State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

A State and Local Strategy for Protecting the American Environment

History has a way of repeating itself, and while President Trump’s selection of Scott Pruitt as EPA administrator reminded me of Ronald Reagan’s EPA chief, Anne Gorsuch, clearly Pruitt is in a league of his own. Last week, my colleagues at Columbia University’s Earth Institute released a fact sheet on the relationship of carbon dioxide to climate change in a small-scale effort to correct Pruitt’s scientifically inaccurate discussion of that relationship. In that piece we observed that:

“The concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere—measured in parts per million of carbon dioxide—has drastically increased since the start of the Industrial Revolution, in the 18th Century. When fossil fuels are burned to produce electricity, or to heat and cool buildings, or to power machines, carbon dioxide is released. Human emissions from burning of fossil fuels and other activities are feeding vast amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere—recently around 2.4 million pounds per second. The changes to our climate largely match the effects expected from the increase in emission of greenhouse gases.”

For most of the past 25 years, EPA has struggled but succeeded in protecting America’s environment even though Congress refused to update environmental laws or provide sufficient resources to research, monitor, regulate and enforce environmental quality. Inadequate resources required that most environmental rules came to be implemented by state and local governments. America’s environmental community has gotten used to a weak EPA; now it will need to deal with a hostile one. Fortunately, most state and local environmental agencies have the capacity to protect the environment without help from Washington.

When EPA was created in 1970, we knew we needed national environmental standards to ensure that states wouldn’t compete for business by allowing industry to pollute freely. But nearly half a century later, America has changed. Despite the extremist now running EPA, America is an environmentalist nation. The not-in-my-backyard syndrome coupled with steady support for clean air, water, land and food put political pressure on state and local governments to prevent rather than attract pollution. We still need national environmental standards, but we don’t need EPA to implement them. Moreover, modern business practices, internal support of sustainability principles and fear of environmental liability law have made modern corporations less prone to pollute. The growth of America’s service economy, advances in closed system engineering and pollution control technology have eliminated much of the need to trade off economic growth and environmental protection. As I observed a few weeks ago:

According to the EPA, from 1980 to 2015 the US GDP grew by 153 percent, our population grew by 41 percent, vehicle miles traveled grew by 106 percent, but air pollution declined by 65 percent. That is the definition of successful regulation.”

While it would help to have a supportive national government, we have learned to do without it. Under President Obama, EPA was far better than it is looking under President Trump, but very little happened there until Obama was re-elected. Even then, Obama’s over-reliance on executive authority limited the effectiveness and durability of the advances that finally came during his second term. The federal government has not taken the lead in protecting America’s environment since the mid-1980s. With an effective (if somewhat outdated) national structure of environmental law in place, most American communities, cities, counties and states have embarked on a strategy of clean economic growth for over a quarter century.

Urban sustainability plans such as Michael Bloomberg’s path-breaking PlaNYC 2030 demonstrated the connection between economic development and environmental protection. Reduced indoor air pollution from smoking, bike lanes and bike sharing, recycling, green infrastructure, tree planting, land preservation, energy efficiency and renewable energy are trends throughout America, and they are bottom-up, not top-down initiatives. Cities know that a clean environment and a high quality of life attract businesses. The ability to allow a business to pollute is less important to growth than low crime, clean air and good schools. It would help if the EPA administrator understood the importance of climate change, but the mayors of most coastal cities don’t need to be told twice about the issue of sea level rise.

Pruitt’s ideology is that environmental protection can be achieved at the state and local level, and perhaps we should take him at his word. As long as he doesn’t try to dismantle existing American environmental law, progress can continue without him and without his agency. If he makes an effort to amend the Clean Air Act to have greenhouse gases exempted from the law, then a massive effort to prevent the Senate from acting will be urgent and needed. But assuming he’s not that reckless, we should focus on non-national and private organizations.

I am not arguing that we should ignore federal backsliding. State attorneys general must continue to sue EPA to enforce current federal environmental law, and extend old principles to new technologies and newly understood threats. That is how greenhouse gas regulation became required under the Clean Air Act. The states sued the George W. Bush Administration and eventually won. The Clean Power Plan was the Obama Administration’s effort to comply with the court’s ruling. When Trump/Pruitt discards it, they will be required to come up with a replacement. If the replacement is inadequate, the states should again sue EPA to develop adequate regulation of greenhouse gases.

At the state and local level, we should be monitoring the environment and publicizing exposure to toxics in local media. Lead in the water supply, toxics in basements, untreated sewage, garbage floating in the oceanlet the public see these environmental insults and the political reaction will be rapid and effective. We are in a culture that values wellness. Today, Americans tend to watch what they eat, attempt to exercise, take advantage of medical technology and monitor their children’s well-being. You don’t do all that and then ignore lead in your water supply.

The greatest potential flaw in this approach is the problem of global climate change. But even that issue is best addressed at the state and local level. While federal support for new technology and infrastructure would be helpful, there is another approach that can also be effective. We should focus on modernizing our state and local energy systems. We should prepare for distributed generation of renewable energy from households and businesses by building community level microgrids that will eventually be tied together into state-level smart grids. These computer-controlled, updated electrical systems will allow energy to be stored and generated with maximum efficiency. They will enable the system to be resilient in the face of storms and other disruptions. We should encourage the business of auto charging stations and/or build public charging stations if the private sector doesn’t initially see the profit. We should use state and local tax and zoning laws to encourage energy efficiency and renewable energy. By modernizing the energy system, we can reduce the costs and environmental impact of our energy use.

Donald Trump is stuck in an outdated view of the importance of environmental protection in modern life. He thinks the environment is a frill rather than a necessity. His EPA administrator is a creature of the least forward-looking parts of the energy industry. Energy executives looking ahead know that the future is in renewable energy. Greenhouse gas regulations can help America modernize the grid and update our aging energy infrastructure, but even without the federal push, many state utility and power commissions will come to insist on it anyway.

The lack of federal environmental leadership is not a new story. It can be seen everywhere from the BP oil spill to the VW emission scandal to the lead-polluted water supply in Flint. No one is waiting for environmental protection to come from Washington. The action shifted to the state and local level long ago. In most (but not all) of America, these institutions have grown in capacity over the past quarter century. They are well positioned to continue progressing and resist any efforts to backpedal that may come from the out-of-step ideologues running the federal government.

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