3 ways Congress can protect the environment when the White House won’t

Democrats won control of the House of Representatives by promising to oppose the Trump administration’s most dangerous policies. In districts across the country, particularly in the suburbs, swing voters resoundingly rejected the administration’s efforts to allow more air, water, and climate pollution.

Now it’s time for the new House leadership to take steps to protect the health of American families. Democratic leaders can fulfill the promise of the election working to reduce pollution and addressing the threat of climate change to our quickly warming world.

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After two years of attacks on foundational environmental safeguards, it is time to restore and strengthen our most critical protections, and to install solutions that help or benefit all American families, especially those most vulnerable to the effects of pollution and climate change. 

Three areas in particular demand close attention and action. The new Congress — steered by House Democratic leadership — should make these steps a key part of its agenda:

1. Advance towards eliminating climate pollution by 2050

As one of the greatest threats to American security and prosperity, climate change requires immediate attention. That means thoughtful legislation that would accelerate America’s transition toward clean energy sources and away from dirtier sources that fill our air with toxic greenhouse gases. Recent reports — including the United Nation’s IPCC report — highlight the aggressive action required. What’s more, Americans overwhelmingly support a quick transition to clean energy. The reality is, moving our country toward a cleaner, greener place is a winning issue in every way.

Members should explore ways to drive America toward cleaner sources of energy while simultaneously spurring innovation and job growth. Holding polluters accountable for the carbon emissions they put in our air would be a start. So would greater investment in reliable, renewable infrastructure that can power the green grids of tomorrow. Congressional action is needed now.

2. Defend EPA’s capacity to protect the public’s health from pollution and toxic chemicals

EPA has seen a carefully organized attack on its very foundations. Career staff have been forced out, bought out, or driven to leave, with replacements few and far between. The Trump administration publicly celebrated diminished staff levels, certainly aware that fewer staff means less oversight and accountability for administration allies that foul our air, water and land. Statistics on enforcement actions back that up. Elsewhere in the agency, advisory committees have been disbanded and the science that undergirds the entire agency has been unabashedly assaulted. The agency’s budget — at its lowest level in real dollars in more than a generation — has been a consistent target of the Trump administration and its congressional allies. 

An EPA stripped of its knowledge base and workforce is one that cannot adequately protect American children and communities. Members of Congress must actively seek to restore EPA to its full capacity — indeed, we would advocate for an increase in the budget and staff at the agency — and to guard against the concerted effort to hamstring the agency’s ability to keep people safe and healthy.

3. Preserve bedrock environmental safeguards that protect our air, water and land from polluters.

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The administration’s attacks have also taken aim at core protections that have been put in place to keep people safe from pollution. From clean car standards and rules on methane pollution, to the Clean Power Plan and standards on mercury pollution, the administration has charted a broad path to eliminate safeguards that stand between communities and polluters. The administration is seeking to systematically undermine the bipartisan chemical safety law passed in 2016. Congress has a critical role to play here. Members can perform robust oversight, prodding the administration on its misguided attempts and revealing any undue influence by the industries affected by public health regulations.  Congress can advance legislative initiatives that push back on these damaging regulatory changes. 

Average Americans are the ones who stand to lose from the rollback of protections. If successful in its pursuits, the Trump administration would make people sicker, our air, water and land dirtier, and our climate warmer. Members of Congress should stand up for our kids and our communities.

It is time for Congress to revive the American tradition of conservation, environmentalism, and commonsense protections for children and families. That should start on day one.

Elizabeth Gore is Environmental Defense Fund’s senior vice president of political affairs.