Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Fighting for a cleaner future

At 40, the Clean Air Council is taking on global warming.

By Joseph

Otis Minott

The Clean Air Council recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. Like all good milestones, this occasion provides an opportunity - a chance to reflect on what has been accomplished and, more important, what lies ahead to protect our only home in the universe.

The roots of the Clean Air Council are firmly planted in health pioneers of the 1950s and 1960s. Best known was Pennsylvania's Rachel Carson, whose serialized publication on pesticides in the New Yorker forced Americans to focus on health-threatening environmental dangers.

The second phase of modern environmentalism came in the early 1970s with the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of sweeping national environmental laws, including the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. During the next decade, the environmental movement dedicated most of its efforts to ensuring that these health-protection laws were fully and faithfully implemented.

I joined the Clean Air Council staff right out of law school in 1982. The Three Mile Island accident had happened only a few years earlier, and America was still recovering from the oil crises of the 1970s. President Jimmy Carter had tried to promote energy conservation and energy independence and was mocked for his efforts by right-wing pundits. (Does that sound familiar?) Now Ronald Reagan was president, and the two most important federal agencies guarding the environment, the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of the Interior, were headed by anti-regulatory conservatives. At the state level, there were just a few active environmental organizations. With a staff of only three, the council was one of the largest. Despite our small size and the broader political climate, I was optimistic about what could be accomplished environmentally moving into the future.

In fact, major state and federal legislative progress was made, including new laws requiring self-reporting of toxics emissions, international treaties restricting release of ozone-depleting chemicals, and strict controls on acid-rain pollution. During this period, the Philadelphia area attained the current health standards for all pollutants except ozone (smog), which remains a serious regional issue.

The council was proudly involved in these battles, even when it required some creativity to make the point. We still remember our acid-rain Christmas tree, replete with dead fish, in front of Philadelphia City Hall and the gigantic smog-protesting air masks placed on statues along the Ben Franklin Parkway.

While the court of public opinion is always important, the council has made some of its greatest strides in the court of law. In 1982, we persuaded a federal judge to hold the state in contempt for failing to implement an automobile emissions inspection and maintenance program. The ruling clamped $495 million in highway construction funds until the program was fully implemented. The council was also involved in helping draft the state's community right-to-know law, the city's recycling law, and, more recently, the city's workplace smoking ban.

But for all our progress, much work remains. For example, businesses such as refineries and auto-body shops continue to threaten public health, and low-income neighborhoods are most at risk. We must and will continue to advocate a safe environment for all of our citizens.

I believe we are now entering the next phase of the environmental movement: addressing our collective impact on the global environment. While the Clean Air Council will continue the fight to ensure laws such as the Clean Air Act are fully implemented, the thrust of our work will be on the enormously important issue of global warming. Though the federal government has been slow to address this issue, other countries, individual states and local governments are moving forward. Many leading industries are now taking innovative steps to mitigate the problem and participate in a solution. Perhaps spurred by these efforts, Congress just passed a new fuel-efficiency standard for cars and is poised to consider a global-warming bill later this winter.

While perhaps not as idealistic as when I first joined the council 25 years ago, I nevertheless remain confident we will, in the next few years, develop a global-warming policy that will expand the economy, create jobs, and provide energy security. The council will be in the thick of that fight, remaining true to its founding principles and guided by a vision for a cleaner and healthier tomorrow.