Policy commentary

What Are the Biggest Environmental Challenges Facing the United States?

Sep 7, 2007 | Paul R. Portney

Introduction to the Series
Phil Sharp
, President, Resources for the Future

This new series is meant to provide an easy way to learn about important policy issues related to environmental, energy, urban, and public health problems and builds on RFF's long tradition of fostering serious public discourse.

Our objective over the next few years is to build up an extensive archive of readily accessible commentaries by invited experts on a diverse range of policy issues. For example, in upcoming months some of the topics will include: the costs of air pollution, international CO2 agreements, malaria, preserving fish stocks, automobile fuel economy standards, congestion pricing, synthetic fuels, reducing household waste, highway funding, cigarette consumption, the environmental consequences of urban growth, the Deadzone, clean technology R&D, food safety, biodiversity, valuing life in poor countries, and the costs of protecting oil supplies.

But today I am delighted that Paul Portney, Dean of the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona, and my predecessor as President of RFF, is kicking off the series with his views on important environmental challenges facing the nation.

What Are the Biggest Environmental Challenges Facing the United States?

Paul R. Portney

We can pick 1970 to conveniently mark the beginning of the modern environmental era in the United States. After all, that was the year that EPA was created, and with it significant federalization of environmental protection efforts that had until then been the province of individual states. And that same year saw the passage of the 1970 amendments to the Clean Air Act, the first really dramatic assertion of power by the federal government in the environmental arena. Two years later, Congress passed what we now refer to as the Clean Water Act, and, in the decade or so to follow, a handful of other federal laws were passed dealing with pesticides, solid and hazardous wastes, and drinking water.

So, where do we stand 37 years later? It's simply beyond dispute that air and water quality have improved in virtually every part of the United States, no matter which pollutants we consider or how we choose to measure them. Moreover, in most parts of the United States today, we treat solid waste--garbage, that is--with about as much care as we handled nuclear wastes back then--a pretty low bar, I realize, though progress has been great. Not only are truly hazardous wastes today treated with even greater care, but their use has been significantly reduced, in part because of the expense of dealing with them in the modern regulatory system. This progress is all the more remarkable because our population has exactly doubled since 1970 and real GDP has more than tripled.

I know, I know, air quality was improving in at least some U.S. metropolitan areas before 1970, the result of state and city regulations like banning the open burning of leaves and burning household garbage in basement incinerators. And well before 1970, California took on the auto industry and required cars sold there to meet the first vehicle emissions standards in the country. Some analysts have used this to argue that we would have made the same environmental progress had we left matters to the states and not created EPA, nor passed the statutes of the 1970s.

Baloney. It strains credulity to suggest that individual metropolitan areas, or even states, could have mounted as effective a campaign to control air and water pollution from industrial facilities like electric power plants, petroleum refineries, steel mills, paper mills, and cement kilns, among others, as the new EPA did. And it's painful to imagine 50 different sets of standards governing tailpipe emissions from new cars, trucks, and SUVs. Rather than having at least one foot on a banana peel, Detroit's carmakers would have both feet in the grave by now. 

Before we bruise our backs patting ourselves too hard, let's remember two things. First, while we have made terrific environmental progress in the United States, we could have accomplished as much, at much less cost (we're talking hundreds of billions here) had we built our federal regulatory apparatus using the kinds of incentive-based approaches that have become the default approach to environmental regulation today. No one likes to hear "I-told-you-so." But economists in the late 1960s and early 1970s, like Allen Kneese, Cliff Russell, and Walter Spofford at RFF, as well as Charles Schultze at Brookings, were pointing out how much more efficient pollution taxes or tradable emissions permits would be than the clumsy command-and-control apparatus EPA was erecting at Congress's behest. The success of the sulfur dioxide emissions trading program established in the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act has proved they were right on the money.

Second, while we've done an exceptionally good (if also overly expensive) job of dealing with the environmental problems at which the laws of the 1970s were aimed, we neglected two problems that ought to concern us the most as we look forward in this new century. First, no federal law or regulation has required emissions reductions for carbon dioxide (CO2) or other greenhouse gases (with the exception of chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs, which were controlled out of concern for their ozone-depleting potential). While I think there is more uncertainty about the causes and likely consequences of global warming than most scientists suggest, we're nuts not to have instituted gradually increasing controls on CO2 and other greenhouse gases. The worst-case scenario, especially for future generations, is too scary not to be taking some preventative measures now.

The second environmental problem we face lends itself less to federal control and is not the province of the EPA, namely the steady conversion of wilderness and open space to developed uses as our population grows and spreads out. In many respects we're lucky we're a growing country, both demographically and economically. But as we expand, the wilderness areas and open spaces we enjoy, which are the home to a host of species, are getting chewed up in the process. Forget recreation and habitat for a minute. Who doesn't find it pleasing to drive from one place to the next while looking out at forest, fields, or even desert, rather than still another subdivision or shopping mall, however attractive the latter might be? We have never regulated land use very much at the federal level in the United States, and that's not all bad--the thought of social planners in Washington telling communities who can do what and when, not to mention what it ought to look like, gives me the willies. But leaving the protection of a prototypic public good like open space solely to locals surely has its own set of problems. We have to do better at preserving some natural beauty while still accommodating our growing numbers.

That's how I see it, anyway. I think our environmental laws have served us reasonably well over the years, with the one qualification and two conspicuous exceptions mentioned above. Unfortunately, I have concluded that those laws are not at all appropriate for or up to the environmental challenges that lie ahead, nor do I believe that EPA still has the vitality and creativity to be as effective as it was in the early years. But that's a topic that a subsequent and much more knowledgeable blogger can take on!

Additional Resources: 

Paul R. Portney and Robert N. Stavins, editors. 2000. Public Policies for Environmental Protection. Second edition. Washington, DC: RFF Press

To track air emissions trends over time, EPA maintains a database on six criteria pollutants.