Clean Air Is Important For Most Of Us

Some may remember when Ronald Reagan’s Press Secretary James Brady, grabbed the president as they flew over a forest and said in mock alarm, “Look, Mr. President — Killer trees! Killer trees!”

Mr. Brady made this mid-flight stand-up joke in reference to the President’s statement that trees were a major source of air pollution.

Most High School students appreciate that trees absorb Carbon Dioxide and other harmful gasses including Sulfur Dioxide and Carbon Monoxide, and release the oxygen that we need to breathe.

One tree can store 13 pounds of carbon dioxide a year and supply enough oxygen in a day for four people to breathe.

Few think it was the “good old days” when President Reagan’s Administration cashiered twenty top EPA employees, when Assistant EPA Administrator, Rita Lavelle, was convicted of perjury after misusing toxic clean-up Superfund monies, and EPA Administrator Anne Burford resigned when found in contempt for refusing to turn over Superfund records.

President Reagan’s Administration was a disaster when it came to environmental stewardship.  But no Republican Administration since has done any better.

Republican President Richard Nixon got it right when, in 1970, he created the EPA, enforcing, among other provisions, those that seek to assure us that we can breathe clean air.  But Republicans have since rebuffed Nixon’s lead.

Since we inhale about 3,000 gallons of air each day, it’s important that it be clean – or we risk becoming ill or, worse, dying.

Consider what industry is hurling into the air.  Power plants in the United States released almost 2.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide in 2011.  We burn this coal to generate electricity.  The hidden cost is lost workdays, respiratory symptoms, hospital visits, asthma attacks and death.

In nearby West Virginia, the coal industry is creating moonscapes, destroying whole regions of the state, impoverishing those who live there, to get at the coal, tearing off the tops of mountains, using tons of explosives, creating treacherous slurry dams that may not hold, hiring fewer miners every year, forcing them to work in unsafe conditions, eliminating those workers they have, pouring poison into the air and water, including carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, mercury and other pollutants, and resisting in every way possible, expenditures to modernize plants, to clean the air, or the water.

The Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision in 2007 held that the Clean Air Act (“CAA”) defines “air pollutant’ as “any air pollution agent or combination of such agents, including any physical, chemical biological, radioactive … substance or matter which is emitted into or otherwise enters the ambient air.”

The majority decision concluded that “greenhouse gases [GHGs] fit well within the CAA’s capacious definition of air pollutant.”

The lower courts then found that carbon dioxide endangers public health and is likely responsible for the global warming we’ve experienced over the past half century.  I know the preferred rhetoric is “climate change” but it’s imprecise – the “change” is “warming.”

Only last May, carbon dioxide reached a level of 400 parts per million – a level never previously reached in human history.  When we began industrialization, our level was 280 parts per million.

We can therefore expect polar ice to continue to melt, as it has, and the seas to rise, as they are.  Unfortunately, we don’t know when we’ll hit the tipping point – and it’s too late.  You would think just saying we have achieved levels only reached in prehistoric times would give any rational person pause and serious concern.

So why no alarm?

It’s because we not only have those who don’t appreciate the science of global warming.  We also have those who defer to coal industry executives who choose profits and shift the risk to us – rather than making the necessary transition to alternative energy sources.

By doing little or nothing, we shorten the runway to our own survival as a nation and species.

The mistaken policy of our current crop of neo-capitalists is grounded in a determinism that an “invisible hand” guides the market to the “right result.”  Thus, there are no institutional choices to be made.  That’s why our Congress is paralyzed.  It’s jam-packed, especially on the House side, with Representatives waiting for that “magical hand” to make it all right.  This ideological delusion is akin to a child’s belief in the tooth fairy or Santa Claus.

Industry saves the cost of doing this right at the cost of our ill health and abbreviated life spans.

If we don’t scream our opposition from the roof tops – if we are more like sheep – we know how that story ends.