Debates continue to rage in Congress to address a simple question with a complex answer: Clean air is essential to public health, but how much should be invested to protect it?
Lawmakers aren’t the only ones with conflicting opinions, which a distinguished panel brought to the forefront Wednesday in Washington, D.C., at National Journal Live’s “Changing the Air: Debating the Impact of Anti-Pollution Efforts on Public Health, the Economy and the Environment” policy summit.
APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin was one of six guest speakers in the discussion “to talk about what the problems are from a variety of viewpoints, but also the solutions,” according to American University Professor James A. Thurber. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., kicked off the summit with keynote remarks, speaking specifically to champion the Clean Air Act — stating that its benefits outweighed costs by four times from 1990-2010 — and encouraging efforts to strengthen protections in the next two to three years.
“It’s hard to put a price tag on our kids being able to play outside,” Waxman said.
Referring to the challenge of climate change, he said, “Our future depends on us creating new energy. We have a limited time to act. … You can repeal the Clean Air Act, but you cannot repeal the laws of nature.”
Waxman also described political partisanship as a barrier to public health, one of many issues deliberated by panelists. Other polarizing topics included:
- The Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Carbon Pollution Standard for New Power Plants vs. its economic impact;
- The outcome of natural gas dependence as an energy source vs. coal and nuclear power plants; and
- Public health benefits from anti-pollution action vs. jobs and the economy.
On EPA’s reporting that Clean Air Act Amendments will prevent over 230,000 early deaths in 2020, Benjamin described his career in emergency care before the most recent additions to the law were enacted.
“Look outside; the air is clean,” Benjamin said, reflecting on the achievements of the landmark measure. “There was a time when you could look outside and not see the building across the street.”
The summit concluded with questions and answers from an audience that included Department of Energy and American Lung Association representatives, among others. Smith argued EPA codes on “nonexistent” pollutants are a national financial strain, while Walke countered that agency standards on smog, soot and toxins have been found 10-to-90 times more beneficial than their costs.
“We wanted both sides of the aisle represented,” National Journal Live Vice President Constance Sayers Witherspoon said.