Blue Sky Consulting Group

Air quality in America

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Courtesy of Blue Sky Consulting Group

Although most Americans tell pollsters they believe air pollution in the United States is getting worse, the reality is quite different. In 'Air Quality in America: A Dose of Reality on Air Pollution Levels, Trends, and Health Risks' (AEI Press, January 2008) environmental scientist Joel Schwartz and political scientist Steve Hayward demonstrate why air pollution has been dropping steadily for decades and why Americans can look forward to continued air quality improvements.

This fact-filled reference book is the definitive analysis of air pollution trends, health risks, and policy. The authors demonstrate that:

* The nation has sharply reduced air pollution levels, despite growth in the economy, population, and nominally 'polluting' activities, such as driving and energy use.

* Areas of the nation with the highest pollution levels have improved the most.

* Regulators and environmental activists exaggerate air pollution levels and obscure positive trends.

* Air pollution affects far fewer people, far less often, and with far less severity than the public has been led to believe.

* Air quality will continue to improve. Existing requirements will reduce emissions by at least 80 percent over the next two decades.

The book concludes with an analysis of how conflicts of interest inherent in federal air regulation have resulted in a regulatory system that harms the people it claims to be helping. The public’s interest lies in sufficiently clean air, achieved at the lowest possible cost. But federal air quality regulation suffers from incentives to create requirements that are unnecessarily stringent, intrusive, bureaucratic, and costly.

The Clean Air Act charges the EPA with setting air pollution health standards. But this means that federal regulators decide when their own jobs are finished. Not surprisingly, no matter how clean the air, the EPA continues to find unacceptable risks.

The EPA and state regulators’ powers and budgets, as well as those of environmentalists, depend on a continued public perception that there is a serious problem to solve. Yet regulators are also major funders of the health research intended to demonstrate the need for more regulation. They also provide millions of dollars a year to environmental groups, which use the money to augment public fear of pollution and seek increases in regulators’ powers. These conflicts of interest largely explain the ubiquitous exaggeration of air pollution levels and risks, even as air quality has steadily improved.

Exaggerating harm from air pollution makes us worse off overall. The public’s interest is in an accurate portrayal of risk. Environmental regulations are not free. We have many needs and aspirations and scarce resources with which to fulfill them. When we devote excessive resources to one exaggerated risk, we give up opportunities to address other real and substantial risks, or to devote our hard-earned dollars to other things that would improve our lives, such as better education and health care, more nutritious food, bigger houses, and more leisure time.

Regulators’ and environmentalists’ power over Americans’ lives continues to expand as EPA adopts ever more stringent standards. Americans will pay much to achieve these standards, but because our air is already safe to breathe, they will gain little in return. Air Quality in America shows how results-focused regulatory policies can maintain healthful air, while avoiding the collateral damage caused by the perverse incentives inherent in the current regulatory system.

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