Foreword: Environmental Policy: Principles for the Next Generation of Protection

By Browner, Carol | American Journal of Law & Medicine, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Foreword: Environmental Policy: Principles for the Next Generation of Protection


Browner, Carol, American Journal of Law & Medicine


The 2004 election season is upon us and, with it, candidates are talking of new eras and unprecedented times. This election cycle gives us the opportunity to examine and debate our policies on the issues that might truly make or break our future: public health and environmental protection-clean air, clean water, clean communities, and global warming. It is important to recognize that the American public's goals in this regard have remained relatively constant. The American people value and vote for clean water and air, safe disposal of wastes, and the preservation of green spaces.1 In poll after poll, some 80% of respondents indicate that they consider themselves environmentalists.2 A basic commitment to environmental protection is widely shared across the spectrum of U.S. citizens.3 Despite this strong public support, environmental protection has become a bitter battleground in recent years, as some in Washington have advocated the rollback of numerous important environmental laws.4

Thirty years ago, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio was so contaminated it caught fire, air pollution in some cities was so thick we could not distinguish one skyscraper from another, and environmental laws focused on the obvious enemies: large factories with belching smokestacks and pipes gushing wastes.5 As a nation, we committed ourselves to cleaner air and water, and we have made real progress.6 But the job is not done. We must remain vigilant to our original commitments as we embrace the even more difficult challenges of climate change, genetically modified organisms, and, after September 11, 2001, the threat of environmental terrorism.

As we chart a new course in environmental policy, we build on a firm foundation. Over the past thirty years, we have taken the moral and ethical responsibility to protect our resources and translated it into a body of laws and regulations.7 More importantly, we have models to draw from while going forward. The specific focus of our attention has changed and the tools for protecting the environment must also adapt as we learn more about how best to protect our planet. However, the principles of protecting our resources and our public health for today and for future generations should continue to shape our responses.

First, we must be willing, as we have been, to set strong pollution standards and strong public health and environmental standards, despite the fact that there may still be some scientific questions to answer or studies to be done. While it is the nature of science itself to ask another question and to complete another study, standards must be based on a body of evidence, analysis, review, and the weight of the best science available. The fact that some scientists continue to study a matter should not in and of itself be enough to delay a decision or the setting of a standard.

Policy decisions should be made based on empirical evidence derived from both verifying scientific hypotheses as well repeated practical observation. One such decision made based on this premise was to remove lead from gasoline. Science provided proof that exposure to lead lowered IQ levels in children. While we did not have the scientific statistics to know exactly how many points a child's IQ was lowered due to lead exposure, we had enough evidence to establish the causality. Rather than wait for more evidence and place another generation of American children at risk for lead exposure, the nation as a whole took the courageous step to ban lead from gasoline. We should consider this example as we look at the debate over climate change today. If we wait to fully document climate change before making any policy decision, it will likely be too late to make any changes.

Second, not only must we be willing to set standards, but we must set them even when we do not fully know how they will be met. Instead of looking at the gap between the technology currently available and environmental issue as an obstacle, it should be seen as an opportunity. …

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