Fifty years ago, millions of people took to the streets to protest the air and water pollution that were making us sick. Today, millions are sheltering inside to try to stem the spread of a very different kind of sickness, Covid-19.
Out of that first Earth Day eventually came — under a Republican administration — the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Environmental Protection Agency. That agency was given one mission: to protect human health and the environment. From time to time, Republicans and Democrats have worked together to strengthen the authority of the Clean Air Act. Further, the Supreme Court in 2007 affirmed that the E.P.A. has the authority to regulate the emission of greenhouse gases that warm our planet.
Over the decades, people began to “celebrate” Earth Day. It became a feel-good commemoration. We were seeing the heartening results of stronger antipollution regulations. We began to take for granted that we had a right to clean air.
That has turned out to be a disastrous mistake under the Trump administration.
To run the E.P.A., the president chose a former lobbyist for the coal industry, Andrew Wheeler, who has spent his time there eviscerating the steady progress made to keep America’s air clean.
Mr. Wheeler’s E.P.A. could make Americans even more vulnerable to disease at a time when our nation’s health is on the line. What was once a steady drumbeat of proposed rollbacks has become, since the pandemic reached our shores, a feverish gutting of pollution protections, turning the E.P.A. into a shop of horrors. On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we should be celebrating the remarkable achievements of the Clean Air Act, a crown jewel of America’s environmental laws. Instead we are witnessing an attempt to systematically dismantle it.
That’s why, rather than celebrate, I am going to fight for Earth Day, in honor of its original spirit, and against what the E.P.A. has become under Mr. Trump and Mr. Wheeler.
Here is why I am in warrior mode on Earth Day:
Just last week, the E.P.A. finalized a decision that undermines rules against oil- and coal-fired power plant emissions of mercury and other toxic metals. These rules, approved in 2012, were in full force and were helping to protect babies’ brains from mercury emissions, a potent neurotoxin. Now, the new rules change the way the E.P.A. evaluates the costs and benefits of regulating emissions, opening the door to legal challenges and threatening the foundation of air pollution regulations generally.
Much of the electric utility industry opposed the E.P.A.’s decision, but the coal industry has pushed for it.
After dismissing the E.P.A.’s scientific advisory panel on particulate matter in 2018, Mr. Wheeler is now refusing to strengthen standards protecting us from the tiny airborne industrial particles known as PM2.5 that so badly damage our lungs. New research from Harvard, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, shows that a “small increase in long-term exposure” to fine particulate matter “leads to a large increase” in the Covid-19 death rate.
Mr. Wheeler’s E.P.A. has also gutted the national standards that give us cleaner and more fuel-efficient cars, weakening efforts to reduce pollution and reversing climate progress, while making cars more expensive to drive. This basically puts a knife in the country’s most significant undertaking to slow climate change.
He is also proposing to exclude well-regarded, authoritative public health science studies in setting air pollution standards, essentially censoring science.
And he has proposed to roll back rules to cut emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and toxic pollutants from oil and gas operations. This would be another severe blow for cutting climate pollution.
It’s no figure of speech to say that the E.P.A. of Mr. Trump and Mr. Wheeler will end up making more of us sick. Because of the pandemic, we cannot gather in body on Earth Day to protest, to make demands for a better America. We are suffering, we are mourning and we are fearful. But we are also furious.
The pandemic also reminds us how dangerous it is to delay tackling a problem, and to ignore the science that can help rescue us. This same dynamic is at work in the E.P.A. under President Trump. The agency’s founding principles have been thrown out the window.
So in honor of the spirit of that first Earth Day, let us raise up our voices, and protest in the loudest way we can, against the perversion of the agency’s mission under Mr. Trump’s E.P.A. We will not lose our right to clean air. We will not lose our right to a safe climate. And we will not remain silent as Congress watches this unfold.
We must remember this travesty in November and show up to vote out this administration — for the sake of our health and the planet’s.
Dominique Browning is a founder and the director of Moms Clean Air Force.
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