Carol Browner, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under former President Bill Clinton, was on a flight last night from Washington, D.C., when she came to the conclusion, "With the change in the Senate, the progress we made in terms of public health and environmental policy is in serious jeopardy."
Browner began her speech with that thought yesterday before slamming the current EPA and the Bush Administration for severely weakening environmental standards and siding with special interests over public health. The Republican Party's recent electoral victory, which gave it control of the Senate, will accelerate the dismantling of years of environmental protection, she told a large crowd in Filene Auditorium.
The administration's assault on environmental protection takes on greater importance in the face of global climate change, Browner said.
Climate change "is the greatest environmental health problem the world has ever seen." Browner said that previous challenge have been "easy compared to climate change."
"And if we wait to see and feel the effects of climate change, it will be too late," she said.
Each generation has left problems to the succeeding generation, she said to the crowd of students and local residents, but her generation may be the first to leave "a problem that can't be solved if we're not prepared to set and enforce the standards."
Browner claimed that the Bush Administration already had a poor environmental record, with such policy decisions as allowing development in Florida's wetlands, promoting mountaintop mining (a process in which coal-mining corporations literally cut the top off a mountain and deposit it in a nearby stream) and gutting the Clean Air Act. She said that eco-unfriendly legislation will be "ramped up" with the new Congress.
Browner said that the EPA has three purposes: to set standards, enforce standards and engage the public. She said all have been weakened in the last two years and will be under greater attack now that Republicans have gained control of the Senate.
During her tenure -- from 1993 to 2001 -- the EPA enacted standards "even when the costs were greater than the benefits." And when they reviewed their decisions, Browner said, the costs were almost always lower than first predicted, and the benefits greater.
Now, Congress is likely to force the EPA to make decisions based on cost-benefit analysis, Browner said, adding that this will enfeeble their protection standards.
The agency's standards are not as strongly enforced as they were under the Clinton Administration, she said. "A strong enforcement program will get you compliance. Unfortunately, the EPA is being weakened by the month."
When asked why the current administration is undoing so many environmental regulations, Browner said that they are propagating what they believe to be a "rational" environmental policy based on cost-benefit analysis.
She added, "That's the kind answer. The unkind answer is that [the Bush administration] is making special deals for special interests." Some of their actions are a blatant "special deal. There is no other way to explain it," she said.
Browner also said she worries that the new Congress will threaten public engagement by undermining the public's right to sue the EPA when they fail to enforce their standards. "Now, more than ever, we need to protect this right," she said.
At the end of her speech, Browner said, "I would not have given this speech in this way if last night's elections had gone differently."
After the last question, Browner encouraged students to pursue public service. "I only did things I cared about and believed in, so I gave 110 percent ... I was my own part of making the country, the world, a little better."