A look back to the 1960s shows that the United States has made a lot of environmental progress since the first Earth Day, held on April 22, 1970. Still, although the nation’s rivers and streams are cleaner, the use of toxic chemicals is strictly regulated and recycling and energy conservation are mainstream, the country — and the world — face the largest environmental threat yet, in the form of climate change.
Because the threat is so dispersed and its effects aren’t crystal clear, combating climate change is proving more difficult than banning DDT or passing the Clean Air Act. Passing laws that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in the U.S. and around the world, should be the focus of this Earth Day, and, likely, many of those to come.
Before 1970, there were no federal regulations to stop the dumping of waste and toxins into the nation’s water and air. There was no Environmental Protection Agency.
It was not until the Clean Air Act was amended in 1970s that the federal government set limits on air pollution. Previous versions of the law simply required monitoring.
The 1970s rewrite often was referred to as the Muskie Act because Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie played a leading role in writing the legislation.
Since passage of the act, emissions of toxic lead have dropped 98 percent and emissions of carbon monoxide have dropped by nearly a third even though driving has more than doubled.
In 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, again with advocacy from Sen. Muskie. The Ocean Dumping Act was also passed that year and the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974.
These bills, like environmental legislation before and since, faced stiff opposition from corporations that would have to change their practices.
Such struggles between protecting water, air and earth and corporate profits have continued through the decades, culminating in the current debate over climate change.
Industry-funded campaigns have planted doubt about the extreme changes in weather in recent years and, more pointedly, sought to prove that rising temperatures, increasingly devastating storms and widespread drought are part of a natural cycle, not the result of human activities.
Fortunately, senators from Maine again have played a leadership role in pushing environmental legislation.
Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins long have championed more fuel-efficient, less polluting cars, stiffer air pollution regulations, more rigorous alternative energy development and a system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Sen. Collins, along with Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat, has sponsored a bill that many view as more politically palatable than a cap-and-trade measure pushed by Sens. John Kerry, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman. The Collins-Cantwell bill uses a so-called cap-and-dividend approach.
Carbon emissions would be capped and emission allowances sold at federal auctions. Seventy-five percent of the proceeds go directly back to consumers, with the remained put into a trust for green technologies, aid to affected workers and other programs.
The bill also would ease regional and economic disparities, according to a recent analysis.
After more than a decade of inaction on climate change, such legislation offers a way for the U.S. again to play a leadership role, a role that is sorely needed as global talks have foundered.
A conference on climate change in Copenhagen last year was a disappointment, ending with little progress. A major area of concern is who will pay for the changes needed to reduce emissions.
Poorer nations rightly argue that they often face the most dire results of climate change — such as droughts and flooding, which leads to widespread famine and the displacement of millions of people — but are not the major cause of the problem. In addition, they don’t have the financial resources to pay for significant changes.
“Only a wealthy society can afford the economic sacrifices necessary to put expensive scrubbers on smokestacks, to build and maintain the infrastructure necessary to sustain clean waterways, and to set aside productive lands for conservation and species protection,” writes James Taylor, a senior fellow for environment policy at The Heartland Institute.
“For nations such as China, India, Bangladesh, Laos and Vietnam … imposing expensive environmental mandates on citizens who cannot afford food, clothing, and shelter is not an option,” he adds. Mr. Taylor uses Earth Day to praise free markets as the cause of environmental improvements.
While this is simplistic, the fact that China, India and other countries in Asia have rapidly growing and increasingly prosperous populations — which means they can afford cars and need more power plants, thereby increasing greenhouse gas emissions — is both an opportunity and a problem for the rest of the world.
A challenge for coming climate talks is to develop a system that helps developing nations reduce their emissions while improving the quality of life for their residents; this likely will include large cash payments from wealthier nations to the world’s poorest countries. At the same time, to be taken seriously countries such as the United States must lead by example.
Passing climate change legislation today would be as significant as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act of four decades ago.