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Save the Clean Air Act; Save Lives

January 21, 2011

The new more conservative House of Representatives is  on a mission to stop EPA from curbing global warming. Representative Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee has introduced HR 97, which would reverse the Supreme Court’s decision in Massachusetts v. EPA, the 2007 case which required EPA to address climate change. HR 97 has 100 cosponsors and the number grows every day.  It would amend the Clean Air Act to exclude greenhouse gases from the definition of “pollutant” and prohibit EPA from doing anything else about global warming, like adopting fuel efficiency standards. There are other less drastic bills being considered in the House of Representatives. HR 153, which would deny EPA funding for regulating greenhouse gases, has 32 cosponsors; HR 199 would require a two-year delay much like the Rockefeller Delay Act, which was considered by the Senate last year.

The favorite term of opprobrium these days is “job killing”, attached to anything conservatives oppose, like greenhouse gas regulations. Is there any reality to this bold economic assertion about air pollution control?

The Clean Air Act is one of the best investments this country ever made. In 1990, Congress required EPA to assess the costs and benefits of air pollution control.  During its first twenty years the Act delivered benefits – lives saved, illness and absenteeism avoided – worth $42.00 for every dollar spent on pollution control. Think about that: a return of 42:1. Have you ever had an investment that good? If you went to the race track and bet on an unlikely nag, who won paying 42:1, you would be ecstatic. Only on the Antiques Road Show do people get better returns. In more recent years the Act has delivered returns of at least 4:1, still a good investment by any standard.

The Natural Resources Defense Council recently compared the Act to Warren Buffet’s investments.  You guessed it; the Act’s performance rivals Buffet’s over the past 40 years and is likely to surpass it soon. Any investment that good is not damaging the economy or destroying jobs. Now that EPA is regulating greenhouse gases for the first time and requiring improved efficiency from vehicles and power plants, we are likely to see a new burst of benefits much as we did in the first few decades of the Act.

Even though the economic arguments for defending the Clean Air Act and EPA are compelling and satisfying, I find them somewhat disturbing because they are fundamentally amoral. They are based on putting a dollar value on human life and health and the well-being of other species.

Economic arguments also mask the fact that pollution discriminates. Pollution disproportionately hurts people of color, poor people, young people and old people.  In the 1970’s, when gasoline contained lead, airborne lead was a serious health problem for people who lived near freeways. Children in urban areas showed elevated levels of lead in their blood and all the learning disabilities and health problems associated with it. Once lead was eliminated from gasoline, levels of lead in the air dropped and so did the incidence of lead poisoning among poor children of color. We have the Clean Air Act and EPA to thank.

Ground level ozone, which is disproportionately an urban problem, causes asthma and triggers symptoms in people who already have asthma. EPA is trying to tighten the ozone standard right now. Mercury is a toxin that damages the nervous system, and children are especially vulnerable. Coal-fired plants, cement kilns and municipal trash incinerators all put mercury into the air. EPA is tackling that problem as well. Global warming increases heat waves and deaths from heat stroke. Again the young, old and poor suffer disproportionately.

HR 97 and its kindred bills are more accurately described as “people-killing” measures; that assertion is backed by a mountain of data. The term “job-killing” is a very old and discredited scare tactic. It asserts that Americans have to buy their jobs with their lives, their health and the health and lives of their children. It is a bad bargain and we have known for a long time it is a false choice. For forty years, the Clean Air Act has given us jobs and health and it has been especially generous to the most vulnerable among us.

  1. Warren Hoskins permalink
    January 24, 2011 8:43 pm

    Yay! Nicely said. Am contemplating posting this to Facebook and urging Friends in SEYM to read it, too. Thank you!

  2. Marcia Cleveland permalink
    January 25, 2011 9:46 am

    Thank you. Please do post this on your Facebook page. I always hope these blogs travel far in the internet.

    Marcia J. Cleveland Legislative Representative, Sustainable Environment Program Friends Committee on National Legislation 245 Second Street, NE Washington, DC 20002-5761

    tel: (202) 547-6000, ext. 2520 email:

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