On the eve of the founding of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), smog choked US cities, rivers were overflowing with noxious chemicals, hazardous waste crept into the water supply and pesticide use was unchecked.
Since 1970, air quality has improved as conventional pollutants have decreased significantly — despite the economy, population and overall energy consumption growing substantially.
The US population has grown 60 percent since Nixon held office, the economy is more than four times larger, and Americans use 44 percent more energy. Yet aggregate emissions from six common pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide have dropped 73 percent as of 2016.
The EPA lost valuable time under Trump, who has weakened power plant emissions rules from the era of President Barack Obama – as well as fuel economy standards, wetlands conservation and mercury emissions caps.
“No responsible observer would argue that the job is finished. But these accomplishments are worth celebrating,” said Stan Meiburg, who began working at the EPA in 1977 and was acting deputy administrator from 2014 to 2017.
“The most disappointing aspects of the last four years are the lost opportunities from looking backwards rather than moving forward,” said Meiburg, who serves as director of graduate programmes in sustainability at Wake Forest University.
Meiburg says that a major part of the task at hand is effectively communicating the benefits of imposing certain costs on economic activity, especially at a time when the EPA’s expenditures are not even 0.2 percent of the US federal government’s budget.
Both Democrats and Republicans stepped in to prevent Trump from cutting the EPA’s resources by one-third. But the status quo is hardly rich for the cash-strapped body — especially when viewed in comparison to the US defense budget, which is almost 100 times larger. For the 2021 fiscal year, which began on October 1, the EPA’s budget is $6.658bn.
“EPA has been on a starvation diet for a decade,” Meiburg said. “A very modest increase could help EPA immensely.”
Antha Williams, global head of climate and environment at Bloomberg Philanthropies, says that change cannot come soon enough to reverse Trump’s “abysmal” environmental legacy.
“It really has been the fox guarding the henhouse: putting a former coal industry lobbyist as head of the EPA defies common sense and the EPA mission,” she said, referring to Andrew Wheeler’s stewardship of the agency under Trump.