Happy Birthday Clean(er) Air: We Still Have a Long Way to Go

Van Jones Sep 24, 2010

This article appeared on Common Dreams, via The Huffington Post.  

The Clean Air Act turns 40 this month. But if dirty energy proponents and climate-change deniers have their way, it won’t survive intact for another 40 weeks.

Ever since the US Supreme Court agreed that the EPA has the right to regulate greenhouse gasses under the act, lobbyists for dirty energy have been trying to gut the law.

Americans can’t let that happen. Promoters of dirty air have been vilifying this law since it was just a notion in a congressional subcommittee, four decades ago. They carry on with the exact same fear-mongering today. They keep peddling the same old falsehoods: enforcing the Clean Air Act is a job killer, bad for industry, certain to ruin the economy, etc.

In 1970 they said it would “cause entire industries to collapse,” and in 1980 they said it would cause “a quiet death for business across the country.”

It is really kind of sad. You would think that — after four decades — they could come up with some new talking points. But no: It is always the same stuff.

Unfortunately for them, we now have the benefit of 40 years of hindsight. And even the most casual review of the facts shows how demonstrably wrong the defenders of dirty air and dirty energy have been — time and time, again.

They are dead wrong, and the facts speak for themselves.

Economic Benefits

Clean-air regulation in this country has created trillions of dollars in economic value. This year alone, the benefits of clean-air programs are projected to total $110 billion. In a bipartisan gathering last week, EPA director Lisa Jackson said that the “total benefits of the Clean Air Act amount to 40 times the cost of regulation.” Put another way, for every $1 they spend on regulation, this country gets back $40 in economic benefit.

Clean-air regulation has also dramatically increased worker productivity, preventing 4,100,000 lost work days since 1970, and 31,000,000 days in which Americans would have had to restrict activity due to air-pollution-related illness. (Now that’s good for business).

It has also created entire new markets for automobiles and cleaner vehicles. Today’s new cars, light trucks, and heavy-duty diesel engines are up to 95 percent cleaner than past models thanks to technology such as the catalytic converter. New non-road engines used in construction and agriculture have 90 percent less particle pollution and nitrogen oxide emissions than previous models. Finally, vehicle and fuel programs from clean-air regulations will produce $186 billion in air quality and health benefits by 2030 — all this with only $11 billion in costs, a nearly 16-to-1 benefit/cost ratio.

Health Benefits

Clean air is essential for our health and safety; it is unconscionable to allow bottom-line profits to come before human life.

Clean air regulation has produced dramatic health benefits for the nation. According to an EPA analysis, the first 20 years of Clean Air Act programs, from 1970 to 1990, prevented:

• 205,000 premature deaths
• 672,000 cases of chronic bronchitis
• 21,000 cases of heart disease
• 843,000 asthma attacks
• 10.4 million lost I.Q. points in children — mostly from reducing lead in gasoline
• 18 million child respiratory illnesses

The health benefits have been most dramatic for our children. By 1995, the percentage of U.S. children with elevated blood-lead levels had dropped from 88.2% in the 1970s to 4.4%, according to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Likewise, ear infections, which have cost parents 3-5 billion dollars per year, have decreased as air quality has increased, according to the Surgeon General.

In total, the health benefits of the first 20 years of clean air regulation amount to $22.2 trillion, and the total compliance costs over the same years cost $0.5 trillion. That’s a savings of $21.7 billion dollars over the first 20 years of the act’s existence.

This includes a projected prevention of 1,700,000 asthma attacks, 22,000 respiratory-related hospital admission, 42,000 prevented cardiovascular hospital visits, and 295 million incidents of skin cancer.

Here’s to the Next 40 Years!

This is a fight from which we cannot stand down. Clean air and water is literally a matter of life and death. Some communities — particularly communities of color — don’t have clean air to breathe and clean water to drink.

Our clean-air regulations, and the Environmental Protection Agency, need to be strengthened and protected from attacks by special interests, who continually try to put the power of America’s regulatory power on the chopping block. We have a long way to go before we breathe a sigh of relief, and a long fight to protect ourselves from the promoters of dirty air.

But let us remember this: Every time the American people have insisted upon higher environmental performance from our industries, American business has risen to the occasion. Over and over, entrepreneurs have shown that they can find ways to build private wealth — without unduly harming public health. That will happen, too, when the EPA begins regulating greenhouse-gas emissions.

To pretend otherwise is to deliberately ignore our nation’s proud history of continually improving our environmental performance. Perhaps worse, it is to confess an appalling lack of confidence in the creative power of American ingenuity.

Special interest lobbyists have been hitting the panic button about clean air regulations for (at least) 40 years. For decades, paid lobbyists have tried to dupe the public (and numerous politicians) that spewing poison into the air and water for free was good for business — and that clean air and good health should be an afterthought. They are wrong. And the champions of clean air are right — still.

Van Jones is the founder and former president of Green for All and author of The Green Collar Economy. In 2009, he served as the green jobs advisor in the Obama White House. Van is currently a senior fellow at the Center For American Progress, and also holds a joint appointment at Princeton University, as a distinguished visiting fellow in both the Center for African American Studies and in the Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

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