On Wednesday March 4 I delivered the annual Wallace Stegner Lecture at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney School of Law’s Stegner Center in Slat Lake City. The topic of my lecture was “Against All Odds: Why America’s Century-Old Quest for Clean Air May Usher in a New Era of Global Environmental Cooperation.” I reviewed the history of efforts to control air pollution in the United States and why their success has become the envy of environmentalists in China and India. Concluding that “clean air has become a global imperative,” I argued that the U.S./China Climate Agreement announced in November 2014 increases the chances for a new global climate treaty being signed in Paris next December. The lecture, which will be published by the University of Utah Press, was webcast. A video of the lecture is now available online at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ECELQAf3evA#t=4501
On Thursday and Friday I participated in the University of Utah’s annual Stegner Symposium. I spoke on the opening panel on Thursday on “Getting the Lead Out: An Unusual Global Environmental Success Story.” My talk reviewed the incredible political twists and turns that led to the prohibition of lead additives in gasoline in the U.S., which now has been adopted in all but six countries of the world. This has dramatically reduced levels of lead in children’s blood, producing an estimated $2.4 trillion in net benefits according to the United Nations Environment Programme.
The topic of this year’s Stegner Symposium was “Air Quality: Health, Energy & Economics.” This was an appropriate topic because Salt Lake City is afflicted by severe air pollution, particularly in winter months when inversions trap pollutants in the valley. Several scientists and doctors who spoke at the symposium explained the severe health consequences of exposure to air pollutants. They noted a just-released study demonstrating how reductions in air pollution in the Los Angeles Basin have significantly improved lung functions in children. See Erica E. Phillips, “Kids Lungs Improve as LA Smog Falls,” Wall Street Journal, March 5, 2015, at A2. One physician noted that these improvements in lung function could translate into five years longer life expectancy for children. Wood smoke contains particularly dangerous air pollutants and Utah authorities have proposed bans on wood burning during winter months, which has generated considerable opposition.
One speaker cited Mexico City’s “Hoy No Circula” program, which banned the use of certain automobiles on Saturdays, as a politically costly effort to reduce air pollution. He explained that pollution levels already were lower on weekends when many poor people like to drive to visit relatives.
Jeff Holmstead, who was the EPA Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation during the Bush Administration, argued that 95% of the benefits produced by air pollution controls have been the product of reductions in small particulates (PM 2.5). He argued that it would be better simply to focus on controlling PM 2.5 rather than tightening controls on emissions of other pollutants such as mercury.
Last week China was rocked by a new video posted online by Chai Jing, a former CCTV presenter. Called “Under the Dome,” the video highlights China’s severe air pollution problems and Ms. Chai’s concern for the health effects of pollution on her unborn child. In 48 hours the film was viewed more than 100 million times. The film, which reportedly cost Ms. Chai 1 million RMB ($160,000) to produce, emulates the style of “An Inconvenient Truth” with Chai appearing before an audience and projecting horrendous scenes of air pollution on a screen behind her. Chen Jining, China’s new Minister of Environmental Protection, reportedly contacted Ms. Chai to congratulate her on the film, noting that it could be “China’s Silent Spring.” Authorities from China’s central government, who have encouraged some citizen efforts to put pressure on companies and local authorities to reduce pollution, did not immediately try to censor the film. After it had generated more than 260 million comments on Chinese social media, Party censors instructed the media not to continue reporting on the film and they later removed it from the internet on China. However, the film remains available on foreign websites and it has been translated into English. The film, which lasts an hour and 44 minutes, is now available on You Tube with English language subtitles at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T6X2uwlQGQM.
On March 4 the U.S. Senate fell four votes short in an attempt to override President Obama’s veto of legislation passed by the Republican-controlled Congress that would approve the Keystone XL pipeline. This was not unexpected as the Republicans knew when the legislation was passed that they did not have the votes to override the veto, which requires a two-thirds vote in each house of Congress.
On March 5 it was revealed that Occidental Petroleum had agreed to pay compensation to five Achuar communities in Peru’s northern Amazon region. The coil company was sued by the indigenous groups and Amazon Watch, who were represented by Earth Rights International, for oil contamination that occurred over a three decade period ending in 2001. The case initially was dismissed by a federal district court on forum non cenveniens grounds, a decision that was reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. I would like to thank Michelle Salomon, one of my former students who worked on the case for EarthRights International, for bringing this to my attention.
On March 2 the University of Maryland and Pace University announced a new alliance between their environmental law programs that will allow students at each school to participate in courses and activities of both schools. Pace students will be able to participate in Maryland’s Washington D.C. externship program and Maryland students will be able to participate in Pace’s United Nations practicum. Pace students will be able to join Maryland’s environmental field trip to China next year and Maryland students will be able to participate in Pace’s Brazil program. Based on the positive reactions we have received from environmental faculty around the country, this alliance may well prove to be a model for future cooperation between many schools.
On Friday I leave for Israel where I will be co-leading a group of eight University of Maryland students on a spring break trip to the Middle East (Israel, Jordan and the West Bank) to work on water resources issues.