Environmental Protection Apocalypse: What’s Happening to the EPA?
This story is part of Degrees Of Change, a series that explores the problem of climate change and how we as a planet are adapting to it. Tell us how you or your community are responding to climate change here.
The Trump administration is in the process of reversing nearly 100 environmental rules and regulations—threatening air, water, and public health. For example, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has relaxed enforcement for air pollution violations, allowing emissions to continue unchecked during the spread of a respiratory illness.
“We’ve never seen anything like the systematic rollback of all things environmental the way we have in this administration,” says David Uhlmann, director of the Environmental Law and Policy Program and the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor.
Uhlmann looks back to years leading up to the push in pollution regulation in the U.S. and the establishment of the EPA in the 1970s. Some of the most catastrophic pollution events in U.S. history inspired the environmental protection efforts, from the historic Cuyahoga River fires in Ohio to the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill.
“I look at this decade, at both the challenges we face and the opportunities before us, and I’m reminded of the 1970s,” Uhlmann says. “I think we can, indeed we must, come together again around environmental issues, recognize the fact that there is no planet B. There’s nowhere else for us to go.”
Air pollution is extremely harmful to human health, especially for children. Not only do these emissions exacerbate respiratory problems, they’re linked to asthma, ADHD, depression, and low birth weight in children. Gina McCarthy, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council and former EPA administrator, calls climate change “the biggest public health challenge of our time.”
“There is no planet B. There’s nowhere else for us to go.”
On top of this, climate change does not impact everyone equally. Low-income communities are especially vulnerable to this kind of pollution, risks that are expected to get worse as climate change continues.
“It’s very important to be aware of how much more affected children, everyone in low income communities, and communities of color have been,” says Frederica Perera, founding director of the Center for Children’s Environmental Health at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. “They have suffered disproportionate exposure to air pollution and they’re more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change as well.”
In this chapter of Degrees of Change, Uhlmann discusses the history of environmental regulations, and how we got here. Then later in the segment, McCarthy and Perera talk about the link between EPA rollbacks, climate change, and public health.
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David Uhlmann is director of the Environmental Law and Policy Program at the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Gina McCarthy is president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council and a former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator. She’s based in Boston, Massachusetts.
Frederica Perera is director of the Center for Children’s Environmental Health at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York, New York.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.
Later in the hour, we’ll talk about the environmental policy rollbacks happening under the Trump administration, reversing almost 100 environmental rules that protect our air, our water, and our bodies. But first, to understand how we got here, we need to take a look back. And here to help us understand the history of environmental regulations in the US is David Allman, director of the Environmental Law and Policy Program at the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor. Welcome to Science Friday.
DAVID ALLMAN: Thanks, Ira. I’m delighted to be here.
IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. Set the scene for us. What was going on in the US when the first environmental regulations were put in place?
DAVID ALLMAN: Well, the first environmental laws were enacted by Congress in the 1970s at a time when the United States had gone through a lot of societal upheaval– the Vietnam War, civil rights movement, equal rights for women, all created a lot of angst in the United States. And in fact it was a turbulent time and a time, in many ways, that has some similarity to what we’re going through today.
But from an environmental protection standpoint, we didn’t have any rules. And the consequences of not having any rules were readily apparent in communities across America. Our rivers and streams were open sewers. Cuyahoga River caught on fire in 1969. And it wasn’t the only river in America that was on fire. And we had hazardous waste sites throughout the country. We had air literally choking people, making it impossible to breathe, breathe in large American cities.
So we had a desperate need to do something about the environment. And remarkably, the environment was an issue that brought people together at a time, as I’ve said, where people were pretty badly divided. Pretty much everybody was in favor of cleaner air, fresher water, and communities freed of hazardous waste sites.
IRA FLATOW: You know, that really was interesting, the point you make about bringing everybody together because I remember that back in the day. But I thought something that probably led, at least in my mind and the mind of people around then, that led to this environmental consciousness was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring book. Did you agree with that stoking environmental awareness?
DAVID ALLMAN: That’s a great question, Ira. You’re taking us back further, and I do agree. I think before we came together around the environmental movement in the 1970s, Rachel Carson– and I’d also mentioned Aldo Leopold. Aldo Leopold wrote, before Rachel Carson, he’s often called the Father of the Conservation Movement in the United States, and his idea that we needed to be more conscious about how we affect the world around us sort of set the table for Rachel Carson, who then wrote in the 1960s about the harmful effects of chemicals and pesticides, especially DDT. And together, I’d say, Leopold and Carson provided the intellectual foundation for the environmental movement.
But in America, we often need a good tragedy to motivate us to act. So if Leopold and Carson raised our consciousness, I think it was the Cuyahoga River on fire, the Santa Barbara oil spill off the coast of California also in 1969–
IRA FLATOW: Oh, yeah, I remember that. Yeah.
DAVID ALLMAN: Yeah, those events really, really drove legislative action but did so on a background where Leopold and Carson really had set things in motion.
IRA FLATOW: It’s an interesting point you bring up because if I recall correctly that the bipartisanship was evident, because it was Richard Nixon a Republican president who ushered in the Environmental Protection Agency, did he not?
DAVID ALLMAN: Richard Nixon was president when the Environmental Protection Agency was created. And when the Clean Air Act, the first of the major environmental laws was enacted, it’s fair to ask whether he was a true environmentalist. There’s at least a lot of thought that Nixon was motivated more than anything by trying to ride the wave of the environmental movement to his re-election in 1972. So he may not have been as hardcore an environmentalist as his records, leading the creation of EPA and signing into law the Clean Air Act would suggest.
But the bipartisan support in Congress was remarkable. The votes in the House of Representative were margins like 400 to 24 and, in the Senate, 88 to 10– I mean, the kind of margins that you might not even get today for naming a new federal office building. It was a really remarkable time. And the degree to which people came together around the need to do a better job protecting the environment and, in the process, protecting public health was remarkable.
IRA FLATOW: So that’s the puzzling point to me, and I’ve asked other environmentalists what they think the reason for this breakdown in bipartisanship. When did this rift occur, do you think?
DAVID ALLMAN: Well, that’s also a great question, Ira, because it’s not clear why we’d be so divided around environmental issues. A deteriorating environment, a climate that is in peril, none of these challenges are Republican or democratic issues. The environment doesn’t care all that much where we live, whether we’re rich and poor, who we love. It affects all of us. And I don’t know that it affects all of us equally in the sense that, I think, poor people and people of color often seem to suffer the worst effects, which is something we could explore, but environment is an issue that everybody should care about.
And I think, in terms of understanding what happened, part of what happened is Ronald Reagan and a shift in the Republican Party that began with him, that involved pushing hard on an antiregulatory agenda, almost as a reaction to the 1970s. And part of what happened is we just became so much more partisan and so much more polarized about every other issue, and the environment just became another issue that we’ve become partisan about and polarized about.
IRA FLATOW: I was talking earlier about the rollbacks of the Trump administration. Have we ever seen anything close to it in former administrations?
DAVID ALLMAN: Well, I mentioned Ronald Reagan because he really sort of started the ball rolling in the wrong direction, trying to pull back at EPA and the Department of the Interior. But frankly, his administrations were child’s play compared to what followed. And I think the closest we could come to an administration with an environmental record as bad as this administration would be the presidency of George W Bush, which we forget was pretty disastrous in many respects, particularly from an environmental standpoint.
But even George W Bush and his administration, as challenging as that was from an environmental standpoint, as negative an actor as Dick Cheney was really pushing the energy industry and pushing environmental rollbacks in a major way, the Trump administration has outdone them all. We’ve never seen anything like the systematic rollback of all things environmental the way we have in this administration.
And it goes beyond even what industry is seeking in many respects, and it completely disregards science, and it disregards the law. And it’s something that has to stop. And if it doesn’t stop because we have a new president in 2021, it’s frightening to think where we’re going to end up.
IRA FLATOW: I wonder if there’s any way to tell if this will change, whether we’ll get back to looking at it the same way. Do you have any thoughts on that?
DAVID ALLMAN: I do. I think we’re in an extraordinary moment in our history. We were in a challenging time, even before we turned the calendar on 2020. The challenges to our democracy are enormous, and the 2020 election is a real watershed election for us. We’ve now added the horrible suffering, both from the public health standpoint and from an economic standpoint, of a global pandemic. And right down the road, as a just overwhelming challenge for all of us, is the threat of climate disruption, and the catastrophe it will be if we fail to act over the next 10 years.
So I look at this decade, and both the challenges we face but also the opportunities before us, and I’m reminded of the 1970s. I mean, I think we can, indeed we must, come together again around environmental issues, recognize the fact that there is no Planet B. There’s nowhere else for us to go. And we have to do a better job protecting the environment. We have to address the existential threat that is climate change. And we have the opportunity to do so.
IRA FLATOW: Well, we’ll have to wait and see what happens. In the meantime, David, I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today.
DAVID ALLMAN: It’s my pleasure, Ira. Thank you.
IRA FLATOW: Stay well, David Allman, director of the Environmental Law and Policy Program at the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor.
Rapid environmental rollbacks have been a priority of the Trump administration, and they’re happening as our attention is diverted to the pandemic. So what does that mean for climate change and human health? Joining me to talk about it are Gina McCarthy, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council based in Boston, Massachusetts. Gina is also the former EPA administrator under President Obama.
Also with us is Dr. Frederica Perera, founding director of the Center for Children’s Environmental Health at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York City. Dr. Perera is on the board of the NRDC. Thank you both for coming on Science Friday.
FREDERICA PERERA: Thank you very much.
GINA MCCARTHY: Thanks for having us, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: Let me begin with you, Gina. What kind of protections are getting rolled back by the Trump administration right now?
GINA MCCARTHY: Well, first of all, Ira, thank you for letting me be here. I would have to answer all kinds and anything they can think of because this administration, from the beginning, we knew would not agree with everything that the Obama administration enacted for rules and regulations. I just think nobody could have anticipated the broad sweep of rollbacks that this administration has been proposing and doing their best to defend in court.
It’s everything from, you know, they did what we call a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which basically tells industry that if you’re inconvenienced by this pandemic, then don’t worry about maintaining your standards for omitting of pollution so that you can not have to monitor a report on it so that individuals that live in the shadow of these big industrial facilities like refineries have no idea what pollution they’re being exposed to right now. They have rolled back car standards that are designed to make our air cleaner, especially for people that live along highways.
They’ve attacked our science and said that good scientists can’t be on all of the panels that help advise on these types of rules. They’ve rolled back toxic emission standards from power plants. They’ve decided that it’s OK to sell dirty wood stoves at a time when we know that puts more people at risk. So right now, we said, OK, do more. Make anything you’ve done permanent before, as if he’s not constrained by Congress and the laws that were put in place after our first Earth day that has protected our air and water and make our lives better.
So as you can tell, I’m a little infuriated by it. But more, I’m just frightened by it because it is a lack of understanding about what we need to do to build a healthy life and, frankly, to address climate change, which is the biggest public health challenge of our time.
IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC studios. We’ve got a question from a listener, Karen from Grants Pass, Oregon.
AUDIENCE: Are the rollbacks benefiting people and organizations that support Trump or that supporters have financial holdings in?
GINA MCCARTHY: Well, I think you’d have to answer absolutely to both of those questions, yes. Basically, when Trump came into office, he was very clear that his job was to bring back coal. It was very clear that he wanted us to be the dominant country in terms of production of oil. And those are the very interests that have supported his campaign, that have aligned with him, and I think many of us understand that this administration has not been protecting people. It has been protecting polluters.
And it’s just a total denial of what we need to do and what government is supposed to do to deliver on people’s right to clean air, and clean water, and healthy places to live and have their children grow up. But it also is a total denial of climate science and the need for us to build a brighter future. And that’s part of both the challenge of climate and the opportunity we have to get out of this economy in a way that grows a clean energy economy, which is actually the jobs of the future.
IRA FLATOW: Dr. Perera, you studied how environmental factors impact human health, especially for children. What do we know about how air pollution hurts us and children?
FREDERICA PERERA: Well, as an environmental and public health scientist, I agree with Gina McCarthy very strongly, is rollbacks of policies, regulations on air pollution and climate change are a terrible idea. And that’s because these emissions from industry, transportation, power plants, other sources powered by fossil fuel are really the major culprits for both air pollution and climate change. And reducing those emissions from coal, oil, gas, diesel, et cetera, benefits public health in enormous ways, especially for children.
Mostly, people think about the deaths caused by air pollution, over 4 million every year in the world, 100,000 of those right here in the US, but also where children are born preterm and low birth weight, more children have asthma, and more children have cognitive behavioral problems that interfere with their ability to learn as a result of air pollution. It’s a major contributor. And our work at the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health and along with many other studies have linked these bad outcomes to exposure to the fine particles, the hydrocarbons, that nitrogen and sulfur dioxide, ozone, and mercury from fossil fuel.
And one of the striking bad outcomes is interference with normal brain development. And children bear the brunt of these threats, of these exposures because they are rapidly developing through very complex, highly choreographed processes during fetal development, infancy, early childhood, and they have immature defense mechanisms. They operate OK in us, for the most part, to detoxify chemicals and deal with other stressors, but they are not working effectively in the very young.
IRA FLATOW: We have to take a short break, and then we’ll be back with Gina McCarthy, President and CEO of the NRDC and Dr. Frederica Perera, founding director of the Center for Children’s Environmental Health at Columbia. Stay with us. We’ll be right back after this short break.
This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re continuing our conversation about how the Trump administration is rolling back wide-ranging environmental protections while all eyes are on COVID-19. This is part of our ongoing Degrees of Change series. More info on how you can get involved in our coverage and sign up for our climate newsletter is at sciencefriday.com/degreesofchange.
Our guests are Gina McCarthy, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council based in Boston. Gina is also the former EPA chief under President Obama. And Dr. Frederica Perera, Founding Director of the Center for Children’s Environmental Health at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York City. Dr. Perera, do you expect the health effects you study to get worse with climate change?
FREDERICA PERERA: Yes, I have outlined some of the effects of climate change and, before that, air pollution. But in fact, they collaborate such that there are interactions between them. We see more ozone. This is a respiratory irritant formed much more quickly in conditions of high heat.
Take another example of an interaction, a child whose early brain development has been adversely affected by toxic air pollution exposure will be more vulnerable to the trauma and the increased pollution from forest fires that result from climate change. And there are many such examples of that kind of collaboration between these two. I call them the twin evils of fossil fuel.
But also, it’s very important to be aware of how much more affected children and everyone in low-income communities, communities of color have been because they have suffered disproportionate exposure to air pollution, and they’re more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change as well.
IRA FLATOW: As a public health expert, are there specific rollbacks that concern you the most?
FREDERICA PERERA: I think they concern me all about the same way, very, very deeply. The pullback of regulations on clean air, particularly because there is evidence that the Clean Air Act amendments that were instituted in 1990, that they have produced an annual monetized health benefit on the order of $2 trillion dollars annually, and that would be for this year.
Now that’s in terms of health benefits. So it is a terrible mistake to be relaxing regulations on air quality for other reasons that I’ve mentioned, for the health and the future of children and also to miss this tremendous economic gain, this opportunity to do well by doing good. And those benefits are estimated to exceed costs by about 30 to 1. So that’s good news.
And in the same way, the California climate initiative, which was launched in, I think it was in 2006, has expected benefits of $8 billion in a few years in pollution-related health costs. And those are not even including those benefits to children, which are enormously valuable in avoided cases of asthma, or cognitive impairment, or autism, or ADHD, tremendously those costs avoided would be enormous.
GINA MCCARTHY: Hey, can I jump in for a second?
IRA FLATOW: Sure.
GINA MCCARTHY: And bounce off that? You know, I just wanted to point out that the key point that– one of the key points that Rici made was the intersect between climate and these health challenges that we have been facing with fossil fuels. And the good news, really, out of all that is that if you think about it, the solutions to climate provide immediate health benefits. There’s no tussle between what you want to do to address climate change and what you want to do to make people’s lives better today and to boost the economy and grow jobs today.
So I don’t want people to think that this is a hopeless situation, even with the steps that this administration has taken, to try to deny the challenge of climate change and to roll back health protections. Because there’s a couple of things going on that, at least for me, give me great hope even though many of the rules that are being sort of chopped up are ones that I worked very hard to put in place.
And if I can stay positive, then the rest of you gotta buck it up here. So here’s the good news. One is that when you don’t follow science and you don’t follow the law, you tend to lose when you do rule makings. And one of the reasons that I’m excited to be at NRDC as their president and CEO is because, for 50 years, they’ve been winning lawsuits that relate to degradation of public health and our environment and natural resources.
And like their history, today is repeating itself. We have basically sued this administration 112 times for various rollbacks, and we have won 90% of the time. And that’s with 70 cases already been decided. So we are winning because they’re bad at what they do, we follow the science– you’re required to follow the law– and as much as this administration wants to do just the opposite, the courts are following their mission and their mandate to make sure that the laws that Congress put in place are actually implemented by the federal agencies.
And so I’m encouraged by that. I’m also encouraged by the fact that clean energy now is taking off no matter what this administration tries to do to bring back coal and make sure that we continue our dependence on fossil fuels. We have 3.4 million people that are in the clean energy business now. That is way beyond the folks that are in the fossil fuel industry. And that’s not to suggest that we don’t want to work with the workers that are left behind in that industry, but it does tell us that our future is all about a climate future that recognizes that fossil fuels is not where we need to be, and it’s already an opportunity to grow jobs in solar, in energy efficiency, in wind. These are competing effectively already against fossil fuels.
So as much as we are, at least I am, ticked off about the rollbacks and the lack of interest in this administration on pursuing sound science, we’re kicking their butts in the court and in the marketplace itself. The things we want to have happen to protect us and our children in the future are already taking hold. And so we are not fighting against the economic future to protect our kids’ health and well-being or to deliver healthy places and people today.
IRA FLATOW: All what you’re saying brings up a really interesting point that one of our listeners talked to us on our Science Friday VoxPop app. I want to play that listener’s question from Hamm in Silverdale, Washington.
AUDIENCE: What is the point of the EPA if not to protect Americans’ health? Are these people living on a different planet? I mean, we’re breathing the same air, drinking the same water, and eating the same food. What purpose does it serve to allow industrial farms, coal mines, and oil companies to pollute at their leisure?
IRA FLATOW: Why did this become such a political football? If everybody knows, like our listeners says, that clean air, clean water is to our benefit, where did it get politicized?
GINA MCCARTHY: You know, I ask myself that every day, Ira, and I scratch my head because it’s worse now than it’s ever been. It’s almost like science is a belief system instead of just simply facts. And so I think one of the things that I look back on is the era of Ronald Reagan, where he basically said that the government is the enemy. And I think many of people have sort of thought that the government was somehow interfering with their rights instead of protecting their rights.
And so I think that it’s been a long, drawn-out litany of the fossil fuel industry, basically, doing exactly what they did with cigarettes, which is denying that pollution hurts people just like they denied that cigarette smoke hurt people. And then, they started questioning the various rules and regulations and whether or not they were really good for people, and do they do the job, and is there a solution? And so the disinformation campaign has been pretty extreme, but I think, all in all, one of the challenges we face is that the first Earth Day occurred because people could see, feel, and taste the pollution.
And the better we got at eliminating some of the pollution, the more that the misinformation could take hold, the more that people felt comfortable who weren’t living in the areas that were highly polluted saying, that’s not my problem. I don’t need to worry about it. Look it, I’ve got fish in my rivers. And they neglected to see the deterioration or the lack of progress that was absolutely essential, which is why we need scientists like Rici that actually provide you on-the-ground information that make you realize that even issues like climate change are relevant to you.
We can’t take action on them just like the first Earth Day, but we have to act collectively, and we have to be firm in our convictions. We have to show that our solutions work for people everywhere and that we are not challenging the strong economy and work that people need. We get that. That’s essential. Energy is essential.
But you can just deliver that in different ways that meet everyone’s goals. And we have to act like the United States of America has always acted, not by denying our problems, but by collectively recognizing them and addressing them. And we should not be afraid to recognize that we’re facing a planetary problem, that, in the end, people can fix.
IRA FLATOW: Well, that’s my next question, and I’ll ask this to both of you. Do you have faith in this next generation of youngsters? Because they look like they’re really willing to take on the fight. I’m thinking of Greta Thunberg, other people like her, teenagers, people in their 20s and 30s, Gina, do you have faith that the next generation is going to be there to really fight climate change?
GINA MCCARTHY: [CHUCKLES] I sure do. And if other people don’t, then those young people will be nipping on your heels. You know, the only thing they’re asking us to do is to give them a healthy future. That’s all they’re asking. And don’t let it to continue to deteriorate, and pay attention to the facts. You know, Ira, right now, I think people are particularly sensitive to the public health challenges that are happening today.
And one of the things we’re seeing is that people are getting a newfound respect for the science. They’re getting a newfound respect for experts and wanting to hear from the experts, not the politicians about what’s going on. And I think people now know that the world can be tipped on its head in a moment’s notice. And all of a sudden, we can change our behavior to address our individual health and our collective future.
And so I don’t think that people today can say that we cannot fix climate change. They have to say that we have to fix it, we can fix it, and that it is about young people and their future. So we should be listening to them and delivering for them. Everybody in office better pay attention because these young people are not just going to demand change. They’re going to vote for it. And I’m counting on that.
IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Frederica, are you as confident?
FREDERICA PERERA: I do have confidence in the young. I also have confidence in people, that when they understand the harm and the very serious damage to children’s health, their children, also their grandchildren, other people’s children as well, if they really get that point, they will become engaged, and care more, and fight more for a cleaner environment, cleaner air, and against climate change.
And at our center, we have been following children since before they were born, a very large cohort or group who were enrolled from Northern Manhattan, Harlem, Washington Heights, South Bronx, and we followed them. They’ve stuck with us all these years. The oldest ones are now 21, 22. And we see a great interest in those young adults in learning more about the environment, becoming involved.
We have some teen groups that are going on, and expanding, and we’ve worked with an environmental organization, environmental justice group called WE ACT, West Harlem Environmental Action on some of the training of teenagers. They are eager to learn and to become involved.
And the same cohorts we have been following– them, their mother’s enrolled during pregnancy and them– and I have some good news to end with, which is that in our study, we’ve personally monitoring the air that women are breathing in pregnancy. We’ve monitored the environmental exposures over the child’s life from the time they’re born on, and they’re health and development. And we did show the impacts of air pollution exposure and exposure to other stressors, including those due to poverty and disadvantage.
But now, we’re showing some good news in that, over time, the policies that were enacted here in New York City, even during the Bloomberg years, have been paying off in terms of cleaner air. We see that in the levels of air pollution that were monitored in women who were successively enrolled into our different cohorts or groups of pregnant mothers and their children. So we have some good news on the ground right here, in this country, in New York, that policies work. They make a difference. And coming back to children, they are our hope. But I think, as their caretakers, we must recognize our responsibility to care for them and make sure that they have a healthy, sustainable life and future ahead of them.
IRA FLATOW: Very hopeful note to end on. I want to thank both of you for taking time to be with us today, Dr. Frederica Perera, former director of the Center for Children’s Environmental Health at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York City and Dr. Gina McCarthy, president and CEO of the NRDC, and she is also the former EPA administrator under President Obama. Once again, thank you both for taking time to be with us today.
FREDERICA PERERA: Thank you very much.
GINA MCCARTHY: Thanks for having us, Ira.