In the 1970s, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was a trailblazer. It effectively used new, innovative environmental laws to improve pollution problems that had long plagued industrialized countries. The cutting-edge agency, however, had almost nothing to say about what would become the defining environmental issue of our times: human-caused global warming. In the 1970s, and in large part for decades afterwards, it focused its attention elsewhere.
Eventually, however, changes in the EPA’s institutional context, and the mounting threat of global warming, reoriented the agency. By the mid-2010s, the EPA was quarterbacking game-changing climate change policies – and enduring a vehement backlash against them.
When the EPA was born in 1970, it was already playing catch up to decades of environmental harm. As a new agency, it had to prove itself, but it faced a daunting uphill battle against seemingly intractable pollution problems. To industry, the EPA had to signal that it would actually enforce the law. To the public, whose rising concern about the environment had undergirded the creation of the agency, it had to demonstrate tangible benefits.
And so – led by the former prosecutor and aided by powerful, new anti-pollution laws – the agency focused on abating quick-acting, easily-perceptible environmental problems. The kind of problems that regularly popped up in conversation and splashed across magazine covers: smog in the air, sewage in streams, trash in the oceans and so on.
The EPA’s focus on these issues reflected its priorities and political strategy, not any intended limits on its scope. President Richard Nixon had proposed the creation of the EPA as an agency with a “broad mandate” and the power to “develop competence in areas of environmental protection that have not previously been given enough attention.” The EPA was supposed to be flexible, to be able to deal with new and emerging issues. Similarly, new laws, like the 1970 Clean Air Act, gave the EPA extensive authority to identify, classify, and regulate pollutants.
But this authority did not translate into a capacity or incentive to pursue climate change in the 1970s. Despite progress on pollution control, the agency faced numerous emerging threats from hazardous wastes, carcinogens, and thousands of unstudied industrial chemicals. Congress further lengthened EPA’s “to do” list by attaching stringent reporting requirements and deadlines to agency actions. Meanwhile, a rolling energy crisis chilled any policy ideas that might further inflate energy prices.
Uncertainties about global warming also inhibited action in the 1970s. By the 1960s, the basic science of the fossil-fueled greenhouse effect was well known. Newspaper articles discussed it. Experts cautioned presidents about it. But climate change models were rudimentary. One uncertainty concerned aerosol pollutants: fine particulates, like smoke, that reflected the sun’s rays back into space. Aerosol pollution had grown in recent decades – it was precisely the kind of thing the EPA was trying to reduce – and climatologists debated how much these aerosols might offset global warming, or even cause global cooling.
So, for much of the 1970s, climate change seemed a distant, uncertain threat compared to the pile of environmental problems heaped right in front of the EPA. There was little support for action on climate change, both inside and outside the agency.
As the decade turned, however, that situation began to change. Better climate models showed that dangerous warming would happen despite aerosol pollution. The global cooling theory, always a minority view, was discarded.
In 1983, a self-motivated group of EPA scientists published a report arguing that climate change effects were already perceptible and that the long-term threat of global warming was dire. The EPA report – representing an initiative of a few scientists rather than a shift in the agency’s priorities – was quickly put in competition with a less pessimistic National Academy of Sciences report issued a few days later. The administration of President Ronald Reagan, which was antagonistic to the EPA, trumpeted the NAS report.
While the White House offered little support for climate change action, Congress did become more concerned about the issue in the second half of the 1980s. Congress asked the EPA to do more global warming research, and it passed the first climate change law, directing the executive branch, with the help of the EPA, to develop a national policy on the issue. Congress’s 1990 revision of the Clean Air Act, while omitting any policies to mitigate greenhouse gases, did create a program for monitoring those gases.
In this same period, with the urging and help of the EPA, the federal government began tentatively supporting the creation of international institutions to study and deal with climate change. In 1985, twenty nations signed an international treaty to curb ozone-damaging chemicals. The scientific networks that had helped catalyze that treaty inspired climate change scientists to build similar networks under the auspices of the United Nations Environmental Program, the World Meteorological Organization, and other groups.
Scientists in these developing networks called for reductions in fossil fuel use, putting pressure on the US, which consumed more of those fuels than any other country. Wanting a voice in these discussions, the Reagan administration advocated creating an intergovernmental body to review the status and implications of climate science. The federal government would appoint scientific representatives, including scientists from the EPA, affording it more control over deliberations.
Thus was born, in 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In 1990, it issued its first assessment of climate change, and has updated that assessment every five to seven years. The IPCC’s report spurred the approval of an International Framework on Climate change in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro. While President George H. Bush’s EPA administrator William Reilly convinced him to attend this “Earth Summit,” US representatives exerted their influence to ensure voluntary rather than binding commitments to emissions reductions by participating nations.
In 1993, the science of climate became more urgent. New data from Greenland ice cores confirmed long running suspicions that the global climate system was far less stable than scientists had thought, shifting wildly, not over centuries but in the span of a few years. Research performed in the 1990s suggested that human-caused warming could kick off much larger feedback cycles that had enabled these past shifts. For example, melting ice caps, reflecting less sunlight back into space would allow the earth to absorb massive amounts of heat independent of the greenhouse effect. So too might methane released by melting permafrost and drying peat, and carbon dioxide emitted by expanded wildfires. This science made clear that some of the catastrophic effects could be felt by, not by distant future generations, but by people then living.
As the predicted outlook worsened, domestic climate change policy ran into numerous obstacles in the 1990s and early 2000s. President Clinton’s energy tax proposal provoked backlash, helping to sweep highly conservative Republicans into Congress. Unlike the older generation of Republicans, the new cohort was overwhelmingly hostile to the EPA. A coordinated climate denial network, funded by the fossil fuel industry, also emerged strongly in the 1990s. It denied established climate science, or exaggerated its uncertainty, in order to hobble policies that could cut into industry profits.
This denialist approach was emulated by the George W. Bush administration, from 2000 to 2008. In 2003, for example, the administration effectively censored an accurate discussion of climate change science in an EPA report. The administration also backed out of the Kyoto climate accord negotiated by Clinton, and eased regulations on fossil fuel extraction.
The Bush administration lost one major climate change battle, however: the legal argument over whether greenhouse gases (GHGs) could be considered pollutants under the Clean Air Act, and thus subject to EPA regulation. In 1998, the EPA’s legal counsel had authored a memo saying that the EPA could theoretically regulate GHGs under the Clean Air Act. Accordingly, an environmental group petitioned the EPA to do just that.
The petition sat for years, however, until the Bush administration decided to officially reject it. That rejection provoked lawsuits from environmental groups and states. The case went to the Supreme Court. In a tight 2007 decision, the court ruled that the EPA could, and in fact must, regulate GHGs if they pose a danger to human health. Two years later, President Barack Obama’s EPA determined that GHGs did pose a danger to public health.
The “endangerment finding” meant that, under the far-sighted language of the 1970 Clean Air Act, the EPA could and should regulate GHGs. Still, agency leadership preferred that Congress design and pass a new law tailored specifically to GHG regulation. In 2009, Congress considered such a bill: a cap and trade system for GHG emissions. But the bill failed. It was one more casualty of Congress's deepening gridlock
With little help or guidance from Congress, Obama’s EPA devised GHG regulations under the Clean Air Act, first for mobile sources (automobiles) and then for power plants. Both regulations became law, and helped bolster the United States’s reputation at the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference. In 2016, the US, along with most other nations, signed the Paris Agreement that set nonbinding GHG emissions reductions targets.
However, EPA’s new regulation directed at stationary sources, known as the Clean Power Plan, had already been challenged in court. It would remain tied up there for the rest of the Obama administration. Then, in 2017, the presidency of Donald Trump ushered in a radically different approach to the EPA and climate change.
Before his election, Trump suggested global warming was a “hoax.” He filled his staff and the executive branch with people connected to the fossil fuel industry and climate change denial, including both of his picks to lead the EPA. The administration fired off hundreds of executive orders, regulatory delays, and regulatory rollbacks, some of which targeted climate change policies, including the Clean Power Plan. The administration also undermined the agency’s science and education programs related to climate change.
As during the Reagan administration, Trump-era EPA staff struggled to simply preserve existing programs. Thus even when the agency did not regress on climate change, it made little progress.
Trump’s successor, President Joe Biden, campaigned on a platform with unprecedented attention on climate change and environmental justice. Since taking office in 2020, Biden has recommitted the US to the Paris climate accord and pushed to reinstate, and often strengthen, climate change-related executive orders, regulations and laws. But Congress’s willingness to address global warming remains questionable. And it is unclear whether the new conservative supermajority in the Supreme Court will uphold the agency’s authority to regulate GHGs under older environmental laws.