Donald Trump has called himself “an environmentalist” despite proposing a 31% cut to the EPA budget, threatening to pull out of the Paris climate accord, and appointing Scott Pruitt as his chief environmental enforcer–a man with a long record of belittling federal protections of water, air, and public health.
Trump has a standard rationale for all this environment-bashing: Regulations stop companies from creating jobs and harm economic growth. He’s said the EPA is “out of control” and described Obama-era rule-making–like one forbidding coal companies from dumping chemicals in rivers–“job killing.”
There are many ways Trump is wrong on all this, not least the job-killing part. Economists who have studied the issue find mild effects and, in fact, sometimes regulations help create jobs. When, in 2011, the EPA finalized a rule protecting “downwind” states from pollution (mostly created by coal-fired power plants) from upwind, the measure created more than 2,000 compliance-related jobs, the Institute for Public Integrity says.
More important, perhaps, environmental protection has a long track record of improving human health–something that can be measured in dollars, cents, and lengthened lives. In the 1990s, under pressure from Congress, the EPA began analyzing the economic impact of the Clean Air Act (CAA). Between 1970 and 1990, if found, the CAA produced between $5.6 trillion and $49.4 trillion in health benefits. By cutting pollution like sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and fine particulates, there were 184,000 fewer early deaths, hundreds of fewer cases of serious bronchitis, and millions of fewer worker hours lost to illness, its analysis showed. On the flip side, the legislation cost only $500 billion in compliance costs.
Joseph Allen, an assistant professor of environmental health at Harvard, wants to change the conversation around environmental protection. Scientists, he says, need to stick up for the positive side of the cost-benefit ledger, instead of letting people like Trump and Pruitt repeat their canards without correction. To aid in this effort, Allen has assembled colleagues to write about how environmental protection improves health–an effort he calls the Environmentalist Papers.
“Environmental health is often ignored in the discussion that we see around environmental protection,” he tells Fast Company. “Half the equation is being left out and that’s the benefit side. There is a cost to [regulations], but also a benefit side of the analysis.” He points, for example, to Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which regulates fossil fuel-powered power plants. The EPA says it would cost $7.3 billion to $8.8 billion by 2030. But, at the same time, for every $1 invested, we would see $7 in health benefits.
The Environmentalist Papers echo the Federalist Papers, which called on the states to ratify the Constitution. Allen admits to “leveraging the popularity of [Alexander] Hamilton right now,” but he nonetheless believes Trump’s attack on the environment rises to a level of seriousness that justifies invoking Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay’s essays. There are four papers in the new series so far, with more in the pipeline, Allen says.
The first paper of the series, coauthored by Allen; Ari Bernstein, associate director of the Harvard Center for Health and the Global Environment; and Tracey Woodruff, a professor of reproductive health at the University of California, San Francisco, quotes Hamilton from Federalist Number 1:
“The crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.”
A second paper, by Jonathan Samet, Thomas Burke, and Bernard Goldstein, respectively at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles; Johns Hopkins University; and the University of Pittsburgh, explores the science of environmental protection. It notes that the 1963 CAA has cut key air pollutants by 70%, even as the U.S. population has grown by more than 50% and the economy (GDP) has expanded by 250%. It explains Americans largely support environmental protection (just 19% want the EPA weakened, a recent poll found). “The administration should not abandon the majority and most critical stakeholder, the American people, for a coterie of special-interest stakeholders,” the authors write.
Meanwhile, Environmentalist Paper No. 3 looks at how climate change is likely is to exacerbate health problems, particularly among vulnerable populations. Rising temperatures increase mortality risk among “the elderly and poor people, residents of urban heat islands, and people with mental illness,” it says, and increase the incidence of diseases like Lyme disease and West Nile virus. Looked at this way, environmental protection is like preventative medicine, the authors say.
The subject of Environmentalist Paper No. 4 is the Obama administration’s vehicle efficiency standards, which Trump also wants to neuter. In the pipeline is another paper written by three students at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and signed by 100 other students around the country. It’s a cross-generational call to maintain environmental health protections, Allen says.
The Environmentalist Papers may not exactly have the dash and eloquence of Hamilton’s writing. But they make an important point well enough: When we cut back on the environmental protection, we do more than harm lakes, rivers, and atmospheres. We potentially harm ourselves.