While many people around the world are concerned about President-elect Trump’s threat to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, I am far more concerned about the possible signal to American corporations and jurisdictions that enforcement of our air, water, and toxic rules would be relaxed under EPA’s new administrator. Take a trip to India or China if you want to breathe the air of a deregulated economy. China’s airports may look pretty and their trains may run fast, but their air and water are dangerous to breathe or drink.
America has a culture of environmental protection that took us decades to build. I believe it is permanent, but it may be tested during the next four years. Just as the states had to sue George W. Bush to have greenhouse gases defined as an air pollutant under the Clean Air Act, we may see additional state actions to force the federal government to uphold environmental law. It is possible that the attack on environment will be limited to climate and energy. According to the Trump transition team’s press release announcing the nomination of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt as EPA administrator:
“For too long, the Environmental Protection Agency has spent taxpayer dollars on an out-of-control anti-energy agenda that has destroyed millions of jobs, while also undermining our incredible farmers and many other businesses and industries at every turn. As my EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, the highly respected attorney general from the state of Oklahoma, will reverse this trend and restore the EPA’s essential mission of keeping our air and our water clean and safe,” said President-elect Donald Trump. “My administration strongly believes in environmental protection, and Scott Pruitt will be a powerful advocate for that mission while promoting jobs, safety and opportunity.”
While it’s possible that Pruitt’s anti-regulatory zeal will be limited to energy issues, the connection between energy development and environmental protection is far from trivial. Letting the Department of Interior increase coal, oil and mineral mining on federal lands is a bad idea that will destroy natural treasures and benefit no one. The idea that EPA has destroyed millions of jobs is sheer nonsense and is the opposite of the truth. The Clean Air Act alone has been a stunning success in reducing the negative health effects of air pollution. That has increased America’s productivity and reduced healthcare costs. According to Kristie Ross, James Chmiel and Thomas Ferkol:
“The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 included requirements that the EPA perform periodic benefit-cost analyses of the impact of the regulations. To date, three in-depth analyses have been performed. These analyses determined that the Clean Air Act regulations prevented 205,000 premature deaths and avoided millions of other non-fatal illnesses, including severe cardiac and respiratory diseases. When expressed in economic terms, the benefits were estimated as much as $50 trillion as compared with implementation costs of $523 billion… Through 2020, Clean Air Act Amendments regulations will prevent 2.4 million asthma exacerbations, 135,000 hospital admissions, and over 230,000 premature deaths. When expressed in economic terms, the report estimates that even though $65 billion will be spent by 2020 to comply with new regulations, the U.S. will reap more than $2 trillion in health savings.”
In their classic 1995 study of environmental quality and economic growth, Gene M. Grossman and Alan B. Krueger found no connection between economic development and the growth of pollution. While they found some increase in pollution during the initial stages of economic development, they found that over the long term pollution reduction was actually associated with economic growth. Moreover, they also rejected the “standard” conclusion that rich countries were simply exporting their manufacturing pollution elsewhere. It is amazing that over two decades later we continue to hear the same tired arguments. EPA’s data indicates that since the Clean Air Act was signed in 1970, GDP has grown 246 percent, population has grown 57 percent, and air pollution has been reduced by 70 percent.
It’s a little difficult to see how the GDP can grow without creating new jobs. I realize that increased income inequality means that those at the top get more of the GDP than they used to, but employment has grown over the past half century and has even grown since the Great Recession. It is true that the U.S. has lost five million manufacturing jobs since 2000. But service and high-tech jobs are growing. In 2010, at the low point of the Great Recession, there were 111.7 million jobs in America. By 2015 that number had grown to 121.5 million. This past summer full-time employment reached 125.9 million. There is little question that the nature of work and compensation is changing. The high-paying factory jobs that helped to build the American middle class are disappearing. In their place we have seen lower-paying service jobs and the emergence of the gig economy many young people participate in. These are low-security, part-time jobs and short-term consultancies that do not have fringe benefits.
The economy and the nature of work is changing, but the transformation is not caused by government over-regulation, but rather by technology, globalization and a great deal of deregulation. Blaming our economic problems on environmental regulation is ideological baloney not backed by data. The truth is that environmental regulation has led to demand for new technologies and new knowledge that has created jobs rather than reduced them.
We are in the midst of an unrecognized economic revolution. But the cause of that revolution is automation and not regulation. Jobs are being eliminated that rely on manual labor and are being replaced by jobs that require mental labor. Even in manufacturing, many of the jobs remaining involve running automated equipment from control rooms. Factories that once employed thousands now employ hundreds. Building construction which once involved custom crafting a building with many workers in many trades, now involves unloading prefabricated building elements and installing manufactured structures on a building site. A generation ago, a craftsman might lay bricks and create a set of stairs for a porch. Today he uses a crane to lower a preformed concrete stairwell clad in brick veneer. The porch is now molded in a factory by robots, and trucked to the building site.
The world of work is changing and, to his credit, President-elect Trump recognized the insecurity and unease that Americans feel about that change. But his prescription for fixing it—to deregulate America’s businesses and reduce immigration and free trade—will do more harm than good. Fortunately, they are also unlikely to take place. Our new president is more likely to be able to spend some deficit cash on infrastructure than dismantle environmental regulation. On domestic issues he will need Congress, and building majorities in that dysfunctional body will prove difficult even with Republican majorities. On international issues he has more freedom of action, but will quickly learn the limits of American power. His ability to dismantle the institutions that regulate and protect our environment is limited. We will continue to have problems modernizing our regulations to address the problems of 21st century technology, but the federal government couldn’t do that during the Clinton, Bush or Obama presidencies, either.
While progress has been slow in Washington, cities, states, corporations and nonprofits have moved forward. Renewable energy is growing, local sustainability initiatives are on the rise, and most of America’s garbage is now recycled or burned for energy instead of being dumped in the ground. Young people are driving less and paying more attention to diet, exercise, and the quality of their air and water. A culture of wellness and environmental protection has been hardwired into the fabric of American life. Pruitt can’t change that and in the end probably won’t want to. But if he does, he should remember the last EPA administrator who was thought to be anti-environment: Ronald Reagan’s first EPA Administrator Anne Gorsuch Burford, who was forced to resign after two years in office…