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January 17, 2017

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United States likely to experience some bad air days under Pruitt

Many people voted for Donald Trump because they believed his promises that he would restore what they imagine were the good old days — the days when America had lots of traditional jobs mining coal and producing manufactured goods. They’re going to be deeply disappointed: The shift away from blue-collar work is mainly about technological change, not globalization, and no amount of tweets and tax breaks will bring those jobs back.

But in other ways Trump can indeed restore the world of the 1970s. He can, for example, bring us back to the days when, all too often, the air wasn’t safe to breathe. And he’s made a good start by selecting Scott Pruitt, a harsh foe of pollution regulation, to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Make America gasp again!

Much of the commentary on the Pruitt appointment has focused on his denial of climate science and on the high likelihood that the incoming administration will undo the substantial progress President Barack Obama was beginning to make against climate change. And that is, in the long run, the big story.

After all, climate change is an existential threat in a way local pollution isn’t, and the installation of the Trump team in power may mean that we have lost our last, best chance for a cooperative international effort to contain that threat.

Everyone who contributed to this outcome — very much, if I may say, including the journalists who elevated the fundamentally trivial issue of Hillary Clinton’s emails into the dominant theme of campaign reporting — bears part of the responsibility for what may end up being a civilization-ending event. No, that’s not hyperbole.

But climate change is a slow-building, largely invisible threat, hard to explain or demonstrate to the general public — which is one reason lavishly funded climate deniers have been so successful at obfuscating the issue. So it’s worth pointing out that most environmental regulation involves much more obvious, immediate, sometimes deadly threats. And much of that regulation may well be headed for oblivion.

Think about what America was like in 1970, the year the EPA was founded. It was still an industrial nation, with roughly a quarter of the workforce employed in manufacturing, often at relatively high wages, in large part because of a still-strong union movement. (Funny how Trumpist pledges to bring back the good old days never mention that part.)

It was also, however, a very polluted country. Choking smog was quite common in major cities; in the Los Angeles area, extreme pollution alerts, sometimes accompanied by warnings that even healthy adults should stay indoors and move as little as possible, were fairly common.

It’s far better now — not perfect, but much better. These days, to experience the kind of pollution crisis that used to be all too frequent in Los Angeles or Houston, you have to go to places like Beijing or New Delhi. And the improvement in air quality has had clear, measurable benefits. For example, we’re seeing significant improvements in lung function among children in the Los Angeles area, clearly tied to reduced pollution.

The key point is that better air didn’t happen by accident: It was a direct result of regulation — regulation that was bitterly opposed at every step by special interests that attacked the scientific evidence of harm from pollution, meanwhile insisting that limiting their emissions would kill jobs.

These special interests were, as you might guess, wrong about everything. The health benefits of cleaner air are overwhelmingly clear. Meanwhile, experience shows that a growing economy is perfectly consistent with an improving environment. In fact, reducing pollution brings large economic benefits once you take into account health care costs and the effects of lower pollution on productivity.

Meanwhile, claims of huge business costs from environmental programs have been wrong time and time again. This may be no surprise when interest groups are trying to maintain their right to pollute. It turns out, however, that even the EPA has a history of overestimating the costs of its regulations.

So the looming degradation of environmental protection will be a bad thing on every level: bad for the economy as well as bad for our health. But don’t expect rational arguments to that effect to sway the people who will soon be running the government. After all, what’s bad for America can still be good for the likes of the Koch brothers. Besides, my correspondents keep telling me that arguing policy on the basis of facts and figures is arrogant and elitist, so there.

The good news, sort of, is that some of the nasty environmental consequences of Trumpism will probably be visible — literally — quite soon. And when bad air days make a comeback, we’ll know exactly whom to blame.

Paul Krugman is a columnist for The New York Times.

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