Speeches - By Date
Remarks Prepared for Delivery Syracuse University Syracuse, N.Y.10/16/2000
Carol M. Browner, Administrator
Environmental Protection Agency
Remarks Prepared for Delivery
October 16, 2000
Good afternoon. I want to thank Congressman Jim Walsh for that introduction. The Congressman is chairman of the subcommittee that handles the budget for the Environmental Protection Agency.
In other words, he controls the purse strings.
The Washington budget process is always an interesting journey and I want to thank the Congressman for all his help in moving our budget along. Bipartisanship is not always the word of the day in Washington and I want to thank the Congressman for always putting aside partisan differences and working to find common ground.
I also want to thank Dean Bogucz and Vice Chancellor Deborah Freund for inviting me here today for the dedication of your new environmental laboratories.
I also want to thank the distinguished faculty of Syracuse University and its sister institutions -- the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry and the Upstate Medical University.
Many of you work with EPA, helping advance environmental knowledge. But you are also teaching this next generation of environmental leaders.
March marked the 130th Anniversary of the founding of Syracuse University. Congratulations.
This year also marks some important environmental anniversaries.
In April we celebrated the 30th anniversary of Earth Day, a landmark event in the history of citizen activism in this country. And this December marks the 30th anniversary of the creation of the EPA, which I have had the privilege of leading for nearly one quarter of its existence.
With these two anniversaries we recall a time when our country -- our people and our government – vigorously confronted a set of enormous environmental challenges. It was a time when we placed the protection of our air, water and land on the very forefront of our national agenda.
What was the foundation for that commitment? Why did it happen? And, most importantly, what can we learn from it?
Looking back, I am struck by some 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.
Back then, rivers were so choked with toxic chemicals and waste one actually caught fire. Many of our towns and cities were hidden under shrouds of dirty air. There were no binding national standards for treating or testing our drinking water and outbreaks of waterborne diseases were common.
In the years following that first Earth Day, Congress rose to the challenge, passing the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act. We committed ourselves to the task of eliminating pollution, to restoring our lands and waters 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 its threat to public health.
And we would begin by recognizing that there was not - and could not be - an intrinsic “right to pollute,” any more than there could be a right to endanger the public health.
Second, 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.
Finally, 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.
It’s a challenge we need to take up again. But will we?
Two important things happen on November 7th that could have long-range implications for our nation’s environmental and public health protections.
First, of course, are the elections. Millions of voters will go to the polls and choose a new President and Congress. Differences have been defined. And now choices have to be made.
That is up to the voters. Do they want an Administration that puts the environment and public health at the forefront of its initiatives? And do they want a Congress that agrees?
But also important -- although tucked out of the glare of the political debate -- is a case that will be heard by the Supreme Court.
This decision will be made by nine justices -- but could echo for generations in areas of public health and environmental, consumer and workplace protections.
This case will decide Congressional authority to set public policy and the executive branch’s ability to carry those policies out. It will also decide if we are going to subject the health and safety of our children, our seniors -- and others among our most vulnerable -- to the outcome of an economic cost-benefit analysis, as opposed to the best available science.
This would be a reversal of our national commitment of just a few decades ago. How did we get to this point?
In 1997, the Clinton-Gore Administration proposed sweeping new standards under the Clean Air Act that would guarantee clearer skies and healthier air to 125 million Americans -- including 35 million children -- by offering greater protection from soot and smog.
But -- predictably -- business and industrial interests – opposed to the tougher pollution standards they would have to comply with -- sued. And by a split decision, a U.S. Appeals Court ruled for the industries -- setting aside decades of settled law and questioning the very constitutionality of the Clean Air Act.
Why? Did the court rule our science was lacking? No. In fact, the court found the science compelling. And let me quote from their decision: “The growing empirical evidence demonstrating a relationship between [soot] and adverse health effects amply justifies establishment of new standards.”
Were the regulations too costly -- too burdensome? No. The judges agreed with previous courts that specifically held that EPA is prohibited from considering costs to industry when setting health standards.
So what was the problem?
Well, the court ruled that Congress had unconstitutionally delegated its authority to EPA when it directed the Agency to set air pollution standards.
Now, this constitutional theory -- called non-delegation -- has been rejected since the dawn of the New Deal -- since the time of Franklin Roosevelt.
And as the Solicitor General will argue on Election Day before the Supreme Court, the lower court’s decision flies in the face of history. It flies in the face of logic. It wipes out 65 years of Supreme Court precedent regarding Congress’s constitutional authority to direct agencies to do the hard work of research and setting public health standards.
The decision also ignores 30 years of legal rulings that have specifically upheld EPA’s power under the Clean Air Act to set these standards and then to enforce them.
We appealed and the Supreme Court accepted the case as Browner versus the American Trucking Association. The other side -- industry -- also appealed -- claiming that Congress specified that cost-benefit analysis should be the determinant in setting public health protections. So a second case was accepted as American Trucking Association versus Browner and they will be heard together.
These cases are important. And not just for clean air and the EPA.
The section of the Clean Air Act at issue here is fairly straightforward: By act of Congress, EPA shall adopt air pollution standards requisite to protect the public’s health with an adequate margin of safety based on the best available science as evaluated every five years.
The statutory language is similar to many public health, environmental, consumer and workplace laws. Congress knew that science was always discovering new things and our environmental laws and public health protections needed to keep pace.
This Administration took seriously its obligation under the law to review these public health standards based on the best available science and strengthen them if needed for public health. And after looking at the data, we recommended the most sweeping change in a generation.
But only after an intense and rigorous process.
First, EPA scientists analyzed thousands of peer-reviewed scientific studies that had been published in leading journals.
These studies were then synthesized and presented to the Clean Air Science Advisory Committee -- or CASAC -- an independent scientific advisory body, as required by law under the 1977 amendments to the Clean Air Act.
After holding more than 125 hours of public meetings, and based on 250 of the most relevant studies, CASAC concluded that EPA needed to set more protective standards for soot and smog.
But we didn’t stop there.
Next came another 50 hours of public hearings, with 57,000 comments logged.
And we didn’t stop there either.
Congress thoroughly reviewed the new standards, holding 24 hearings -- hour after hour of questions and answers -- and adopted no changes.
These new air standards were based on more scientific studies, more scientific review and more public comment than any other pollution standard in the history of this country.
And it doesn’t even stop there.
The Health Effects Institute, a respected, nonpartisan, independent organization – jointly funded by the auto industry and EPA – recently re-evaluated the science and confirmed our results.
If this kind of work . . . all these scientific studies, . . . all these public hearings . . . is rejected as the best way to ensure public health protection . . . what other health, safety and consumer protections could be wiped off the books?
Workplace safety? Food safety? Auto safety? Prescription drugs?
If public health and safety agencies can’t set and enforce standards – work they’ve been doing for 30, 40, 50 years – who would we look to?
Could we really expect Congress to take over the important work of EPA, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Highway Safety Administration, the Securities and Exchange Commission and other executive agencies?
Time after time, Congress has said that it doesn’t want to do this. Time after time Congress has said that after it sets broad public policy, the details of protecting the environment, protecting public health, protecting consumers, are best carried out by professionally staffed executive agencies.
In the second case, industry will argue that the primary determining factor should be the outcome of a cost-benefit analysis.
Now, we do take costs into account. But first we follow our mandate to protect public health based on the best available science. Then we look at the most commonsense, cost-effective ways to achieve those public health gains.
And the results have been impressive.
Between 1970 and 1990, the Clean Air Act produced $22 trillion in benefits, at the cost of half a trillion in compliance costs. That’s a pretty good return on investment. Especially when the payoff is reflected in the clear eyes and clean lungs of healthy children.
Over the past seven and a half years, this Administration has also put in place comprehensive protections of our air, land, water and food . . . and we have the healthiest economy in our nation’s history.
Cost-benefit analysis can be a valuable tool. But let’s be clear that it raises difficult questions. Whose costs? Whose benefits?
If history is any guide, initial industry estimates of the cost to reduce their pollution are often vastly overstated.
A good example is our successful acid rain program. Industry estimated that the pollution reduction required would cost $1,000 a ton. But it came in at a fraction of that – $100 to $200 a ton.
Cost benefit analysis also requires putting a price on the health of some of our most vulnerable.
Is the health of a child in a crumbling neighborhood worth less than the life of a suburban child?
Is the health of our seniors -- the people who fought in our wars and handed us our prosperity -- worth less than a younger adult just entering the work force?
Are people with asthma or other breathing disorders just out of luck if the numbers don’t add up?
Is it fair to subject their health to a comparison of the costs industry will face in controlling pollution? Do we really want our level of public health protections to be dictated by such economic calculations, rather than good science?
If the day comes when we find ourselves subjecting the health protections of our children and our most vulnerable citizens to the outcome of cost-benefit analysis -- literally putting a price on their heads -- we will have dishonored our past and devalued our future.
Beyond the immediate challenge this Supreme Court case represents, there are other looming environmental challenges that will confront the next Administration and the next Congress.
But there is one that I believe is of paramount importance: Climate change. Now, there are some out there who -- ignoring all evidence -- will tell you: “Don’t worry! There is no such a thing as climate change.”
Thomas Jefferson would have found such talk -- unsupported by facts -- disturbing.
He said: “I am not apt to be alarmed at innovations recommended by reason. But rather by those whose interests or prejudices shrink from the advance of truth and science.”
And science is telling us that global warming . . . climate change . . . is not some distant challenge. It is here today. More than 2,000 of the world’s experts on the global environment have told us what to expect.
Sea levels will rise. Insect-borne diseases like malaria will spread. Storms will intensify. Skin cancers will rise. And now-productive farmland will shrivel and fail.
We cannot wait to see every single one of these predictions become absolutely reality before we act, because then it will be too late. We cannot wait for a thousand -- or a hundred thousand -- or a million data points to be verified.
I have a lot of respect for engineers. I work with a lot of them. But I have yet to meet one who can reverse a rising sea.
Confronting global warming will require the kind of political will from the new Administration . . . and from an engaged and active Congress . . . that we showed we could muster 30 years ago.
And then -- after open and public debate on the issue -- just like 30 years ago, it will require business leadership, scientific leadership . . . and leadership from each and every one of us . . . state to state . . . and across national boundaries.
The problems are daunting. But we are not doomed. We are challenged. But challenges are something we have always risen to.
At the end of the 19th Century, the Patent Commissioner told Congress that the Patent Office should be closed because everything that was ever going to be invented had already been invented.
Boy did he get that wrong.
The century that followed -- the 20th Century -- is often referred to as the American Century. And why not? Over that 100-year span, Americans both as a society and as individuals put on a display of inspiration, ingenuity and innovation unparalleled in world history.
Our scientists have peered into the inner workings of the atom and out to the edge of the universe -- and the beginning of time itself.
American inventors, tinkering in garages and workshops, invented everything from the airplane to the personal computer.
We have nearly eradicated childhood diseases like polio and measles because, not only did we discover vaccines, but our society wisely decided that these medical miracles should be available to all our children.
This is a nation that has long looked toward the edge -- toward the boundaries of what was known . . . and then beyond to what was yet to know. We said: “We can take another step. We can and will go farther.”
Listen to President John F. Kennedy’s call to leadership in 1962 when he issued his call for this nation to land on the moon before the end of the decade.
“We choose to do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard . . . because the goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills . . . because the challenge is one we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
Time and time again, we have met challenges and we have mastered them. And it’s time to do it again. This time not to probe our distant moon, but rather to protect our mother earth.
Thirty years ago, many thought environmental protection was something we could put on the national “to-do” list -- work the problem -- solve it -- and then check it off and say: “Job well done. The environment and public health are protected.”
Now we know it doesn’t work that way.
Protecting the environment is a duty we hold in perpetuity. Each generation adds to the foundation. But finality is an illusion -- almost like parallel lines meeting at the horizon. It doesn’t happen.
But, still, we need to look to the horizon and beyond, because that is where the solutions to our new challenges lie. As our reach should exceed our grasp, so must our vision extend beyond plain view.
Meeting challenges. It’s our debt to the past. Our duty to the future. And that makes it our mission in the present.