30 Years of U.S. Environmental Protection
by Carol M. Browner
[Speech - April 17, 2000]
Good evening and thank you, Senator Simpson, for that introduction. I am honored to be here at the Kennedy School and to share the stage with you, given your many years of service and commitment to our country, to the Institute of Politics, and to advancing public debate with perception and wit.
Let me thank the Environmental Action Committee and Gretchen Stevens for your commitment, your passion and especially your dedication to the proposition that raising awareness about environmental issues is as vital a task today as it has ever been.
This week, as you know, is the 30th anniversary of the first Earth Day--a landmark event in the modern environmental movement.
And this year is the 30th anniversary of the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, which I have had the privilege of leading for nearly one-quarter of its existence.
Such a nice, round number--30 years--is an appropriate occasion to pause and reflect on just what it was that enabled America to vigorously confront its environmental challenges--to put the protection of our air, water and land on the very front burner of the national agenda--and, for the most part, to successfully resolve the most difficult problems we faced at that time.
What was the foundation for that success? Why did it happen? And, most importantly, what can we learn from it?
Looking back, I am struck by three fundamental observations about that era.
First, there was a profound feeling in this country that something had to be done about pollution. Clearly, the situation had gotten way out of hand--and it seemed to be getting worse by the day. The deteriorating air quality in our cities, the fouling of our nation's waters, and the despoiling of precious areas of land were prompting most Americans to be concerned about the public health and the quality of life their children would inherit.
When a river actually catches fire--as one particular river did at the time--you know you've got a problem. So the nation committed itself to the task of eliminating pollution, to restoring our lands and waters to their uses, and to protecting public health without regard to cost.
Let me repeat those last four words--"without regard to cost." This represented a sea change in our nation's approach to environmental protection. From that point forward, the goal would be to eliminate harmful pollution. And we would begin by recognizing that there would be no intrinsic "right to pollute."
Secondly, this commitment was bipartisan and broadly held--among the American people and, most notably, among their elected representatives. Environmentalism was not the preserve of a particular party or region. The commitment was a shared one.
Thirdly, no one at the time knew exactly how America would resolve these daunting environmental problems. No one had all the answers. But that didn't stop the effort. The commitment was to set ambitious environmental goals and tough public health standards--and then find a way to meet them. We challenged everyone--businesses, governments, and the American people--to be a part of the solution.
That's how Congress created the nation's war on environmental degradation--enacting a vast array of environmental and public health laws that have served us well. And, for the next two decades, it did not hesitate to refine and refresh and renew those laws to meet emerging challenges.
For example, Congress banned lead from gasoline to protect our children. It addressed acid rain and the depletion of the ozone layer from CFC's. It stopped midnight dumpers and found ways to address the newly discovered toxic waste sites like Love Canal.
And it did so not because we had all the definitive answers at the time, but because progress itself was critical.
We knew we could not rest on what had been accomplished in the early 1970's--not with technology constantly providing both new pollutants and new ways of determining how pollutants affect our health. Accordingly, environmental protection became a work in progress--and an abiding responsibility that must remain in the forefront of the national agenda.
And what have we learned in 30 years of experience?
We've learned that protecting public health and the environment is a worthy objective, that our efforts can have a profound effect on reducing disease and improving our quality of life, and that our nation is far better for this effort.
We've learned that industry can bear the responsibility for cleaning up its own pollution, and do it in a cost-effective way. We've also learned that protecting the environment doesn't mean sacrificing the country's economic progress--indeed, the two very much go hand-in-hand. In fact, we've learned that many facets of our economic progress actually depend on a clean environment.
Today, many corporations want to be green, simply because it is good business for them. In most cases they are integrating environmental protection into their plans right from the start. And, for the most part, state governments have better environmental protection and enforcement capabilities than they've ever had.
But, in light of all this, something is definitely missing. Something is wrong. I have to question whether we are living up to our historic national commitment to protecting public health and the environment.
Case in point--it has been a full decade since the last real Congressional debate on the Clean Air Act. It has been 13 years since Congress took up the Clean Water Act. And it has been 14 years since there was a fresh look at Superfund.
Why is this? Certainly, the science continues to show the need for these laws, their protections and, most importantly, their continual improvement. And the public continues to demand strong environmental protections.
A Pew survey released last week found that more than two-thirds of respondents have a favorable view of the EPA, compared to a 48 percent favorable view of the federal government as a whole.
And a recent Roper survey continued to find strong support for environmental protection--with more than 60 percent of Americans believing that it is fully reconcilable with economic progress, and 70 percent favoring environmental protection over development if a choice must be made.
But, as with many areas of public policy, today's environmental challenges and issues aren't quite so easily crystallized as they were in 1970. Today's problems can't be illustrated by burning rivers, dirty smokestacks, or open sewage pipes--things you could take a picture of, put in the newspaper or on television, and thereby spur people and their representatives to action.
Rather, today's scientific questions are much more subtle and complex--but, I would strongly emphasize, no less important to our children's future.
Global warming, for example. The world's scientific community is telling us in no uncertain terms that, for the first time in history, pollution from human activity is changing the Earth's climate. The projected impact on weather patterns amounts to an alarming legacy for our children.
Science also tells us that, despite years of progress, the cleanup of our urban air is not complete--and that we must do more to protect the health of future generations.
The pollution of our rivers, lakes, and coastal areas, and particularly our drinking water supplies, now comes not from a few but from many sources--collectively known as precipitation run-off from farm fields, roads, parking lots and lawns. The loss of wetlands to development is proving to have an enormous affect on water quality.
We are now seeing evidence that the cumulative effect of chemical pollution in our environment may affect particularly sensitive individuals--such as children or older people--at lower levels than national standards.
And no one yet knows all the sources of the childhood asthma epidemic we face.
These are just a few examples of how complex our environmental challenges have become--while the solutions have become decreasingly simplistic.
I fervently believe that America would benefit from a thoughtful, national debate on public health and environmental protection. A debate on how best to protect wetlands and stem polluted runoff, how to further reduce harmful pollutants in our urban air, how to address global climate change, how to further revitalize our cities and create more shared green spaces, and how to protect the most vulnerable among us from the impacts of not one, but many pollutants. A thoughtful national debate on how best to beat the challenges of today--not just complete the work of the past but actually a modernization of our environmental statutes. One that is shaped by the knowledge and experience of the last 30 years. What I see instead are one size fits all--quick fixes--generally proposed by one point of view. For example, the ongoing attempts to "poison the well," so to speak, by infusing cost-benefit considerations into the very definition of protectiveness. In other words, protect the public health only after you determine that the benefits of doing it will outweigh the costs. This is evident in proposed changes to the Clean Air Act and in arguments being made by industry to the Supreme Court.
How would we do this? Would we have, say, required the removal of lead from gasoline 25 years ago if the costs to industry were weighed against the benefits? How would we have determined what the benefits would be? What is the value of a few IQ points for a child? What is the value of a human life?
And let's say we determine that the costs exceed the benefits of reducing pollution? The costs of cleaning the air greater than treating asthma attacks made worse by current air pollution. What then?
Let me be clear. The historic commitment that was the foundation for our success in conquering environmental degradation was based on a simple premise--protect public health first, and then figure out how to deal with the costs. Set the necessary protective health standards, and then work out a strict time frame for industries to innovate and devise ways to meet those standards.
You can go back and check the record. You can look at all the documents--hearing testimony,
Congressional committee reports, and all the legislation that was passed. It's there. It had bipartisan support. And, most importantly, it has worked. While those actions have brought enormous benefits to the health of our citizens and our quality of life, those who predicted that the economic costs would ruin American industries were wrong. Industries rose to the challenge and worked very hard to comply.
And who would argue that, as a result, America is not light years ahead of where we were 30 years ago? Clearly, we have a cleaner environment and a much stronger economy.
But, unfortunately, this argument on cost-benefit is where Congress has been stuck for several years now.
Absent a real debate on how to ensure our environmental laws keep pace with current challenges, the Clinton/Gore Administration--and in many instances, the states--have been forced to develop all sorts of creative new approaches to fill the gaps--common sense, cost-effective measures that emphasize partnership and cooperation with businesses and between all levels of government.
We have worked to develop more flexible approaches to spur the cleanup of abandoned, polluted industrial sites in our inner cities and return them to productive use. We are creating a flexible structure for addressing runoff pollution as part of our plan to finish the cleanup of America's polluted rivers, lakes and estuaries.
We are working to apply market-based trading schemes to help resolve interstate air pollution issues. We have reformed the Superfund program to increase the pace of toxic waste cleanup, while decreasing the costs of cleanup.
We've shown that we can work cooperatively to structure new ways to encourage responsible businesses that want to exercise environmental leadership and tap into the vast potential of market-driven new technologies.
A perfect example is the new clean air / clean fuels standards announced by the President last year--standards that will reduce emissions from autos and small trucks by up to 95 percent, and which, for the first time, ensure that SUV's, mini-vans and light duty trucks meet the same stringent requirements as passenger cars.
This was the direct result of EPA's efforts to work with the auto and oil industries and hammer out an agreement that promotes innovation, avoids unintended consequences from regulations, and secures vastly improved public health conditions.
Clearly, we've made a great deal of progress over the past seven years.
But we have had to do all of these things administratively--without the leadership from Congress necessary to refresh the framework of law that guides all of our work.
We could do so much more--if we could just help Congress find its way back home to the shared commitment of an earlier era--when partisanship took a holiday and our national leaders held firm to the belief that the protection of our environment should not be a political issue, but rather a sacred trust to be held inviolate for future generations. We've got to start talking about this again. We've got to get the real debate going again.
I believe it will happen because you will make it happen. Polls show that the American people continue to support, in overwhelming numbers, balanced solutions to protect public health and the responsible stewardship of the environment. They may not completely understand all of the complex issues involved--but they do want results. And they don't want cost considerations to outweigh these objectives.
Further, they are demonstrating a willingness to learn. One of our goals has been to give people the information they need to take action in their own communities. And we have found that people are, by and large, hungry for any information we can provide them.
Our EPA Internet web site, which contains gigabit upon gigabit of environmental information specific to communities across the nation, is now getting more than 52 million hits per month. And that number is growing.
Whether you're talking about a virtual community of environmentally-aware, grassroots activists--or a new level of thinking among responsible business leaders--it is clear that public awareness and understanding are the essential keys to progress. They are the building blocks for a new consensus that can revitalize the spirit and commitment of the first Earth Day.
We need that spirit. We need that consensus. We need that commitment to tackle the environmental challenges of the 21st Century. This is what originally inspired me to public service--the very idea that men and women in our highest levels of government service could set aside their everyday political disputes and make a lasting contribution to our country and its quality of life.
And that brings me right back to where I began this evening--to the dedication and commitment of people right here in this room. You will make the difference. By your actions, you will help create the critical mass that will ultimately drive the nation to do the right thing. And you will thereby ensure that future Earth Days are not merely observations of a bygone era, but rather a time for renewing our commitment to building a better world for our children and their children to come.
Thank you. Best of luck to you all. And now let me hear your questions.
ARCO Forum of Public Affairs, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts