Speeches By EPA Administrator
School of Forestry and Environmental StudiesYale University04/26/2000
Carol M. Browner, Administrator
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
School of Forestry and Environmental Studies
April 26, 2000
Thank you, Dean Speth, for that introduction. Let me take this opportunity to express to you my admiration and esteem, particularly for the many contributions you have made to the environmental and public health debate in this country and throughout the world. You are a true giant in the field, and the Yale community has every right to be proud of the leadership that you are providing on the critical environmental and public health issues of our day.
Of course, one would expect nothing less from an institution such as the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, which has such a long and fabled history of leadership in protecting our natural environment. The very founders of this institution were America’s pioneer advocates for that cause, which only many years later would come to be called “the environmental movement.”
And what is remarkable is that you have retained this edge. Today, this school stands as progressive a force as ever – not only within the higher education community, but within the entire universe of people and associations devoted to protecting public health and the environment.
I congratulate you on your 100th anniversary.
Last Saturday marked another anniversary, the 30th anniversary of Earth Day, a landmark event in the history of citizen activism in this country. And this year is the 30th anniversary of the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, which I have had the privilege of leading for nearly one quarter of its existence.
With those anniversaries we recall a time when our country – our people and our government – vigorously confronted a set of enormous environmental challenges. It was a time when we placed the protection of our air, water and land on the very front burner of the national agenda.
And it was a time when, for the most part, we succeeded in resolving the most difficult issues we faced.
What was the foundation for that success? Why did it happen? And, most importantly, what can we learn from it?
Looking back, I am struck by three fundamental observations about that era.
First, there was a profound feeling in this country that something had to be done about pollution. Clearly, the situation had gotten way out of hand and it seemed to be getting worse by the day. The deteriorating air quality in our cities, the fouling of our nation’s waters, and the despoiling of precious areas of land were prompting most Americans to be concerned about the public health and the quality of life their children would inherit.
When a river actually catches fire -- as one particular river did at the time -- you know you’ve got a problem. So the nation committed itself to the task of eliminating pollution, to restoring our lands and waters to their uses, and to protecting public health without regard to cost.
Let me repeat those last four words -- without regard to cost. This represented a sea change in our nation’s approach to environmental protection. From that point forward, the goal would be to eliminate harmful pollution and its threat to public health. And we would begin by recognizing that there was not – and could not be – an intrinsic “right to pollute,” any more than there could be a right to endanger the public health.
Secondly, this commitment was bipartisan and broadly held among the American people and, most notably, among their elected representatives. Environmentalism was not the preserve of a particular party or region. The commitment was a shared one.
Thirdly, no one at the time knew exactly how America would resolve these daunting environmental problems. No one had all the answers. But that didn’t stop the effort. The commitment was to set ambitious environmental goals and tough public health standards -- and then find a way to meet them. We challenged everyone -- businesses, governments, and the American people -- to be a part of the solution.
That’s how Congress created the nation’s war on environmental degradation -- enacting a vast array of environmental and public health laws that have served us well. And, for the next two decades, Congress did not hesitate to refine and refresh and renew those laws to meet emerging challenges.
For example, Congress banned lead from gasoline to protect our children. It addressed acid rain and the depletion of the ozone layer from CFC’s. It stopped midnight dumpers and found ways to address the newly discovered toxic waste sites like Love Canal.
It did so not because we had all the definitive answers at the time, but because we had a consensus which said that progress was critical and delay unacceptable. And we had faith that our democratic process would provide a fair, orderly and inclusive framework for meeting the standards and achieving our goals. Those who had to live with environmental policy decisions – people, communities and industries – became active participants in making those decisions.
For the next two decades, we knew we could not rest on what had been accomplished in the early 1970's -- not with technology constantly providing both new pollutants and new ways of determining how pollutants affect our health. Accordingly, environmental protection became a work in progress and an abiding responsibility that must remain in the forefront of the national agenda.
And what have we learned from that experience?
We’ve learned that protecting public health and the environment is a worthy objective, that our efforts can have a profound effect on reducing disease and improving our quality of life, and that our nation is far better for this effort.
We’ve learned that industry can bear the responsibility for cleaning up its own pollution, and do it in a cost-effective way. In so many cases, the actual costs of correcting environmental problems were far below what industry (or even the EPA) had predicted.
We now know that protecting the environment doesn’t mean sacrificing the country’s economic progress; indeed, the two very much go hand-in-hand. In fact, many facets of our economic progress actually depend on a clean environment.
Today, many corporations want to be green, simply because it is good business for them. In most cases they are integrating environmental protection into their plans right from the start.
And, for the most part, state governments have better environmental protection and enforcement capabilities than they’ve ever had.
But, in light of all this, something is definitely missing. Something is wrong. I have to question whether we are living up to our historic national commitment to protecting public health and the environment.
Case in point -- it has been a full decade since the last real Congressional debate on the Clean Air Act. It has been 13 years since Congress took up the Clean Water Act. And it has been 14 years since there was a new Superfund law.
Why is this? Certainly, the science continues to show the need for these laws, their protections and, most importantly, their continual improvement. And there is strong evidence of public demand for it.
A Gallup poll released last week tells us that 58 percent of the American people want stricter enforcement of environmental standards. A recent Roper survey found strong support for environmental protection -- with more than 60 percent of Americans believing that it is fully reconcilable with economic progress, and 70 percent favoring environmental protection over development if a choice must be made. And a recent Pew survey found that more than two-thirds of respondents have a favorable view of the EPA.
Imagine that. Clearly, environmental protection is not an area where, as some would have it, Americans see government as “out of control.”
But, in light of this widespread support, how can we move forward? How can we restore the historic commitment to protecting and improving the public’s air, land and water?
The task is made difficult by the nature of the issues we face today. As with many areas of public policy, today’s environmental challenges and issues aren’t quite so easily crystallized as they were in 1970. Today’s problems can’t be illustrated by burning rivers, dirty smokestacks, or open sewage pipes – things you could take a picture of, put in the newspaper or on television, and thereby spur people and their representatives to action.
Rather, today’s scientific questions are much more subtle and complex -- but, I would strongly emphasize, no less important to our children’s future.
Global warming, for example. The world’s scientific community is telling us in no uncertain terms that, for the first time in history, pollution from human activity is changing the Earth’s climate. The projected impact on weather patterns amounts to an alarming legacy for our children.
Science also tells us that, despite years of progress, the cleanup of our urban air is not complete -- and that we must do more to protect the health of future generations.
The pollution of our rivers, lakes, and coastal areas, and particularly our drinking water supplies, now comes not from a few but from many sources, collectively known as precipitation run-off from farm fields, roads, parking lots and lawns. The loss of wetlands to development is proving to have an enormous affect on water quality.
We are now seeing evidence that the cumulative effect of chemical pollution in our environment may affect particularly sensitive individuals -- such as children or older people -- at lower levels than national standards.
And no one yet knows all the sources of the childhood asthma epidemic we face.
These are just a few examples of how complex our environmental challenges have become -- while the solutions have become decreasingly simplistic.
And while the public opinion polls I cited a moment ago show strong support for environmental protection, they also indicate that Americans do not yet fully grasp today’s environmental problems -- how pollution occurs, where it comes from, and how it affects public health and the environment.
That’s why I fervently believe that America would benefit from a thoughtful, national debate on public health and environmental protection – a debate on how best to protect wetlands and stem polluted runoff, how to further reduce harmful pollutants in our urban air, how to address global climate change, how to further revitalize our cities and create more shared green spaces, and how to protect the most vulnerable among us from the impacts of not one, but many pollutants.
We need to consider much more than just how to complete the work of the past, but how to prepare for the work of the future by updating and modernizing our environmental statutes. We need a comprehensive approach – one based on the knowledge and experience we have gained over the past 30 years – and we need to have Congress fully involved in revitalizing the historic, bipartisan commitment that was the foundation for our earlier success.
But it’s not happening. Instead, I see a determination to impose one-size-fits-all solutions to complex problems. Instead, I see cost-benefit considerations being thrust into every argument – indeed, into the very definition of protectiveness – not with the hope of illuminating the debate but with ending the debate. This is evident in proposed changes to the Clean Air Act and in arguments being made by industry to the Supreme Court.
Further, in the absence of progressive Congressional action on the environment, we are seeing a vacuum into which the judiciary has moved. The result is we have judges who struggle to make sense of today’s realities in the light of outdated laws. We have the spectacle of judges who have no scientific background hearing cases in which highly complex, highly technical scientific issues occupy center stage. Too often the results are rulings that simply split the differences between opposing sides and leave the public’s air, water and land inadequately protected.
Yet, this has been the fallout of Congress’s recent fixation with cost-benefit analysis -- and particularly the notion that you should protect the public health only after determining that the benefits of doing so will outweigh the costs.
Let me ask – what would the consequences be if we had used this approach in the past? Would we have, say, required the removal of lead from gasoline 25 years ago if the costs to industry were weighed against the benefits? Should we have waited 10 years more, to see how lead-poisoned children of the 1970’s fared in the 80’s? What exactly is the value of a few IQ points for a child? How much cost is too much cost when the benefit is the health of millions of children?
And let’s say we determine that the costs exceed the benefits of reducing pollution. For example, what if the costs of cleaning the air are greater than the cost of treating asthma attacks made worse by current air pollution. What then? Do we force children and others to endure their asthma attacks?
You can see why the environmental laws of a generation ago were structured the way they were – on a simple premise – protect the public health first, and then figure out how to deal with the costs.
Set the necessary protective health standards, and then work out a strict time frame for industries to innovate and devise ways to meet those standards. Use cost-benefit analysis as a tool – and EPA does precisely that – but only in the context of a comprehensive set of considerations and a larger focus on public health protection.
And, in the meantime, trust democracy. Let all of those who must live with the consequences of environmental decisions – the communities, the industries, the people – work together, review the facts, discuss the options, and make the decisions on how best to meet the standards.
This is the core of that historic commitment to protecting public health and the environment. You can go back to the early 1970’s and check the record. You can look at all the documents -- hearing testimony, Congressional committee reports, and all the legislation that was passed. It’s there. It had bipartisan support. And, most importantly, it has worked.
While those actions have brought enormous benefits to the health of our citizens and our quality of life, those who predicted that the economic costs would ruin American industries were wrong. It didn’t happen. Instead, industries rose to the challenge and worked very hard to comply. And they did it far below the cost that anyone predicted at the time.
And who would argue that, as a result, America is not light years ahead of where we were 30 years ago? Clearly, we have a cleaner environment and a much stronger economy.
But, unfortunately, this argument on cost-benefit analysis is where Congress has been stuck for several years now. Clearly, we cannot move forward so long as it remains the only issue on the table. We cannot make progress so long as environmental and public health protection is presented in the national debate as a zero-sum game with a set of “winners” and “losers” -- and with each side suggesting that only its position can prevail or all will be lost.
Certainly, there are things we can do -- and have done -- in the absence of progress on the Congressional front. The Clinton/Gore Administration -- and in many instances, the states -- have been forced to develop all sorts of creative new approaches to fill the gaps -- common sense, cost-effective measures that emphasize partnership and cooperation with businesses and among all levels of government.
We have worked to develop more flexible approaches to spur the cleanup of Brownfields -- abandoned, polluted industrial sites in our inner cities -- and return them to productive use. We are creating a flexible structure for addressing runoff pollution as part of our plan to finish the cleanup of America’s polluted rivers, lakes and estuaries.
We are working to apply market-based trading schemes to help resolve interstate air pollution issues. We have reformed the Superfund program and increased the pace of toxic waste cleanups, while decreasing the costs of cleanups.
We’ve shown that we can work cooperatively to structure new ways to encourage responsible businesses that want to exercise environmental leadership and tap into the vast potential of market-driven new technologies.
A perfect example is the new clean air and fuels standards announced by the President last December -- standards that will reduce emissions from autos and small trucks by up to 95 percent, and which, for the first time, ensure that SUV’s, mini-vans and light duty trucks meet the same stringent requirements as passenger cars.
This was the direct result of EPA’s efforts to work with the auto and oil industries, the states, and environmental groups to hammer out an agreement that promotes innovation, avoids unintended consequences from regulations, and secures vastly improved public health protections.
Clearly, we’ve made a great deal of progress over the past seven years.
But we have had to do all of these things administratively -- without the leadership from Congress necessary to refresh the framework of law that guides all of our work.
Administrative actions are no substitute for legislation. Nor are judicial decisions.
We could do so much more if we could just help Congress find its way back home to the shared commitment of an earlier era, when partisanship took a holiday and our national leaders held firm to the belief that the protection of our environment should not be a political issue, but rather a sacred trust to be held inviolate for future generations. We’ve got to start talking about this again. We’ve got to get the real debate going again.
I believe it will happen because the American people will make it happen. As I previously mentioned, polls show that the American people continue to support, in overwhelming numbers, balanced solutions to protect public health and the responsible stewardship of the environment. They may not completely understand all of the complex issues involved -- but they do want results. And they don’t want cost considerations to outweigh these objectives.
Further, they are demonstrating a willingness to learn. One of our goals has been to give people the information they need to take action in their own communities. And we have found that people are, by and large, hungry for any information we can provide them.
Our EPA Internet web site, which contains gigabit upon gigabit of environmental information specific to communities across the nation, is now getting more than 52 million hits per month. And that number is growing.
Whether you’re talking about a virtual community of environmentally-aware, grassroots activists -- or a new level of thinking among responsible business leaders -- it is clear that public awareness and understanding are the essential keys to progress. They are the building blocks for a new consensus that can revitalize the spirit and commitment of the first Earth Day.
We need that spirit. We need that consensus. We need that commitment to tackle the environmental challenges of the 21st Century. This is what originally inspired me to public service -- the very idea that men and women in our highest levels of government service could set aside their everyday political disputes and make a lasting contribution to our country and its quality of life.
I believe we can do it. I believe we can rebuild and re-energize that commitment. With the help of our nation’s best minds – including many of you right here at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies – we can construct the scientific and public policy framework for new strategies and new approaches to these complex challenges.
And we can ultimately drive the nation to do the right thing – once again. And thereby we can ensure that future Earth Days are not merely observations of a bygone era, but rather a time for renewing our commitment to building a better world for our children and their children to come.