Here's What America Would Look Like Without the EPA
By Brian Palmer
"Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions," said Richard Nixon, the founder of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in his 1970 State of the Union speech.
If only. While there was clearly a time when support for environmental regulations transcended politics, the GOP's broad support for EPA antagonist and Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt to head the agency he so maligns tells us that day has passed.
A collective memory lapse seems to have descended on lawmakers who seek to dismantle an agency that has transformed American life for the better. Since the EPA's founding in 1970, concentrations of common air pollutants, like sulfur dioxide, have dropped as much as 67 percent. The EPA helped mitigate catastrophes like acid rain, leaded gasoline and DDT. The agency bravely classified secondhand smoke as a known carcinogen in 1993, paving the way for successful litigation against the tobacco industry and an incredible reduction in U.S. smoking rates.
Perhaps the EPA has been too successful for its own good. In the same way that vaccines have given parents the luxury of forgetting what measles and whooping cough were like, the EPA has nearly wiped out the national memory of the contaminated environment of the 1960s. But things were so bad then that support for creating the agency and our major environmental statutes was virtually unanimous—nearly everyone recognized the need for an environmental regulator.
What Is Scott Pruitt Hiding? Releases Only 411 of 3,000 Emails https://t.co/3QO9VrxWVd— Robert F. Kennedy Jr (@Robert F. Kennedy Jr)1487171063.0
"There were debates about the best approach to deal with the problem, but opposition to the EPA was pretty minimal in the beginning," remembers A. James Barnes, who was with the agency at its founding and served as deputy administrator from 1985 to 1988. "Most legislators got themselves personally involved in how to improve the environment."
As we embark on a terrifying new period at the EPA, under a president who called the agency "a disgrace" and promised to abolish it, it's worth looking back at the way we were before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency came to our rescue.
Disasters Were the Norm
If you ask people of a certain age about the environmental problems of the 1960s, many describe a series of discrete disasters: the Cuyahoga River fire, the New York City Thanksgiving smog, the Santa Barbara oil spill. Those incidents were shocking indeed, but they weren't one-offs. In most cases they were merely the most salient in a series of increasingly grave problems of the same kind.
Take the New York City smog. "The smog" is New York shorthand for the choking, three-day air pollution event that smothered the city over Thanksgiving 1966. That weekend, the city experienced a heat inversion—a stationary layer of warm air that prevented the normal upward circulation of warm air from the ground. As a result, low-lying pollution simply hung over the city.
New York City veiled in smog in 1973.National Archives
"I was a student at Columbia Law School during the 1966 episode," said Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) attorney David Hawkins. "It was frightening, but while that is the best-known event, heavy pollution was an everyday fact of life those days. It was one of the things that motivated me to get a job at NRDC soon after I graduated."
As Hawkins points out, "the smog" wasn't really new. Thirteen years earlier, for six terrible days, a similar heat inversion spiked the sulfur dioxide content of New York's air from a tolerable 40 parts per billion to 860 parts per billion. (The current legal limit is 75 parts per billion.) At the time, American city dwellers hadn't yet settled on the term smog to describe the dark curtain of polluted air that was beginning to descend on them. Many newspapers referred to the disaster as "the smaze" and every day it accelerated the death of 25 to 30 people. Yet another multi-day smog event blanketed Gotham in 1963.
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By Peter Giger
The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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