This past Tuesday, April 22 was Earth Day. I have used the occasion in past years to pen a few thoughts in my weekly column about the environment. With my plans to retire from Congress at the conclusion of this session, this will be my last commentary on Earth Day. So, I would like to offer some general thoughts recognizing how far we have come, where we are today, and where I think we are headed.
To look at “Earthrise,” the photograph of Earth from Apollo 8, we cannot help but recognize that our fates are all tied to the same, single lonely planet. The celebration of Earth Day and its focus on our fragile environment has led to an impressive series of landmark environmental laws, including the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, that have forever changed our nation for the better.
In the same year as the first Earth Day, 1970, Congress enacted the Clean Air Act. Since its adoption, aggregate national emissions of the six common pollutants (lead, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone and fine particulates) have dropped by an average of 72 percent. This significant decline comes despite the fact that our population has grown by 53 percent and the economy has grown by 219 percent. What these numbers tell me is that we can reduce pollution and still grow the economy and our population. More importantly, reducing air pollution has led to dramatic improvements in public health. Reductions in pollutants attributed to the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments have prevented 205,000 early deaths, 86,000 fewer emergency hospital visits, and tens of millions of more work and school days, according to a 2011 peer-reviewed report.
The American people have come to expect a cleaner, healthier environment, and these laws have delivered. But for the past twenty years, there has been little progress in the way of new environmental law. Despite the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, Congress could not find the votes to enact meaningful improvements in the nation’s oil spill law. Most of my time in Congress has been fighting against those who have allied with polluting industries to weaken or roll back current environmental protections. I am gratified that their efforts so far have met with failure. But, we have essentially been in a holding pattern.
Today, however, we are confronted with a changing climate caused by our insatiable appetite for fossil fuels and the release of more and more carbon into the atmosphere. This one issue of global warming threatens life as we know it. It is affecting our air, our water, our wildlife, our health and our economy. Absent new powers granted by Congress, President Obama correctly has undertaken a series of administrative actions, including plans to issue regulations to limit carbon emissions from coal-fired electric power plants.
I believe these regulations will succeed over time at reducing carbon emissions, and other nations will follow our lead to collectively reduce their carbon emissions as well. And as our impact on climate change becomes more evident, Congress at the instigation of the American people will take more constructive steps to further reduce our carbon emissions. Wishful thinking perhaps; but these are the views of an optimist. After all, nothing good has ever been accomplished by pessimists.