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12AD.10.5 Restoring the Quality of Our Environment

United States. President's Science Advisory Committee. Environmental Pollution Panel

United States. President's Science Advisory Committee. Environmental Pollution Panel. (1965). Restoring the quality of our environment: Report. [Washington]: The White House.

This report was issued by President Lyndon Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee in 1965. In addition to discussing carbon dioxide emissions, this 1965 report dealt extensively with other forms of pollution — such as industrial wastes and pesticides — that fouled the nation’s air, waterways, and agricultural land and posed serious health threats to humans and animals alike. The report called for action to address all of these threats, asserting that “the land, water, air and living things of the United States are a heritage of the whole nation. They need to be protected for the benefit of all Americans, both now and in the future.” Does this report change how you think about the legal case Juliana v. United States?

Significantly, the federal government took serious steps to deal with certain types of pollution in the years after the 1965 report. In 1970, Congress revised and greatly strengthened the Clean Air Act, which set standards for industrial and vehicle emissions that significantly improved the nation’s air quality. The Environmental Protection Agency — the federal agency tasked with enforcing the Clean Air Act — reports that emissions of major pollutants dropped by about 70% in the decades following the 1970 Clean Air Act (though not carbon dioxide emissions). For example, motor vehicle emissions from individual vehicles became subject to very stringent limits. The overall reduction in pollutants occurred even while our nation’s population and economy grew, and more cars and trucks traveled the roads. The Clean Air Act’s success has meant many fewer deaths and illnesses related to asthma and other respiratory ailments.

The 1972 amendments to what is now called the Clean Water Act required the federal government to set technology-based standards for discharges of industrial wastewater and to establish a permit system that regulates discharges into surface waters. Due to the Clean Water Act, billions of pounds of pollutants have been kept out of our waters, improving the quality of many waterways. The Clean Water Act has also helped preserve wetland areas that are critical for protecting against flooding and providing important animal habitat.

Students can compare the Clean Air and Clean Water acts as responses to the 1965 report warning against the harm of air and water pollution with the actions or inactions of the federal government in response to the threat of carbon dioxide. Students can also consider how the visible forms of pollution that fouled the air and waterways stood in contrast with invisible carbon dioxide, and how these differences may have influenced citizen concern and government action or inaction.

Throughout most of the half-million years of man’s existence on earth, his fuels consisted of wood and other remains of plants ... the effect of this burning on the content of atmospheric carbon dioxide was negligible, because it only slightly speeded up the natural decay processes that continually recycle carbon from the biosphere to the atmosphere. During the last few centuries, however, man has begun to burn the fossil fuels that were locked in the sedimentary rocks over five hundred million years, and this combustion is measurably increasing the atmospheric carbon dioxide. ...

Not all of this added carbon dioxide will remain in the air. Part of it will become dissolved in the ocean. ... The part that remains in the atmosphere may have a significant effect on climate ... [and] raise the temperature of the lower air. ... Other possible effects of an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide [include] melting of the Antarctic ice cap. ... Rise of sea level ... Warming of sea water ... Increased acidity of fresh waters ...

We can conclude with fair assurance that at the present time, fossil fuels are the only source of CO2 being added to the ocean-atmosphere-biosphere system. ... Throughout these hundred years [from 1860s –1960s], the rate of fossil fuel combustion, and thus of CO2 production, continually increased, on the average about 3.2 percent per year. The amount produced in 1962 was almost 25 times the annual production in the mid 1860’s.