It's budget time again, and the House Republicans have released a new plan: "A Balanced Budget for a Stronger America." There is little to disagree with in the opening line of the budget: "A strong America is built on opportunity and the passion and talents of a free people who are empowered to pursue that opportunity, determine their own future, and achieve success." Yet a closer look reveals that the budget would significantly erode many regulations, rules and mandates designed to protect our environment, while at the same time expanding energy development likely to a carry hefty environmental toll.
Why is it that some politicians now seem to believe that a strong America is not compatible with a clean, safe and sustainable America?
We hear disturbing anti-environment sentiments from the current Republican presidential candidates. Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFormer New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver dead at 77 Biden, Democrats losing ground with independent and suburban voters: poll Bipartisan Senate group discusses changes to election law MORE has repeatedly vowed to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in an effort to cut spending and curb regulations. While more tempered in their comments, the other Republican candidates have called for massive cuts to reduce the reach of the EPA. The expressed rationale for these views is that current efforts to protect our environment bear too great a cost and prevent us from prospering as a nation.
Interestingly, that position contrasts sharply with that of former President Richard Nixon, who created the EPA. A Republican, Nixon recognized that "clean air is not free, and neither is clean water" in his Jan. 22, 1970 State of the Union and asserted later that year that the national government should lead a "coordinated attack on the pollutants which debase the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land that grows our food."
Nixon understood what today's Republican candidates seem to miss: that our ability to pursue opportunity, chart our individual and collective destinies, and achieve success is stronger in a country that protects the health of its people by reducing their exposure to dangerous toxins. Certainly, the GOP indicates through rhetoric that it is tuned in strongly to issues of public safety. Well, if we measure risk by numbers of premature deaths, the risk from terrorism is dwarfed by that posed by contaminants in our environment.
Though vilified by some politicians, the EPA has made our country a cleaner, safer and healthier place. One striking example is that emissions of common air pollutants have dropped almost 70 percent since the EPA was created in 1970. Did this achievement come at great economic cost? Quite the opposite: The U.S. gross domestic product grew over 200 percent and jobs in the private sector increased by 88 percent during the same period.
Environmental protection is also a job-creating industry. One study found that over 4 million environmental jobs were created in the U.S. from 1970 to 2003; importantly, these jobs were concentrated in manufacturing and professional, scientific, and technical services that all states are trying to attract. Air pollution control equipment generated revenues of $18 billion in 2008, including roughly $3 billion in exports. According to a U.S. Department of Commerce report, our efforts to protect the environment have positioned the U.S. as the world's largest producer and consumer of environmental protection technologies worldwide.
Surprised? The reality is that environmental protection can drive innovation, and many policies implemented in the past have made us a cleaner and more prosperous country. The Clean Air Act, in particular, is estimated to have benefits that exceed costs by a factor of more than 30 to one. Most of the economic benefits are attributed to reductions in premature deaths — up to 230,000 lives saved and over 17 million lost work days avoided annually by 2020). Even relatively small changes can result in huge benefits, like the 2011 revisions to the Clean Air Act standards that prevented an additional 11,000 premature deaths, 2,800 cases of chronic bronchitis, 4,700 heart attacks, 130,000 asthma attacks, 5,700 hospital and emergency room visits, and over 3 million restricted activity days, according to one study. The value of these benefits amounts to $37 billion to $90 billion each year, and even more if one considers that over a half-million sick days would be avoided each year and more than 50,000 new jobs created.
Those are impressive benefits from the Clean Air Act alone, but even a cursory glance at other EPA accomplishments turns up other examples. For instance, the EPA has cleaned up millions of acres of contaminated land that can again provide ecological, economic and recreational opportunities. The agency has also developed an advanced network of sewage treatment facilities to make our rivers and lakes safe for swimming, tourism and fishing, and has cleaned the Great Lakes, which supply drinking water for millions of Americans.
Aside from potentially forgoing benefits, are we ready to bear the real human and economic costs of gutting environmental regulations? The massive public health crisis stemming from contaminated water in Flint, Mich. shows both how much Americans value a clean environment and the degree of our reliance upon regulations and enforcement at the federal level. For a decade now, the EPA's Office of Water has faced 15 percent annual budget reductions and lost more than 10 percent of its employees. As reported by The New York Times, the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators "said federal officials had slashed drinking-water grants, 17 states had cut drinking-water budgets by more than a fifth, and 27 had cut spending on full-time employees," with "serious implications for states' ability to protect public health." Our nation is outraged over what is happening to Flint residents, so why would we create, or be complicit in, efforts that will lead to similar crises elsewhere?
We all aspire to the strong America described in the opening line of the Republicans' budget, but that strong America is built not only upon opportunity, passion and talents, but also upon a clean, safe and healthy environment. Gutting environmental protections is risky for our economic and physical well-being. Republicans and Democrats should work toward a budget that allows our economy and our environment to prosper.
Rodewald is director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, professor in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University, faculty fellow at Cornell University's Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, and a Robert F. Schumann Faculty Fellow. Views expressed in her column are hers alone and do not represent those of these institutions.