Everyone Likes to Breathe

WASGINGTON DC, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, UNITED STATES - 2013/06/03: EPA building, Environmental Protection Agency. (Photo by Joh
WASGINGTON DC, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, UNITED STATES - 2013/06/03: EPA building, Environmental Protection Agency. (Photo by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images)

This past week, at President Obama's direction, the EPA continued to use its extensive powers under the Clean Air Act (thank you, 1970 U.S. Congress) and announced a new, tighter regulation on ozone pollution. As one might expect, these rules are being described by some in the new Republican Congress as anti-business, job-killing regulation. They are in fact pro-business and job-creating rules, as are most regulations that make our way of life safer and healthier. Regulations are not cost-free, but neither is breathing poisoned air. Before environmental rules are implemented, the EPA must demonstrate that these regulations have been carefully analyzed and that the rules balance total costs and benefits. In her excellent summary of the new ozone rule, the New York Times'  Coral Davenport reported that:

"The proposed regulation would lower the current threshold for ozone pollution to a range of 65 to 70 parts per billion, from 75 parts per billion... The agency estimates that the new regulation would by 2025 prevent from 320,000 to 960,000 asthma attacks in children, and from 330,000 to 1 million missed school days. It also estimates that by 2025 the rule would prevent 750 to 4,300 premature deaths, 1,400 to 4,300 asthma-related emergency room visits and 65,000 to 180,000 missed workdays... The regulation would come with a high cost to industry, which the E.P.A. estimates would be $3.9 billion in 2025, using a standard of 70 parts per billion. The cost would be $15 billion in 2025 at a standard of 65 parts per billion...The agency estimates that the economic benefits of the rule - measured in avoided asthma attacks, heart attacks, missed school and work days and premature deaths - would significantly outweigh the costs. It calculates the benefits at $6.4 billion to $13 billion annually in 2025 for a standard of 70 parts per billion and $19 billion to $38 billion annually in 2025 for a standard of 65 parts per billion."

At the 65 parts per billion standard the costs are $15 billion and the benefits are $19-38 billion. But that analysis is an effort to place a monetary value on something that the government should be ensuring our children have by right: air clean enough to breathe. When in the world did breathing become optional? How dare those ideologues in Congress perform a cost-benefit analysis on a baby's breath? This rule will prevent thousands of asthma attacks in American children each day. Have any of these legislators watched a child struggle to breathe during an asthma attack? Are they willing to tell parents that a few more of these attacks are the cost of economic growth?

Such a statement would be untrue, because the environment-jobs trade off is a cruel lie. Since the EPA was created over four decades ago, America's GDP has grown dramatically at the very same time we have significantly reduced pollution. Yes, some businesses and communities suffer more costs than benefits, but overall the EPA has made America a stronger, healthier and more prosperous country. Again, let me repeat in case you missed it earlier: Environmental regulations stimulate economic growth and innovation. They do not cost jobs, they create them. When businesses are required to rethink basic production or operational processes in response to environmental or health and safety rules they often create new products and businesses to help comply with rules. Ask the people who make seat belts, smoke detectors, bike helmets or catalytic converters if regulations kill or create jobs.

Over time, science has learned more about our respiratory system and other aspects of human health and gradually environmental standards have been adjusted to reflect that new knowledge. The ozone regulation is an example of more sophisticated and fine-tuned science. The combination of disease prevention through diet, exercise, medication and yes, pollution control, is why we live longer and healthier lives today than we did before there was an EPA. According to the  Centers for Disease Control: "The trend in U.S. life expectancy since 1900 has been one of gradual improvement... In 2010 life expectancy at birth was 78.7 years, an increase of 11% since 1970." In 1900, Americans, on average, lived to be 47. Today we live over  three decades longer. Science and technology have helped make our lives longer and better. There are many reasons that we live longer today than in 1970, but a cleaner environment is one of them. While you could argue that with enough improved medical technology, exercise, food and diet, we could tolerate the costs of more polluted air; who wants to be part of that experiment? Who wants to allow their children to be part of that experiment? And why do it? There is no reason to trade off economic development and environmental protection -- we can and should have both.

Here in the U.S. we have learned how to apply human ingenuity to the problem of building our economy while polluting less. Countries like China are still figuring out how to do it. I am confident that China will succeed in reducing pollution while continuing economic growth. America and Americans have learned to pay close attention to the damage we do to the land, air and water when we build and develop. Americans value a clean environment and we refuse to accept the idea that we can't protect the planet. We've learned how to reduce discharges of pollution into our waterways. We've learned how to collect and filter non-point sources of pollution from our roadways and farms. We've learned how to treat sewage before we dump it into the river. We've figured out how to recycle, reduce and treat our garbage. We've learned how to scrub pollutants from smoke stacks and how to reduce the air pollutants that are generated by motor vehicles.

In the process of learning how to build a cleaner economy we've created jobs. These are jobs in the environmental protection and sustainability business. It is a big business and it is growing fast. Clean air and water turn out to be things that may have once been free to all, but today, on a more crowded planet, they are things people will pay for. The economic activity required to maintain a clean environment adds to the GDP. The regulations create a need for compliance that creates opportunities and economic growth. Those opportunities continue.

It is time to for advocates of environmental protection and global sustainability to assert the moral high ground. The EPA may be making a war on coal but Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky should be asked if he has declared war on children with asthma. Overheated rhetoric aside, it is important that we look to the history of the past several decades and come to a better understanding of the role of environmental protection in economic development. The underlying issue is an ideological refusal to acknowledge that the modern, high-tech economy is complicated and requires rules to function effectively. A competitive market does not require anarchy, but the rule of law. I would not argue that all rules are fair or make sense. I would certainly not argue that the EPA is always a competent regulator. The EPA has often demonstrated rigidity and a maddening legalistic and bureaucratic formality that has sometimes impeded rather than promoted environmental protection. More effective and efficient environmental regulation is a cause I would sign up for. However, reflexive opposition to all regulation is more dangerous than incompetent regulation.

Since the EPA was created in 1970 it has succeeded at its job. It has vastly increased the organizational capacity of state and local governments and of private parties to protect our environment. It has made it possible for America to figure out how to grow our economy without destroying the planet. It has stimulated billions of dollars of investment in environmental infrastructure. Sustainability is hard-wired into our civic culture and into a growing number of corporate cultures as well. Jobs are vital. So, too, is breathing. The last time I checked, everyone likes to breathe. I could be wrong, but I see no partisan issue here.