Fifty years ago, a bipartisan U.S. Congress enacted novel, far-reaching legislation that changed our country and the world for the better. At that time, the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act were new, untested approaches to combating pollution. The U.S. had a huge problem in the 1970s; rivers regularly caught fire, and many big cities were choked with air pollution.
These new laws enshrined a new but logical principle: polluters should control, and if necessary pay for, the damage they cause to human health and natural resources. For many decades, polluters had a free ride. They dumped pollution in our air and water with impunity. Our kids got sick from unchecked auto exhaust. Our rivers caught fire because they were laden with oil.
These environmental laws have stayed on the books for over five decades, because they work. Today our waters are much cleaner, our air far-less polluted. Missoula. Montana is a great case in point; those who lived here in the 1970s and ’80s will remember how bad our air quality was and how much better it is today. The Clark Fork River is much healthier too now that mining wastes are being cleaned up.
These changes did not occur voluntarily; environmental regulations required tougher standards for air pollution. Mining companies had to pay for the pollution they caused to the Clark Fork. Today, many countries around the world seek to emulate our environmental laws. They are one of the great gifts American democracy has given to the world, a legacy we should be proud of.
Now we are faced with a new type of pollution. Carbon dioxide and other pollutants are accumulating in the atmosphere. These accumulations have already contributed to serious problems; for example, record-breaking fires in California and more powerful hurricanes in Texas and Florida. According to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, recently released in collaboration with 13 federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, Department of Health and Human Services and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the air quality impacts from increased wildfires will cause serious impacts on human health, not to mention billions of dollars of damage to our economy from property and job losses. Scientists agree that if we continue on our current trajectory of increasing CO2 emissions, our children and grandchildren will face a world dominated by climate-caused impacts. It’s a world we don’t want to see, and one that we may be able to avoid.
Recently, a group of Republicans and Democrats introduced the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act. This bold legislation uses a market-based approach to address the problem of CO2 pollution. Large corporations will be required to account for, and pay for, their carbon pollution. Each American household will receive a monthly dividend from the funds collected from polluters that for most Americans will more than offset any increases in energy costs. The legislation will spur American innovation in everything from building design to electric cars, further boosting the economy. Our carbon emissions will drop significantly, a fact our children and grandchildren will appreciate in years to come.
Just as our nation got serious about addressing water and air pollution years ago, it is urgent that we now get serious about CO2 pollution. This bipartisan legislation represents an important step, and deserves the support of Montana’s congressional delegation.
For more information about the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, please visit citizensclimatelobby.org/
Jack Tuholske has taught environmental law and policy as a visiting professor at the University of Montana School of Law, Vermont Law School and the University of Ljubliana in Slovenia. He is a member of the local chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby.