Protecting Our Air and Water: It’s Time for Moral Leadership

“Big polluters would flout legal restrictions on dumping contaminants into the air, into rivers and onto the ground.”

  • Larry J. Schweiger President & Chief Executive Officer
  • Jul 01, 2011

CLEAN AIR AND PURE WATER are fundamental human rights that each of us deserves. To protect those rights, the National Wildlife Federation has long fought for our nation’s clean air and water laws. We believe that these laws are moral contracts between the federal government and every U.S. citizen. As trustees, the government must protect us against those who would pollute our environment.

It is a rather simple proposition, yet many polluters and far too many members of Congress, vying for corporate contributions, are using every trick in the book to block the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from enforcing the clear intent of these laws. Various polluters and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have been using a three-pronged attack to slash our environmental safety net and jeopardize fish and wildlife habitats all across the country.

First, since the “Citizens United” Supreme Court ruling in 2010, which allowed unlimited corporate expenditures on political advocacy efforts, a deluge of big-polluter money has been spent by newly minted organizations with nice-sounding names that are intent on scaring gullible people to vote for their candidates. Many moderate lawmakers, fearing the wrath of this disguised corporate spending, also are voting to cripple environmental laws. A record-breaking $4 billion was spent on last fall’s mid-term congressional elections, largely by special interests.

Second, big oil companies are spending a ton of money on misleading advertising. ExxonMobil, for example, describes the marvels of a mythical “oil sand” with a carbon footprint similar to other oils. You would not know that the ad actually is talking about dirty Canadian tar sands, which have a huge carbon footprint, or that the jobs it promises are really Canadian mining jobs. Other ExxonMobil ads tell us that fracking for gas is a wondrous invention that will solve our energy problems for 100 years. The ads fail to mention the toxic chemicals and radioactive wastes associated with fracking.

Third, polluters have enlisted the newly elected House members they supported to slash EPA’s budget and pass legislation setting aside key provisions of the Clean Air Act. The recently enacted 2011 appropriations bill increased overall federal spending by about $3 billion, but it cut the amount EPA can spend by a whopping $1.6 billion.

Don’t let anyone tell you that these cuts were for austerity reasons. All wildlife, resource conservation and environmental funding once amounted to a paltry 2 percent of the federal budget. Today, these grossly underfunded programs—including those for national parks, national wildlife refuges, various other federal resource programs and EPA—represent about a half percent of the government’s budget.

The House also passed a bill that would handcuff EPA from adopting and enforcing long overdue rules to protect human health and climate security. This action was taken despite the efforts of EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, who told lawmakers that studies show clean air and pure water are preventive medicine. Every dollar spent on pollution control saves as much as $20 or $30 in actual health-care costs. She warned, “Big polluters would flout legal restrictions on dumping contaminants into the air, into rivers and onto the ground.”

We have long known that air and water polluted with mercury and other poisonous emissions are causing tens of thousands of new cases of asthma and chronic diseases annually. We’ve also long known that humans have increased carbon concentrations in the atmosphere by nearly 39 percent and that this pollution traps infrared energy, overheating the planet. Warmer oceans cause more atmospheric moisture, and the accumulating heat increases storm intensities. Anyone watching the recent massive floods in this country and abroad can guess that something significant is happening to our climate system. Buckle your seatbelts as we enter “a new normal” for weather events and understand that just because Congress wants the climate change debate to disappear, it cannot be wished away.

Lisa Jackson has boldly confronted what some previous EPA administrators have failed to do: follow the science and clear intent of environmental laws. She needs our help. Attempts to gut EPA’s authority will come back again in Congress. Further budget attacks also are certain. We must be ready to defend basic human rights for clean air and pure water. You can learn more by visiting or by following my posts on Twitter and Facebook. Speak while your voice still matters.

Share Your Views

Read more essays and observations by Larry J. Schweiger and post your own opinions. To follow him on Twitter, go to!/ljschweiger.

Get Involved

Where We Work

More than one-third of U.S. fish and wildlife species are at risk of extinction in the coming decades. We're on the ground in seven regions across the country, collaborating with 52 state and territory affiliates to reverse the crisis and ensure wildlife thrive.

Learn More
Regional Centers and Affiliates