April 22 marks the 50th Earth Day, born in the height of fears of the population bomb, global famine, miasmatic air and the rapid decline of the West into post-civilizational chaos.
How did that all work out? The dire predictions were wrong, but there is one lasting legacy: on Dec. 2, 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency was born. It was purposefully and politically recobbled from other parts of the federal bureaucracy by Richard Nixon into one central agency granted eternal life in Washington, D.C.
Failed predictions aside, there were some serious air quality problems, especially in urban airsheds; and the EPA along with the states did a pretty good job of cleaning things up. That was low-hanging fruit the agency could easily pick off.
A much larger, less manageable problem was acid rain. While rainfall is naturally a bit acidic, addition of sulfur and nitrogen oxides, mainly from the combustion of coal, clearly increase acidity. Air quality around coal-fired power plants was pretty bad, but local solutions resulted in multistate problems. The mantra of those days was “the solution to pollution is dilution,” so power plant chimneys moved skyward. The clustering of generation facilities along major rivers like the Ohio, where they had easy access to coal, resulted in large regions of the East being subjected to increasingly acid precipitation, as the new plants injected sulfate aerosols high enough in the atmosphere to travel hundreds, even thousands of miles.
Acid rain became a regional problem, both in the eastern United States and Europe. Our power plants were forced to shift to low-sulfur coals and to capture the sulfates with scrubbers. Environmentalists and academics predicted horrible things would happen to extensive forests, but a comprehensive review published in 2004 in the journal Environmental Science and Policy concluded that “(f)ortunately, the dramatic forest dieback feared by some scientists in the 1980s never materialized.”
In fact, it was ultimately discovered that in general (there are exceptions in the highly polluted east), European forests grew more luxuriously, thanks to fertilization from nitrogen compounds emitted during coal combustion.
Over time, the scope of environmental concerns spawned by the first Earth Day grew increasingly large, culminating with global warming. EPA’s reach increased proportionately, justified by the 2007 Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts v. EPA that granted the agency the power to regulate carbon dioxide if it deemed the gas “endangered” human health and welfare. EPA issued its official finding of endangerment in 2009.
EPA’s sole metric to determine future endangerment consists of complicated computer models for future climate. Anyone who is watching the coronavirus saga (and who isn’t?) knows that future prospects are completely dependent upon very fuzzy and plastic assumptions. How effectively would people “socially isolate”? No one really knows. How many “silent” cases are out there contributing to an undetected herd immunity?
It’s now known that the climate models are “with one notable exception” totally incapable of modeling the three-dimensional structure of climate change in the Earth’s vast tropics. The one model that works predicts less warming than any other, a warming so modest that it can’t justify “endangerment.”
It’s also recently been found that dreaded sea-level rise on the East Coast is pretty much the same as it is now as it was some three centuries ago, or long before the Industrial Revolution and the initiation of our ability to significantly modify the global atmosphere. And it is also now clear from satellite data that our planet is rapidly becoming greener, thanks to the fertilizing effects of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide. The effect about 10 times larger than we see from the increasing nitrogen deposition noted above.
In observation of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and the subsequent founding of the EPA, it would be great if the agency “for once” ate some humble pie and reversed its finding of human endangerment from carbon dioxide. That would really be cause for an Earth Day celebration!
Patrick J. Michaels is with the Competitive Enterprise Institute and is author of “Scientocracy: The Tangled Web of Public Science and Public Policy.” He wrote this for InsideSources.com.