Christine Todd Whitman, EPA administrator from 2001 to 2003, is president of the Whitman Strategy Group environmental consulting firm and co-chair of the Clean & Safe Energy Coalition, which advocates for nuclear energy.
President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt (R) to head the Environmental Protection Agency has drawn criticism because of Pruitt’s public stances against the agency’s authority and his numerous lawsuits to block agency regulations in his state. Given Pruitt’s obvious dislike for what the agency does, I am disappointed in his selection, but his appointment does not come as a surprise given the professed views of the president-elect and many of his closest aides.
As a former EPA administrator under a Republican president, I recognize that it is easy to hate regulations in general. After all, regulatory action causes people to spend money or change behavior, often to solve problems they do not believe exist. Regulations have certainly gone too far in a number of areas, but it’s important to remember that regulations are meant to be protective, and when it comes to the EPA, that means protecting human health and our world. Pruitt would be wise not to try to walk back the real progress that has been made.
Let’s not forget the atmosphere in which the EPA was created. The nation was experiencing great turmoil in 1969 and 1970, with riots on college campuses and in many cities. The Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire, and our air and water sources were being polluted by actors not required by any governing body to protect our citizens. People demanded that Washington protect them, and they got a Republican president to work with a Democratic Congress to establish the EPA and enact the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. To forget that the EPA was borne out of public demand is to invite a real backlash.
So I hope that Pruitt will take time to rethink some of his criticisms of the agency and also recognize the role of science in a regulatory agency such as the EPA. Pruitt has questioned “the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind.” I have long said that activists have done themselves a disservice by stressing that humans have “caused” climate change. That claim to sole causation results in people like Pruitt dismissing the need to address climate change because they doubt that humans have done all of the damage. The climate has always changed — after all, we’ve had numerous ice ages without human influence — but human activity has undoubtedly exacerbated Earth’s natural trends beyond its capacity to adjust.
The New York-based Regional Plan Association reported last week that by 2050 the sea level along the Atlantic Coast could rise by an entire foot. This means every time there is a bad storm, more land will be susceptible to erosion and more of our coastline at risk for destruction. The cost in human lives and capital rebuilding will reach beyond the capability of any government or institution. The joint chiefs of staff and other military leaders view climate change as a national security issue; hopefully that fact demonstrates, even to those who are most skeptical, the gravity of the situation we are facing. To the extent that we can slow the process, we would be wise to do it.
There are very practical ways that the EPA and federal government can protect our environment, as well as human health and our infrastructure. To slow the rate of climate change, we need to reduce our carbon output; thankfully, there are ways to achieve that goal that have significant economic benefits as well. Promoting energy conservation and reminding people only to use what they actually need benefits household budgets. Building nuclear plants and other clean-energy sources creates good jobs for Americans. The EPA should also work with the Transportation Department to advance mass transit, which will get people out of traffic jams, saving time for them and massively reducing carbon emissions from idling cars.
Between 1990 and 2012, the population grew by 38 percent, and electricity demand increased by 27 percent, but we more than doubled our gross domestic product in real numbers while at the same time reducing pollutants by 67 percent. This is not a zero-sum game. President-elect Trump and EPA Administrator-designate Pruitt should recognize that it is a fallacy to believe we cannot have a healthy, thriving economy and a clean and green environment. The new administration can vigorously pursue its economic goals while allowing the EPA to do what it was created to do: protect the health of the American people and our land.