This month the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency turns 40. That calls for a look back at environmental conditions then and now.
The president of the time was Richard Nixon, a Republican later of Watergate fame, and he favored the establishment of a federal environmental agency. That followed the first Earth Day in 1970, which got a boost from the Cuyahoga River fire in Ohio—an event that brought national attention to pressing environmental issues and prompted Congress to enact measures to deal with water pollution.
Despite being a short-lived and only marginally detrimental event, the memory of Cuyahoga burns on, while more critical environmental disasters, such as the siege of sulfurous smog in Donora, Pennsylvania in 1948 that killed 20 people, have faded from memory. The collective eco-consciousness is ever changing, and the shifting narrative has a strong hand in shaping popular opinion.
Since the EPA’s establishment, concerns about climate change and sea-level rise have led to increasing research on the effects of greenhouses gases to our environment and health. The climate narrative, however, is hardly stagnant. Consider the claims by some of the leading mainstream media outlets beginning in years prior to the EPA to present-day accounts.
In 1954 the cover of Fortune magazine read “Climate—the Heat May be Off!” In 1969 the New York Times claimed that “the Arctic sea pack ice is thinning and that the ocean and the North Pole may become an open sea within a decade or two.“ In 1974 the Washington Post advised, “get a good grip on your long johns, cold weather haters—the worst may be yet to come. . . there’s no relief in sight.”
Fast forward six years and the New York Times was warning of “global warming of an almost unprecedented magnitude.” By 2001, Time magazine stated that “Scientists no longer doubt that global warming is happening” and just recently the Museum of London launched a climate change exhibit to show what London will look like after a global warming disaster.
In 1969 Population Bomb author and entomologist Paul Ehrlich predicted the extinction of England by the year 2000. He then refocused his alarmist notions to the environmental movement, declaring in 1970 that “In ten years all important animal life in the sea will be extinct.” Undaunted by his string of failed, fear mongering theories, he is now launching an aggressive campaign to vilify skeptics of alarmist orthodoxy.
The common thread among such accounts is the underlying tone of panic. A recent report at UC Berkeley shows that apocalyptic portrayals about global warming can be counterproductive and subsequently detract attention from seeking potential solutions.
Alarmism lives on, but the EPA’s 40-year anniversary also provides an opportunity to chart environmental progress. Cars today are 98 percent cleaner than in 1970. Air pollution levels are falling in the 10 most polluted U.S. cities by as much as 27 percent. A full 2,000 water bodies once identified as impaired in 2002 now meet water quality standards, and tropical rainforests are expanding faster than they are being cut down.
This holiday season, we can all be thankful that, in many ways, the environment is now cleaner than it was in 1970. In 2011 and beyond, legislators and citizens alike have good cause to find a happy medium between apathy and alarmism. Scare tactics will not produce informed and effective policy change.