Why Dire Pollution Predictions from First Earth Day Haven't Come True


Image via AEI

In one of the more bizarre blog posts I've read in recent memory, the American Enterprise Institute's Mark J. Perry notes that some of the most dire predictions about the threat of air pollution and environmental degradation that surrounded the first Earth Day never came true. And therefore, there's no reason to get worked up about pollution regulation (or other environmental woes) now. But Perry appears to have entirely forgotten about why those predictions didn't come true--he says it's because the US got richer. Is that it? That's the only reason that predictions in the 1970s that air pollution would take hundreds of thousands of lives in coming years didn't come true?Of course not. President Richard Nixon helped amend the Clean Air Act of 1970--largely in response to the activity stirred by the first Earth Day--to regulate such pollution exactly around that very time!

But that seems to have slipped Perry's mind as he writes:

Here we are 40 years following the first Earth Day, and none of the dire predictions above about environmental disaster has come true. In fact, according to new data available from the Environmental Protection Agency, air quality today in the U.S. is actually better than ever before. The main sources of air pollution--nitrous dioxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and lead--have all decreased between 46 percent and 92 percent since 1980 (see chart below).
Indeed. Air quality is still decent today because serious regulations were undertaken to limit the pollution of heavy industries!

But Perry's argument, which seems to amount to "environmentalists make a bunch of ballyhoo about pollution, but prosperity and the free market have prevented that dangerous pollution over the last 40 years", astonishingly omits any reference to the Clean Air Act that forced industry to apply pollution controls. Bradford Plumer remarks on Perry's observation that pollution plummeted over the last three decades:

Okay, but why do we suppose pollution just magically dropped like that? Perry claims it's because the United States got richer. Here's another possibility: In 1970, Congress amended the Clean Air Act to tackle, among other pollutants, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and lead (the new rules were slowly phased in over the next decade). Most notably, the law acted to phase out lead from gasoline by the mid-1980s. And lo and behold, it worked--you can see a sharp drop in lead emissions over that period (with a few further steps needed after that). It was a massive public-health success story.
Indeed--I think that the moral of this whole debacle is that, as Perry says, the "energy efficiency of the economy" improved from the 70s on, and America grew more prosperous while curbing pollution. But it only did so with some powerful regulations firmly in place--and there's every reason to think the same trend would occur with the adoption of controls on greenhouse gas emissions.

More on Pollution Regulation
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California's New Budget Delays Regulation of Deadly Diesel
Obama EPA May Regulate CO2 for the First Time Ever

Tags: Air Pollution | Congress | United States