40 years of overcoming the naysayers

This month, we’re celebrating 40 years of healthier communities, a stronger economy and bipartisan partnerships under the Clean Air Act.

Since 1970, the Clean Air Act has saved hundreds of thousands of lives and reaped trillions of dollars in health benefits for our nation. Breathing cleaner air has not only spared Americans from expensive treatments and costly hospital stays — it has also supported productivity through less sick days for our workers and students.


As air pollution dropped during the last 40 years, GDP rose by 207 percent. A long-term analysis of the Clean Air Act shows total benefits amounting to more than 40 times the costs of regulation. At $40 in benefits for every $1 invested, the Clean Air Act is one of the most cost-effective things the American people have done for themselves in the last half-century.

The great irony is that one of the most economically successful environmental programs in American history is also one of the most economically maligned. Time and again, efforts to clean up the air we breathe have met with economic doomsday predictions. Time and again those predictions were wrong.

In the 1970s, lobbyists claimed the phase-in of catalytic converters for new cars and trucks would cause “entire industries” to “collapse.” Instead, the requirement gave birth to a global market for catalytic converters and enthroned American manufacturers at the top of that market.

In the 1980s, they said proposed Clean Air Act Amendments would cause “a quiet death for businesses across the country.”

Instead, the US economy grew by 64 percent as the Clean Air Act Amendments cut acid-rain pollution in half. The requirements gave birth to a global market in smokestack scrubbers and, again, gave American manufacturers dominance in that market.

And in the 1990s, the lobbyists told us using the act to phase out the CFCs depleting the ozone layer would create “severe economic and social disruption.” Instead, new technology cut costs while improving productivity. The phase-out happened five years faster than predicted and cost 30 percent less. And by making their products better and cleaner, the American refrigeration industry gained access to new overseas markets. 

Far from inhibiting our economy, the Clean Air Act thrives on innovation and entrepreneurship. From new clean-air standards come new innovations. It’s important to remember these success stories as we step up to tackle greenhouse gases and fight climate change.

Last year, EPA acknowledged the 2007 Supreme Court decision that greenhouse gases are covered under the Clean Air Act and began taking sensible steps to apply the law to greenhouse-gas pollution.

Those steps included an endangerment finding based on decades of peer-reviewed scientific research.

They included a clean cars program that — developed with autoworkers and automakers — will cut 950 million tons of greenhouse gases, save drivers $3,000 at the gas pump, and keep $2.3 billion at home in our economy rather than buying oil overseas.  As with every Clean Air Act program, it will also spark new innovations.

EPA also finalized a rule to shield small businesses and nonprofits from new permitting requirements, making sure we are getting meaningful cuts and not overburdening small entities for minimal results. 

Yet — true to form — the opponents of common-sense actions have dusted off the old predictions of economic catastrophe.

One prominent lobbyist was even quoted saying that if EPA is to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions, “then it ought to have to regulate facilities large and small and suffer all the consequences, warts and all.” They seem so eager to see their wild projections of economic collapse come true — just once — that they are open to forcing EPA to regulate in the most aggressive and disruptive way imaginable. 

Fortunately, we at EPA know better. Just as we have done for 40 years, we’re moving carefully and thoughtfully, taking modest steps for measurable results. While the Clean Air Act cannot achieve the magnitude of greenhouse-gas emissions reductions that new legislation can achieve, the fact remains that it is time to get started. It is time to recognize the overwhelming scientific evidence, time to move past the false choice between our planet and our prosperity and time to realize that this problem gets more damaging, more expensive and harder to solve the longer we wait. 

Now is the time to write the next chapter in the history of the Clean Air Act. As it has been since the beginning of the Clean Air Act, our work will be good for our health, good for our environment and good for our economy.

Jackson is the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.