The clear benefits and cloudy future of clean air

Fifty years ago, darkness enveloped New York. For three days over the course of the Thanksgiving weekend, a warm mass of air squatted over the city, trapping a sooty mix of pollutants spewed from trash incinerators, vehicles and heating systems. The pall obscured midtown skyscrapers, invaded New Yorkers’ lungs, and generally freaked people out.

Health officials took unprecedented measures. They warned people with respiratory issues to stay indoors, and asked residents to only drive if necessary and to turn down their thermostats. A cold front finally moved in on November 27 and swept the haze away. Statistical analyses later estimated that the smog had cut short the lives of as many as 366 people.

New Yorkers had experienced pollution emergencies before, but the Thanksgiving 1966 episode proved to be galvanizing. Residents understood their vulnerability to their own atmospheric sewage in a newly visceral way, and called on city leaders to enact strong pollution control measures. The Times and other papers printed astonishing images of the Stygian fog, leading to broader public awareness of the air quality crisis afflicting many of America’s cities.

“The economic loss from pollution amounts to several billions each year,” President Lyndon Johnson said in a special message to Congress on January 30, 1967 about the New York event. “But the cost in human suffering and pain is incalculable… Air pollution is the inevitable consequence of neglect. It can be controlled when that neglect is no longer tolerated. It will be controlled when the people of America, through their elected representatives, demand the right to air that they and their children can breathe without fear.”

By the following Thanksgiving, he had signed the Air Quality Act, expanding the country’s pollution monitoring system. In 1970 Congress passed amendments known as the Clean Air Act, putting in place regulations of emissions from industry and vehicles and strong federal enforcement mechanisms. The Environmental Protection Agency was born at roughly the same time, ushered into existence by the stroke of President Richard Nixon’s pen.

Today, the hard-won protections for everyone who breathes afforded by these farsighted acts of leadership are at risk. President-elect Donald Trump has called what the EPA does a “disgrace”, and vowed to roll back many environmental regulations. He has appointed Myron Ebell, a longstanding climate change denier from the anti-regulation Competitive Enterprise Institute, to oversee the transition at the EPA.

In a 2001 radio interview, Mr. Ebell – who is neither a scientist nor an economist – said, “We have the ozone and particulate matter rule under the Clean Air Act. That rule, even the EPA's own advisory council was very critical of, because many of the things are very costly but have almost no benefit. I'm for benefits, but I think the benefits have to be weighed against costs occasionally.”

Indeed. So let us weigh them. In 1990, Congress mandated that EPA conduct comprehensive, peer-reviewed periodic analyses of the costs and benefits of the Clean Air Act. The first one estimated the value of the health benefits for the period between 1970 and 1990 at over $22 trillion; the costs were estimated to be roughly $0.5 trillion. That is a benefit-to-cost ratio of more than 42 to one. That is the very definition of a great deal.

An independent review by the Small Business Majority in 2010 agreed that the CAA’s health and economic benefits vastly exceeded the costs of complying with it. Emissions declined by 41 percent from 1990 to 2010, even as GDP increased by over 64 percent. On top of avoiding 160,000 premature deaths in 2010 alone (mostly from reductions in particulate pollution), the law helped spawn new technologies like the catalytic converter and created millions of jobs. Contrary to the obfuscations of Mr. Ebell and his fossil industry-funded ilk, clean air regulations have actually proved to be an enormous boon to the nation’s economy.

As a real estate guy, Mr. Trump likely understands this fact better than most. Clear skies – and views – are simply good for business. A 1997 analysis looking at the relationship between air quality and housing prices estimated that clean air regulations had created $80 billion worth of value for homeowners in the 1970s, and another $50 billion in the 1980s. Given a choice, who would willingly choose to live in a neighborhood choked by soot?

As it turns out, there are many people, in the U.S. and abroad, who still don’t have much of a choice: the air they breathe is unsafe. Mr. Ebell is critical of recent EPA rules to limit ozone and mercury, which are dangerous byproducts of coal-fired power generation. These rules would provide added protection for vulnerable low-income and minority communities, which tend to disproportionately host coal power plants, waste transfer stations and bus depots, and which bear the brunt of the pollution these generate.

The terrible irony is that, even as Mr. Trump threatens to defund the EPA, people suffering through their own smog disasters in other countries such as India and China are clamoring for the environmental protections we have come to take for granted here. Earlier this month, residents of New Delhi choked on levels of fine particulates that were a staggering 70 times the World Health Organization’s recommended limits.

The global human wreckage from this air pollution far exceeds the toll from ISIS or terrorism. More than 9 out of every 10 human beings live in an area with pollution levels that exceed WHO standards. Over three million people die prematurely from exposure to ambient air pollution every year – more than those killed by HIV/AIDs, malaria and tuberculosis combined. The World Bank recently estimated that premature deaths due to air pollution impose over $5 trillion in costs each year to the global economy.

Leadership and smart legislation can lift this terrible burden. Much of the credit for the fact that we haven’t suffered an “airpocalypse” in the U.S. since 1966 goes to Leon Billings. A longtime senior aide to Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine, Mr. Billings was the primary author of the 1970 Clean Air Act. He passed away at the age of 78 on November 15. Millions of Americans breathe easier today thanks to his efforts.

And what, decades hence, might Mr. Ebell’s legacy prove to be, should he be allowed to enact his dangerous ideas? If he succeeds in weakening or dismantling the Clean Power Plan, the centerpiece of the Obama Administration’s effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions using powers granted to the EPA by the Clean Air act, then his legacy will be a catastrophic delay in addressing the existential threat of climate change. And should he succeed in hamstringing the EPA’s ability to enforce other air quality regulations, he will rightly be regarded as a champion for the corporate polluters who want a free pass to dump their waste into everyone else’s lungs. Sad!

Mr. Trump should rescind his appointment of Mr. Ebell, and reconsider his threats to hobble the life-saving, economy-boosting work of the EPA. Far from curtailing EPA’s activities, Mr. Trump should expand them. He should keep the Clean Power Plan in place, and go even further. For example, a bipartisan bill was introduced in the Senate in 2015 to tackle “super pollutants” such as methane and black carbon (ultrafine soot particles). These are potent warmers of the atmosphere that also pose direct threats to human health. Their emissions can be reduced with proven policies and technologies, such as diesel particulate filters. Reducing these pollutants at home and abroad through pragmatic, cost-effective measures would be a huge boon for human health, the economy and the climate. In short, there would be so much winning.

As he maps out his new administration’s priorities, Mr. Trump probably enjoys showing his guests and colleagues the sweeping vista of midtown Manhattan from his office in Trump Tower (where, I’m guessing, he doesn’t burn garbage in the basement). He would do well to compare that view to the one New Yorkers woke up to on Thanksgiving fifty years ago. Bipartisan, pragmatic leadership cleared those skies, and the skies over cities from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt, too.

Part of what makes America great is its pioneering history of environmental protection. We should all give thanks that we live in a country where access to clean air is our common right and heritage, and recognized as a foundation of our prosperity. Clean air has proven to be one of the best investments – perhaps the greatest deal – our society has ever made.

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