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.