Defend Clean Air Act’s legacy of health and prosperity

Defend Clean Air Act’s legacy of health and prosperity
© Getty Images

A quarter century ago, a bipartisan majority of Congress enacted new standards to protect millions of Americans from dangerous air pollution with the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. These safeguards were signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, whose tireless support made their passage possible.

As President Obama joins world leaders in Paris to secure an agreement to address climate change, the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 remain as vital as they were when I helped shepherd them through Congress 25 years ago. Back then, acid rain was affecting our streams and waterways, clouds of smog hovered over some of our cities and air currents were blowing pollutants over state lines, endangering even those who lived hundreds of miles from industrial facilities.


Something had to be done. That’s why Republicans and Democrats engaged in a long and thoughtful negotiating process, made tough decisions, and emerged with a set of bipartisan amendments that greatly strengthened the existing law, securing protections that have kept millions safe from unhealthy air. In 2011, the Natural Resources Defense Council called the Clean Air Act “a genuine American success story” and “one of the most effective tools in U.S. history for protecting public health.”

That law created the tools needed to protect public health and the environment, including tools to combat the most consequential environmental challenge of our time: climate change.  

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently issued its final Clean Power Plan, which sets the first-ever federal limits on carbon pollution from power plants. The Clean Power Plan is an important step to address climate change, which is already having harmful impacts on communities across the nation.

Under Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, a section added by the 1990 Amendments, the EPA has a legal obligation to limit carbon pollution from power plants. After consulting with major stakeholders and the public over a period of years, the EPA has issued standards that give states maximum flexibility to cut carbon pollution and help to protect Americans from the adverse effects of climate change.

Opponents have attacked the Clean Power Plan with claims of economic calamity, job loss and higher energy costs. Many of the same claims were made 25 years ago. But we do not have to accept a false choice between a healthy environment and a strong economy. The truth is that the U.S. has worked to strengthen public health and environmental protections for decades and our economy has continued to grow — allowing Americans to reap the rewards of good health and economic growth.

If the opponents succeed, the health of many Americans will be endangered, as will the United States’ role as a global leader on climate change. Repealing the Clean Air Act wouldn’t just undo our progress on climate; it would also dismantle standards that protect Americans from a whole host of widespread and harmful pollutants such as ozone, a key component of smog.

The opposition to our bedrock environmental laws is wrong and misplaced. The effort to protect our climate and to encourage new investments in renewable energy as engines of economic growth will ensure that our children inherit a safer environment and a better economic future.

The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 gave us cleaner air and better health. They also have allowed us to take meaningful steps to address climate change. I urge lawmakers in Washington and across the country to protect the American people and honor our environmental legacy by supporting the Clean Air Act and the Clean Power Plan. 

Mitchell served in the Senate from 1980 to 1995 and was Senate majority leader from 1989 to 1995.