EPA Head Calls Waning Interest Chief Threat

Despite increasingly complex threats to the environment, the commitment to environmental protection by Congress and the public has weakened, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner warned graduates of Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment on Saturday. Speaking at the school's graduation ceremonies, Browner said that laws to meet such threats as global warming have been thwarted by vocal, well-organized "naysayers" who seek to block action by questioning established conclusions of a majority of scientific studies. "Time and time again they call for yet another study, another piece of evidence," said Browner. "They continue to question, 'how can we act without obvious, visible, tangible proof of this phenomenon?' "But their misguided analysis fails to answer the bigger question: how do you reverse the rise of the sea level when low-lying islands are inundated. How do we turn back the devastation of yet another Class Five hurricane?" Despite the seemingly abstract nature of such environmental problems as global warming, their effects will be quite concrete and drastic, she said. "Global warming is not some distant threat. It is a real change," she told the graduates and their guests. "More than 2000 of the world's experts on global environment have told us that the effects of climate change can be predicted - sea levels will rise, storms will intensify, and everything from the incidence of skin cancer to agricultural productivity will change. The majority of researchers believe that increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide due to fossil-fuel burning is leading to a significant global warming that will have drastic effects on future climate. A major problem, Browner said, is that the bipartisan consensus for environmental protection in Congress and the public, which spawned Earth Day and the EPA 30 years ago, has been largely lost. "With these anniversaries, we can recall a time when our country, our people, our government vigorously confronted an enormous environmental challenge," said Browner. "It was a time when we placed in the protection of our air, our water, our land at the forefront of our national agenda. And it was a time when the nation made real progress in confronting the difficult environmental challenges of the time. "Unfortunately, today we see an increasingly fractious and litigious debate," she said. She noted that many in Congress now insist on an equation that considers only immediate costs and benefits when judging legislation. "Rather than modernizing our environmental laws based on what we have learned over the last 30 years, we have seen too many in Congress suggesting that pollution standards should only be set when the benefits of reducing the pollution outweigh the costs of reducing that pollution." Browner emphasized that such an approach is dangerously short-sighted. "Let me ask you this: what would the consequences have been if we had used this approach in the past? Should we have waited another 10 years to see how lead-poisoned children of the '70s fared in the '80s? What exactly is the dollar amount you put on an IQ point lost in a child? How much cost is too much when the benefit is the health of our children, of our future?" Browner, who is the longest-serving administrator in the EPA's history, called on Congress and policymakers to return to the original, time-tested approach that distinguished the early days of the environmental movement. "You can see why the environmental laws of a generation ago were structured on a simple premise: protect our environment, protect the public health first, and then figure out the solution; figure out the common sense, the cost-effective way to provide these protections," she said. "Set the necessary public health standards and then work out the strict time-frame that industry and others can innovate to devise ways to meet the standards." Browner added, "Today's problems cannot be illustrated by the Cuyahoga River burning, by dirty smokestacks, by open sewage pipes - things that you can take a picture of, put on television, put in a newspaper, and thereby spur people and their representatives to action." Nevertheless, the magnitude of global environmental problems represent an unprecedented challenge to future environmental leaders, she said. "So how do we move forward?" she asked. "Obviously, we respond as scientists, as engineers, as public policy experts, as committed citizens. But even more importantly we respond as leaders. " ... Years from now the history books won't judge our performance solely on whether we met the environmental and public policy challenges of the day. Rather, you will be judged by the leadership you bring to the task," she told the graduates. "I believe we can rebuild and re-energize that commitment. With the help of all of you here today, our nation's best and brightest, we can construct the scientific and public policy framework for the new strategy that the new realities demand."