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Photo of John H. Adams

Illogical Extremes

Like any proud father, I have pictures of my family in my office. In one of my favorites, taken in winter, my wife and I, our daughter, and our two sons are all outside, bundled up. I'm holding my youngest son, then three, in my lap.

Were it not for its yellowish tint, I could almost believe the picture was snapped yesterday. I sometimes have to remind myself that it was actually taken 30 years ago, not long after we started NRDC. I have to remind myself as well that my kids, who are now 39, 37, and 33, can hardly remember a time when our rivers caught fire and the clothes we hung outside to dry in New York would turn gray from all the pollution in the air. Today, a new generation, unfamiliar with the struggles we went through to pass our most basic environmental laws, has been raised believing that environmental regulations are a staple of modern, forward-thinking, responsible democracies.

The Bush administration knows that Americans have come to expect a fundamental level of environmental protection. It knows that laws such as the Clean Air Act remain some of the most popular pieces of legislation ever enacted -- popular among just about everyone, that is, except the corporate polluters who give big money to the president's political campaigns. This administration somehow imagines that it can convince Americans to give up our hard-won environmental protections -- and give industry what it wants -- by using transparent rhetorical trickery: Simply tell the public that you're protecting the environment, while doing just the opposite.

Such is the case with the president's absurdly named "Clear Skies Initiative," which contains at its core a truly baffling premise: that discouraging companies from installing modern pollution-control technology makes for cleaner air and a more robust economy. No one actually believes this -- not even the president's own Office of Management and Budget, which released a report in September concluding that clean-air regulations alone bring Americans between $101 billion and $119 billion in benefits each year, including fewer hospitalizations and lost workdays from illness caused by pollution. The cost to companies, meanwhile, is only between $8 billion and $8.8 billion. Put plainly, the benefits of these regulations outweigh the costs by 10 to 15 times.

The president himself has unwittingly admitted the illogic of his plan. In an effort to drum up support for "Clear Skies," President Bush, speaking at a power plant in Monroe, Michigan, last summer, pointed out that in the past 30 years the American economy has grown 164 percent, while the amount of six major pollutants in our air has declined by almost half. "That should say to people that we can grow our economy, that we can work to create the conditions for job growth, and that we can be good stewards of the air we breathe," he said. Exactly. The Clean Air Act has been in effect during the most stupendous period of economic expansion is U.S. history. It hasn't impeded growth. Given the compelling evidence of the law's success, it defies comprehension why the administration should want to gut such an effective piece of legislation.

But that is what President Bush is doing, and long before we have the clean air we deserve. More than 120 million Americans still live in areas where the air is unhealthy. Coal-fired power plants alone, such as the one where the president spoke, are responsible for the premature deaths of 30,000 Americans each year. Yet the new "Clear Skies Initiative" would allow 50 percent more sulfur emissions and hundreds of thousands of additional tons of smog-forming nitrogen oxides into our air.

That's why we have to keep up the fight -- in the courts and on Capitol Hill. Then, maybe our grandchildren, if not our children, will know a country in which the laws that protect the health of our citizens, the air they breathe, and the water they drink, can't be sold to the highest bidders.

John H. Adams

Photo: Brennan Cavanaugh

OnEarth. Winter 2004
Copyright 2003 by the Natural Resources Defense Council