safe environments to live, work, and learn now and in the future.
Arpita Bhattacharyya is Research Assistant to Distinguished Senior Fellow Carol Browner at the Center for American Progress.