Far From the Clean Air Act Dream


To the Editor,

The Clean Air Act was enacted in 1963, the first in a series of landmark post-war environmental legislation.  Then, on November 5th, 1965, climate scientists summarized the risks associated with rising carbon pollution in a report for President Lyndon Baines Johnson titled "Restoring the Quality of Our Environment."  According to this report: "Only about one two-thousandth of the atmosphere and one ten-thousandth of the ocean are carbon dioxide.  Yet to living creatures, these small fractions are of vital importance.  Through his worldwide industrial civilization, Man is unwittingly conducting a vast geophysical experiment.  Within a few generations he is burning the fossil fuels that slowly accumulated in the earth over the past 500 million years."  The predictions of this report's authors in regard to effects on the ocean and the atmosphere, and the resulting climate change, were substantively correct, as have been those of scientists who have followed since with much more research and reporting.  Based upon developments we now see in our biosphere, these scientists have if anything been quite conservative in their outlook: the changes we've induced are occurring more quickly and at greater magnitudes than the climate models have projected, and there are "feedback loops" accelerating these changes.  Now we see that even Hawaii has unprecedented wildfires, among hundreds of other signs that the ecosystem is under enormous stress.

And yet, the heavy smog, "smelly buses", burning rivers and leaded gasoline exhaust of my youth seem to be nearly forgotten, as have the Clean Air Act's enormous health and cost benefits.  In fact, many of us seem oblivious or even outright hostile to the idea that we should clean up our act, to "stop burning things" as Bill McKibben puts it.  Here we are, six decades on from these landmark events, and this is a sampling of what we see, from the seemingly trivial to planetary in scale, including inventive new ways to put CO2 into the atmosphere:

  • A new generation of nostalgic Detroit muscle, re-imagining the "pony" cars of the '60s and '70s, and pickup trucks and SUVs scaled up to Bunyanesque size.
  • The noise and air pollution of leaf blowers, which seem usually just to blow stuff around, often into the streets.
  • People sitting in parked cars on perfect summer days, with the engines running, the windows up, and their faces in their cellphones.
    Power boats with three, four, even five outboard motors in the 300-400 horsepower range.
  • People "camping" in what amount to rolling apartments with AC, huge flat screen TVs and all the conveniences of home.
  • Oil companies and countries worldwide failing to meet carbon reduction goals, which were inadequate to the task in the first place.
  • One of our major national parties, yes, the GOP, whose 2024 energy policy is to negate the recently hard-won green energy initiatives and to INCREASE fossil fuel production.

There is no doubt that fossil fuels have enabled our technological revolution and the health and comfort of our materialistic consumer society, and that hundreds of millions of people overseas rising into new middle-class status have every right and reason to achieve it.  But the devastating impacts are clear to us.  This is an "all hands-on deck" situation, where we finally hold ourselves accountable for the “vast geophysical experiment of burning the fossil fuels” that the Earth sequestered for over a half billion years.  Many of us have asked "what's the use?", but there's room for improvement in everyday life, on everyone's part, in ways small and large.  It is now time for all of us to step up and find ways to curb our fuel-guzzling ways, consume less stuff, and demonstrate a real commitment to our children's and grandchildren's future. 

Mike Dyer


clean air act, air pollution in the united states, oil, mike dyer, lyndon baines johnson, energy policy, bill mckibben, detroit, hard-won green energy initiatives