The year 1970 was an inflection point in the battle to protect America’s natural environment. It is the year that Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency and the United States enacted the Clean Air Act, establishing national standards for clean air. Nearly half a century later, America’s population and economy are both much larger than they were back then, while our air pollution is lower. The Clean Air Act survived Ronald Reagan’s presidency and I believe will survive the impending presidency of Donald Trump. As Trump’s anti-regulatory EPA nominee Scott Pruitt packs his bags for D.C., I hope he takes some time to check out what’s happening to the air in China. China’s path to economic growth is not one America should imitate. Last week, according to Tom Phillips of the Guardian:
“Beijing authorities have declared a five-day pollution “red alert,” shutting schools, ordering thousands of vehicles off the roads and telling residents to stay indoors, after the Chinese capital was enveloped by a shroud of toxic smog that is expected to linger until Wednesday. … China’s ministry of environmental protection reported that 21 other cities across north and central China had also declared pollution red alerts, including Tianjin, Shijiazhuang, Taiyuan and Zhengzhou. A red alert is the highest level of a four-tier warning system introduced as part of China’s high-profile war on pollution…nurseries and primary schools across Beijing had been told to close until Wednesday when the smog is expected to lift. Road works were suspended; older and “dirty” high-emissions vehicles were forbidden from taking to the roads; and heavily polluting industries such as steel plants were ordered to halt or slow their operations.”
Last week, President-elect Trump traveled around the country declaring his main priority to be “jobs, jobs, jobs.” Let’s remember that in order to hold a job it helps to be able to breathe. America has proven we can clean the air while growing the economy. It would be a tragedy if we forgot that and started to let economic growth take place without preventing environmental impacts. There are signs that environmental amnesia is setting in. The fossil fuel industry is over-represented in the new cabinet, and the sound of “Drill, baby, drill” seems to have returned to the public dialogue. On Dec. 13, Darren Barbee, senior editor at Hart Energy, observed in the publication Oil and Gas Investor that:
“President-elect Donald Trump’s nominees for the departments of energy, state and head of the Environmental Protection Agency are creating a growing hydrocarbon council in his administration. While generally thought to be good for oil and gas, the overall ramifications remain unclear though the government perception of fossil fuels may change.”
Rex Tillerson, Exxon Mobil’s CEO, and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry have been nominated to head the departments of State and Energy. The hope is that unlike during the now infamous presidential debate, Perry will remember the name of his new organization. But as Barbee reports, Perry presided over a vast expansion in Texas’ wind power generation, and Tillerson has expressed support for a carbon tax. The lower price of natural gas and lower renewable energy costs may reduce the enthusiasm for coal mining and oil drilling that seems more attractive to political ideologues than investors. We can expect some symbolic gestures from a president who sometimes seems more attuned to image than fact. Trump’s appointees seem ready to approve pipelines along with permits to drill in the tundra, but my hope is that the market will be less interested in these ideas than the media or the ideologues in the government. We’ll see.
Meanwhile, back at EPA, we can expect the new administrator, Pruitt, will find that decades of well-established environmental law will be difficult to deconstruct, if that is even his intent. EPA has long practiced the strategy of delegating regulatory oversight to the states, who have enacted laws that often mirror the federal laws they enforce. Those states have seen no public support for relaxing protections on air and water, or on reducing the standards for solid and toxic waste management. People like to breathe. We do not want to eat tainted food or drink toxic water. We’ve kind of gotten used to it over the years. No one wants to imitate the air quality we see in China and India. Efforts to weaken environmental laws and enforcement will result in the same type of community based outcry or NIMBY (not in my backyard) that is often a reaction to even clean forms of new project construction. State and local governments may not like being told by Washington how to implement environmental rules, but that does not mean they want to see those rules destroyed.
In fact, as Tatiana Schlossberg recently noted in the New York Times:
“… mayors and governors—many of them in states that supported President-elect Donald J. Trump—say they are equally determined to continue the policies and plans they have already adopted to address climate change and related environmental damage, regardless of what they see from Washington. … Though stymied by alternating bouts of congressional gridlock or fossil-fuel-friendly presidential administrations over the last two decades, cities and states have been able to take substantive action. They have fortified themselves against rising seas, switched to renewable sources of energy, expanded mass transit and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Whatever happens or does not happen in Washington, officials say, these projects will continue.”
Environmental protection is not an option to local leaders, but an essential service of local government, expected by both conservatives and progressives. The environment was a bipartisan issue in the 1960s and 1970s, but that seems to have been forgotten by 21st century American politics that has little to do with reality and everything to do with symbols. This political fantasy extends to much of the politics of energy, global trade and the economy.
It’s as if we are permanently stuck on gas lines in the wake of the 1974 oil embargo. A call for energy independence, when the Middle Eastern monopoly on oil has been over for decades, is like the wall with Mexico—a deeply outdated idea that has no basis in reality. It’s as if the flow of energy and people across borders has nothing to do with the global economy, global communication and low-cost air travel. Forty years ago a long distance phone call to Europe or China cost real money. Today it’s virtually free. It’s time to recognize that we live on a planet of seven billion people, have instantaneous global communication, and have rapidly advancing technology.
Resource extraction can bring short-term economic gains, but like the boom towns of the old west, once the resource is gone, the jobs and people are gone too. The future in this brain-based economy belongs to the companies and cities that can attract the top scientists and engineers, managers, strategists and marketers. We don’t need 20th century smoke-belching, effluent-emitting, low-tech factories. The manufacturing we need will only be competitive if it is low polluting, automated, flexible and innovative.
The people we need will be the best educated, most creative people the world produces. That means our immigration policies need to be designed to attract smart people rather than scare them away. A clean environment is a competitive advantage in a global economy. Smart people and growing businesses are attracted to clean, exciting cities. Our local leaders understand that, China is learning it, and let’s hope that the U.S. national government doesn’t forget it.