We revisit a couple articles from the Resources magazine archive in this landmark year, which commemorates the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Looking back may help with planning ahead.
In this archived article, drawn from a 1990 issue of Resources, Allen V. Kneese looks back from the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, noting that the United States and the world were confronting even greater environmental challenges than in 1970, given that local and regional pollution problems had become more far-ranging.
Now, on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, as climate change and novel pandemics resonate with us today at the global scale, Kneese helps us consider the progress we’ve made in the 30 years since this article was first published, and how we might consider tackling environmental challenges of the future.
The early 1970s saw the greatest outpouring of legislative initiatives ever on a single issue—the environment. Just a few months after the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, President Nixon proposed the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, which would consolidate federal environmental programs. Earlier that year, he signed legislation that established the Council on Environmental Quality and required environmental impact statements for large federal projects. In 1970, Congress also passed the Clean Air amendments, which called for the establishment of national air quality standards, and the Water Quality Improvement Act, which established liability for oil spill clean-up costs. Over the next 20 years, Congress would enact over 20 other major environmental laws, including the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972 and amendments to the Clean Air, Water Quality Improvement, and Federal Water Pollution Control acts in 1977.
Perhaps more important than these legislative actions, however, has been a fundamental change in the attitude of the American public toward the environment. The environmental concern that began emerging in 1970 has now so thoroughly penetrated American society that even industry has seen the need to cooperate in preserving environmental quality. This was not always the case, as an incident during the 1970 Earth Day ceremonies at Colorado College illustrates.
Happily, the great gulf that has existed between industry and environmentalists is beginning to diminish.
Among the speakers at the ceremonies was Charles Wurster, who had recently established the connection between traces of the pesticide DDT in the environment and the thinning of eggshells of carnivorous birds—especially those of the peregrine falcon, which was about to become extinct. The atmosphere became emotionally charged as a Colorado College biology professor walked on stage bearing a falcon on his arm. Still struck by the beauty and majesty of the bird, the audience was now treated to a slide show courtesy of a chemical company representative. The show depicted how herbicides were aiding in the construction of interstate highways. The first slide featured a bulldozer crashing through a magnificent fir forest in the Pacific Northwest. The assembled students groaned. The next two slides showed how a particular herbicide controlled foliage on roadbeds by killing plant roots. As each new slide was presented, it was greeted with jeers and catcalls. Then, suddenly, the humor of the situation dawned on everyone, and the rest of the slides were met with gales of laughter. The chemical company representative, who plodded through his entire prepared show, received a tremendous ovation at the end.
Happily, the great gulf that has existed between industry and environmentalists is beginning to diminish. The vice president of Dow Chemical was recently quoted as saying that industry should change its goal from environmental “compliance” to environmental “stewardship.” This new attitude is fortunate indeed, since the country will need all of industry’s technological powers to meet the demand for both environmental protection and economic growth.
Despite the shift in American thinking concerning the environment and the avalanche of environmental legislation since the first Earth Day, much of the environmental agenda of the 1970s and 1980s remains unfulfilled. Automotive and industrial emissions still diminish air quality in many metropolitan areas. Water quality has not improved much in some places. Experts and private citizens still debate how and where to manage both hazardous and household solid wastes.
Efforts to deal with these and emerging environmental problems will be complicated by several factors. First, sources of pollution are widespread and sometimes diffuse. Second, the effects of most kinds of pollution on human health and the environment are uncertain. Along with the first factor, this uncertainty makes the costs and benefits of environmental protection measures difficult to gauge. Third, some environmental problems are global in scope and cannot be managed through domestic efforts alone; international cooperation is required if they are to be effectively controlled.
One or more of these factors apply to each of three environmental issues that are the subject of increasing debate as we commemorate the twentieth anniversary of Earth Day. They are the long-range transport and accumulation of pollutants in environmental media, the effects of agriculture on the environment, and nuclear waste management.
Acid Rain, Global Warming
Before the early 1970s, it was common to think of the sources and manifestations of environmental problems as mostly local or regional in scope. More recently, scientists have observed that pollutants, particularly those emitted into the air, can be transported and can accumulate far from the place of origin, causing widespread environmental degradation. Two phenomena associated with the long-range transport and accumulation of pollutants in environmental media are acid rain and global warming.
Acid rain occurs when sulfur dioxide (SO₂) and nitrogen dioxide (NO₂), which are emitted in industrial operations such as electricity generation, chemically react in the atmosphere to form sulfuric and nitric acids. These acids can accumulate in soil and bodies of water, retarding plant growth and killing fish. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide emissions in the United States are blamed for acid rains that may damage forests as far away as Canada.
This year, Congress is considering a major reauthorization of the Clean Air Act, as part of which it is investigating the trading of emissions allowance permits among electricity generating plants—a major source of SO₂ emissions. Under this approach, a plant that would be required to reduce its SO₂ emissions would have the option of making the reduction itself or paying other plants to reduce their emissions in excess of their required amounts. Such a purchase would be allowed as long as the total emissions reduction target was met. Emissions permit trading would be pursued by those plants that find it cheaper to buy emissions reductions than to improve their own emissions control. Economists say that such trading would probably prove a more efficient way of meeting national SO₂ emissions standards than the traditional regulatory approach, perhaps saving billions of dollars.
A more difficult problem, since it will require more than domestic initiatives, is global warming, a phenomenon many scientists believe will result from the accumulation in the atmosphere of carbon dioxide emissions and other so-called greenhouse gases. These gas emissions, some say, will create a blanket around the earth, causing the earth to retain heat. The potential effects of this rise in temperatures worldwide include coastal inundation and erosion, resulting from a rise in sea levels, and ecological and agricultural changes.
A comparison of global warming with ozone depletion, another atmospheric change phenomenon, is instructive. Ozone depletion was the subject of a recent international agreement calling for a reduction in the production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which destroy ozone in the stratosphere. The United States is one of 39 countries that have signed the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, which went into effect in 1989. Whether the agreement in practice will be adequate to prevent further ozone depletion remains uncertain.
As Peter M. Morrisette points out in this issue in "Negotiating Agreements on Global Change," the problem of global warming differs from that of ozone depletion in several significant ways, making an international agreement on global warming much more difficult to achieve. For one thing, there is no consensus in the scientific community about the consequences of global warming. While scientists agree that emissions of CFCs have resulted in ozone depletion, they are in less accord about the effects of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases on the earth's lower atmosphere, land, and oceans. Some question whether global warming would cause a rise in sea level as previously thought. According to one theory, precipitation will increase as a result of increased evaporation caused by warmer temperatures. But if that precipitation takes the form of snow on Greenland, and there is cold enough for the snow to stick despite the temperature increase, the rise in sea level would be small or nonexistent. In the face of such uncertainties, it may be difficult for nations to decide if they should do anything about global warming. In addition, getting countries to agree to control emissions of greenhouse gases will be more difficult than getting them to agree to control CFC production. Chlorofluorocarbons are an important industrial chemical, but not one upon which any country's economy hinges. By contrast, reducing fossil fuel use to lower carbon dioxide emissions could come at the cost of economic growth, or economic decline, in some countries.
A more difficult problem... is global warming, a phenomenon many scientists believe will result from the accumulation in the atmosphere of carbon dioxide emissions and other so-called greenhouse gases.
For the present, it appears prudent to continue monitoring climatic changes and developing more capable models for predicting the consequences of a global rise in temperature. Other well-advised actions would include controlling fossil fuel use, perhaps by taxing it more steeply; using renewable resources better; and designing safer and more dependable nuclear energy technologies (which produce no greenhouse gases), including better technologies for nuclear waste disposal.
Agriculture and the Environment
The impact of agricultural activities on the environment was not a major concern of the environmental legislation of the 1970s. For example, in focusing on “point,” or direct, sources of water pollution, which are mainly industrial and municipal, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972 gave little consideration to “non-point,” or diffuse, sources of pollution, which are often agricultural. Yet today, the major pollutant load on US water courses is from non-point sources, primarily agriculture. Runoff from cultivated land can contaminate water with agricultural chemicals, as well as deplete oxygen in water and add excess nutrients and salt to it. In addition, soil eroded from farmland can silt up reservoirs, destroy fish habitat, and constrict river channels (which leads to increased flooding). It is likely that future water quality improvement will be possible only through further control of non-point sources of pollution. However, controlling these sources presents far more complex regulatory problems than does controlling point sources.
Scientists now recognize that agricultural activities have far-reaching impacts on the environment. They even affect the earth’s carbon cycle, which in turn affects weather and climate. For instance, the burning of trees to clear land for crop cultivation releases carbon dioxide. This contributes to global warming and may reduce the earth’s ability to absorb carbon through the process of photosynthesis. As the effects of agricultural activities on the environment become more clear, the United States and other countries must determine which circumstances are likely to permit both indefinite development of profitable agriculture and environmental protection. The United States has already begun to examine policies that might better integrate the different objectives of agricultural and environmental programs. For the first time, broad environmental concerns will be a major factor in formulating agricultural policies, as Congress debates the 1990 farm bill.
Thus far, efforts to deal with both civilian and military nuclear wastes in a decisive way have come to nought. For some years, the Department of Energy (DOE), which is responsible for nuclear waste disposal in the United States, has been trying to find a place to store the most dangerous of nuclear wastes—those that must be isolated from ecological systems for at least 10,000 years. The search for a geological formation suitable for long-term storage of high-level nuclear waste has come to focus on Yucca Mountain in Nevada. However, political resistance from Nevada plus doubts about the geological integrity of the site have led to a standoff between the state of Nevada and the DOE. Although the federal government has spent more than half-a-billion dollars studying the mountain’s suitability as a nuclear waste storage site, DOE Secretary James D. Watkins recently reported that the site assessment work performed thus far was not of sufficient quality to allow the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to grant the necessary licenses for nuclear waste disposal at Yucca Mountain.
Waste storage is not the only issue. Soil contamination exists at federal nuclear weapons facilities, including Hanford in Washington, Rocky Flats in Colorado, and Savannah River in Georgia. No one knows how much it would cost to clean up these sites or even whether it is possible to do so for any amount of money. Currently, no technological means are available to speed up the degradation of the substances involved. At present, the objective of nuclear waste management is to better shield the environment from nuclear waste than it has been shielded in the past. Estimates of the costs of doing this range into the hundreds of billions of dollars.
Discussion of the new generation of concerns often proceeds under the terminological umbrella of “sustainable development,” a concept that spans a range of moral and economic considerations. The general concerns it envelops are continued improvements in the well-being of people in developed countries and protection and maintenance of a safe and attractive environment.
These goals cannot be achieved without a better understanding of the natural world than we now possess and a much greater ability to put that understanding into practical use through technology. Thus, we have no choice but to make technology serve human interest better than ever before. In this context, the conventional distinctions among natural resources, the environment, and human resources blur. Indeed, the central focus becomes human knowledge, skills, and innovative and adventurous behavior, all of which are beyond our present ability to measure and assess, despite their clear importance. What we do know is that education is a prerequisite for most of them. In that connection, on every test of scientific and intellectual attainment, our young people rank behind every other industrialized country. That may be our greatest challenge for Earth Day 1990.
Allen V. Kneese was a senior fellow at Resources for the Future in 1961–2001 and served as the first president of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists in 1979. He passed away in 2001.