Celebrating 50 Years of Climate Policy Progress

"Climate deniers" are whopping mad and who can blame them? President Obama has turned the tables on climate denial with a brilliant and brave move to issue executive action on carbon control. The controversial step by the Administration to bypass a resistant Congress will surely lead to heavy backlash from the fossil-fuel industry.

Taking his cue from environmental action groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Obama is ordering the Environmental Protection Agency to create a carbon emissions policy under the decades old Clean Air Act.

The origins of the Clean Air Act, dating back to 1963, might not be commonly known, but they were in part the result of efforts by environmental economist Hazel Henderson. Due to the indefatigable determination of this "ordinary housewife"-turned-activist, Hazel Henderson singlehandedly galvanized her neighbors, the New York City community, local television stations and news journals to action and eventually gained the support of New York Senator Robert Kennedy.

If you wonder whether one person can make a big difference, Hazel's story may help make up your mind.

Living in New York City in the 1960s, Hazel (Henderson) founded Citizens for Clean Air because, as she says: "We were anxious that our children have the best future possible. Thinking back, I realize that's what gave us the strength to endure numerous persecutions and keep pushing ahead."

It all started when she noticed that her daughter was coming home stained with soot. She herself was suffering from a persistent cough. She started talking to the other mothers at the neighborhood park as they watched their children playing. Starting with the simple question, "Don't you think the air here is bad?" she engaged the mothers in discussions that eventually led to the formation of Citizens for Clean Air.

First Major Environmental Law in the U.S. Established
That was 1963, and a young mother's commitment to her daughter's health led to the "first major environmental law to include a provision for citizen suits in the U.S." The Clean Air Act was expanded several times over the next three decades. In 1970, the Clean Air Act provisions that inspired President Obama's recent executive order established regulatory controls for air pollution. The last update to the 50-year-old law occurred in 1990 in response to growing concerns over acid rain and depleted ozone layer. Twenty-three years later, we are finally moving the needle forward to keep up with the Joneses -- or, rather, Germany, China and 21st century climate science.

The plan by Obama and environmental groups is to catch up with Germany and China's energy policies. China has become the world's largest wind power producer jumping far ahead of a recalcitrant and fossil-fuel loving U.S. Germany is the world's leader in climate control having established policies beginning in 2000 with the Renewable Energy Act. Conservative leader Angela Merkel has had the foresight to see climate change as an urgent priority despite the EU's economic challenges. The world's fifth largest economy currently derives 25 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources. Official policy, "Energiewende," mandates that by 2030, Germany will be 50 percent off the grid.

In the United States, in terms of climate policy, economics has trumped environment. No surprise there, since oil and coal are major U.S. industries. Obama's plan calls for the U.S. to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent over the next seven years. The backlash and resistance to the President's call to action is already showing its ugly face given that the fossil fuel industry is one of Washington's most powerful lobbying forces. Fox News claimed following Tuesday's announcement that Obama has declared "War on Coal," and threatens hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Alternatively, the president has called upon American innovation to "win" the clean energy race. He stated, "I want America to win that race, but we can't win it if we're not in it." Again, it is up to America's innovators to unleash the creative and entrepreneurial power behind our nation's enormous success. The truth is the fossil fuel industry has refused thus far to redirect its efforts to renewable energy. The hundreds of thousand jobs to be lost in oil and coal can be recreated in healthier (and safer) wind, solar, and geothermic alternatives. "I believe Americans build things better than anybody else," the president added.

That indeed might be true, yet took one British-American mother to set the clean energy race in motion. If we get discouraged by the fierce fight that is certain to be waged by "climate deniers" and oil and coal industries, Hazel Henderson's half century battle for climate control reveals that, in the end, persistence, determination, and the will of one individual can lead to remarkable progress. Imagine what we can do together.

Happy Fiftieth, Hazel and America.
The Clean Air Act of 1963.