After World War II, American industry grew rapidly, leading to not only unprecedented wealth and a growing middle class, but also to serious negative effects on the environment. As industry and population expanded, we learned through poisoned rivers and unbreathable air that there are limits to the capacity of the environment to absorb our waste. The Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1970 with strong bipartisan support for efforts to remediate heavily polluted urban air and waterways across the country. The EPA is now facing severe cuts under the Trump administration's proposed budget. Sustainability commentator Bob Brecha has more.
The EPA has been highly successful at its job of cleaning up the air and water around the country. Soil pollution at industrial brown-field sites, and at even more toxic Super-Fund sites, has been addressed. Most recently, the EPA has been charged with finding solutions to help mitigate the worst effects of climate change, a task to which the United States committed itself twenty-five years ago under the administration of President George H. W. Bush by signing the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The main efforts include fuel efficiency standards for cars, and encouraging energy efficiency through the Energy Star program and more recently through the Clean Power Plan.
Mileage standards were first set in the 1970's in response to the oil embargo, and resulting energy crises lingering into the 1980s. Standards were raised significantly in the wake of the recent recession, for the first time in many years. These standards were agreed to by automakers, partly as a result of having received federal funding to prevent a meltdown in the industry during the recession. Now the automakers have asked the Trump administration to review (and presumably weaken) these improvements in an effort to diminish the role of the federal government in regulating business activity.
As for the Energy Star program, reportedly also a target for elimination, estimates are that the average yearly costs of $50 million are far outweighed by savings to consumers of $30 billion each year. The Clean Power Plan is one of the main targets of the Trump administration. It sets limits on greenhouse gas emissions in the electric power sector with the aim of cutting carbon pollution.
But there’s more to the EPA than these three programs. The agency is actively involved in remediating environmental lead contamination such as the horrific cases that came to light in Flint, Michigan. While Flint received the headlines, similar problems exist across the country due to aging infrastructure. The initial proposal for cuts to EPA include 30% less for lead cleanup and a 42% decrease in the budget for industrial brown-fields cleanup. Furthermore, cuts are proposed for enforcement efforts; of course, if oversight is removed, violators are much more likely to be able to get away with polluting.
Many of the cuts to the EPA being proposed by the Trump administration go the heart of efforts to fight for social justice. Industrial pollution disproportionately affects poorer and already disadvantaged communities. In the case of many environmental regulations, the result is clearly in favor of decreasing pollution over making money. But we can’t always just rely on technocratic measures – broad issues of responsibility to society can’t always be measured in monetary terms only.
Many of the cuts to climate change programs being proposed by the Trump administration appear to be much more than just money-saving measures. There is an active effort to roll back restrictions on activities that pollute water and air. And when it comes to climate change research, whole programs are being cut simply because knowing more about the likely impacts of climate change would impose an ethical imperative to act now for the sake of future generations. Denying that a problem exists by cutting off funding to do research is a strategy that is bound to be very costly in the long run, and promises to deny all of us the benefits of using the knowledge gained from a generation of environmental initiatives.
Bob Brecha is a professor of Physics and Renewable and Clean Energy at the University of Dayton, and Research Director at UD's Hanley Sustainability Institute. Follow him on Twitter: @BobBrecha