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All History of US Environmental Policy

Week 4: Clean Air Act

On ambitious environmental standards

Starting a new policy with ambitious statements sets up a policy area for better success long-term, even if not in the short term the goals are difficult or impossible to achieve and the press looks bad. Looking back at the Clean Air Act, even though the initial standards and timetables were unrealistically optimistic, the wide-ranging, strong language stating the intent of the Act has given it fantastic staying power.

One part of the staying power comes from broad policy language’s ability to expand over time as the issue does. Additional pollutants, like CO2 and methane, and entire environmental issues, like ozone, have been able to be shoved under the umbrella of the Clean Air Act’s broad language, declaring them de facto as the federal government’s responsibility. While changes of heart from the executive branch alter the scope of these responsibilities, the court system and Supreme Court can offer longer-term precedents. (The Supreme Court can also change its heart and cause backsliding, such as on carbon pollution last June.)

In contrast, a more restrained bill focused on specific methods of implementing better air in the US would likely not have had the staying power. The pollutants cities focus on today have shifted from the top concerns of the 1960s and 1970s, driven partly by actions resulting from the Clean Air Act. The Act’s broad language means the downstream problems-from-the-solutions can be regulated without waiting on Congress.

The Inflation Reduction Act takes a foundationally opposing stance: it’s a collection of climate-related measures packaged as implementation strategies named as a bundle for a seemingly-unrelated economic phenomenon. Unlike the Paris Agreement or the Clean Air Act, it does not open with broad statements about the climate crisis and the responsibility of humanity or that the federal government should take dramatic measures. On the contrary, the text opens with a dry section on corporate tax policy. Considering the current political climate, where the passage of the legislation was regarded as a miracle (even if it didn’t include every measure proponents were hoping for), getting these specific programs passed by Congress means at least the government will be held to some programs in support of solving climate change.

As Robinson Meyer wrote this weekend, while though the IRA is far more prescriptive in implementing programs and solutions to its environmental issue than policies like the Clean Air Act, even the order of magnitude of the financial and tax implications, much less the climate effects, is unclear. Federal estimating experts disagree on where in a wide range of outcomes it will take us: the tax credit for hydrogen alone could be worth anywhere from $25.8B to more than $100B. While prescriptive solutions can appear as the solution to wide-ranging, variable-impact policies written like the Clean Air Act, even they struggle to predict the future. And on the whole, it remains years if not decades too early to judge the IRA’s eventual degree of success or failure as environmental policy.

Additionally, the more prescriptive legislation is, the more it can cause unintended consequences the longer the legislation is in effect: CAFE standards for automobile fuel efficiency, while intended to decrease fuel consumption of vehicles, caused automakers and then American carbuyers’ tastes to shift toward SUVs and increasingly-sized trucks, causing backsliding on fuel usage with deadly consequences for road safety.

Though implementation of overambitious policy tends to waver as the implementing party figures out the problem space and discovers the pitfalls, broad policies over the long term can weather changes in the political winds.

Failures of equity

While the Clean Air Act led to dramatic, order-of-magnitude shifts in air pollutant levels, poor air quality continues to run rampant across the nation, concentrated on minoritized and low-income populations. Though understandable that brand-new air quality standards could not easily be met within the first three or five years of the legislation, after surpassing fifty years with this legislation, it remains embarrassing for the United States to still have a large percentage of the population living in “low-attainment areas.”

A core part of the Clean Air Act’s metrics monitoring relies on averages over days, months, and years. While helping exclude statistical anomalies and measure longer-term trends, unfortunately, experiencing high levels of pollutants briefly nonetheless brings negative health consequences. This averaging over longer timescales can hide, for example, how bad the air pollution of commuters at rush hour in an area concentrated with highways can become.

The measurements themselves rely on monitoring stations positioned unequally across the country. Counties with tiny populations can have monitoring, while critical locations with millions of Americans, including Manhattan, lack any measurement stations whatsoever. Ensuring that monitoring-instrument density vaguely follows population density is critical for improving the equity of our clean air commitments. Similar to COVID, offloading the responsibility of monitoring air quality to companies trying to turn a profit and consumers with incomplete data and little agency results in the most vulnerable populations bearing the brunt of the issue. Pooling that monitoring effort as the federal government’s responsibility reduces the percentage of human attention going to solving the problem, while handling it more effectively and delivering the improved conditions to more people.

While papers like "Inequitable Exposure to Air Pollution from Vehicles in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic” advocate for electric vehicles, we must remember that electric vehicles are not a panacea. While cutting tailpipe air pollution, the more-intensive resource extraction and production processes that go into electric vehicles shift their environmental burden, once again, off the purchasers. Most EVs run on lithium-ion batteries, of varying compositions of rare-earth metals. Even if low-income neighborhoods were to switch to EVs first (which, by all measures, is not the case), the United States would be offloading the hazardous industrial processes involved with powering its transit to the Global South, where the lithium and other minerals are mined. (“lithium extraction inevitably harms the soil and also causes air contamination”).

Minority and low-income populations are, by all accounts, better off with the Clean Air Act. While not reducing air pollution as dramatically for all populations, national levels have declined, and our stated commitment to the issues supports future efforts to further reduce pollution.