Clean Air and Water Acts Case

The Clean Air and Water Acts of the early 1970s were two monumental pieces of legislation that shaped the course of environmental politics in the decades that followed. The powerful narrative framed by environmental writers and backed by the media was the force behind the passage of these laws. This legislation marked a radical policy shift, as responsibility for regulation of pollution shifted from the states to the federal government (Layzer 2016). In this paper, I will explore the forces that contributed to such a policy shift and analyze their effectiveness in implementing the policies that were set on the agenda. I will then analyze the changes in political landscape that have occurred since the 1970s, and hypothesize if successes such as the Clean Air Act are possible in the future.

Prior to the 1970s, responsibility for controlling and abating emissions was placed primarily on the states. Several cities, such as Chicago and New York, passed laws declaring smoke and pollution a ”public nuisance” as early as the 19th century (Layzer 2016). However, states had limited authority over cross-boundary pollution, and had strong incentives to attract industries to boost their economy. Therefore, the incentives were structured in such a way that no meaningful anti-pollution action ever occurred. However, concerns for environmental and human health were slowly building with the growth of industry in the 20th century. Negative externalities, such as polluted air and dirty water became more and more visible, and deaths from toxic smog andore frequent. The environmental movement escalated in the 1960s, following Rachel Carson’s novel “Silent Spring” and Ehlrich’s “The Population Bomb” (Layzer 2016). The issue reached a tipping point after a series of highly publicized disasters occurred in the end of the 60s, such as the Union Oil Company Spill, which resulted in 20,000 gallons of oil a day leaking into the Pacific Ocean for several weeks (Layzer 2016).

The media played perhaps the most influential role in stirring the environmental movement, as newspapers such as the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune constructed a powerful and emotional narrative. Media sources painted industrial polluters, as opposed to consumers, as the villains and depicted citizens and the environment as the unwitting victims. This emotional narrative with a clear villain galvanized public support to unprecedented levels. A poll conducted in 1971 revealed that 83% of Americans wanted the government to spend more money on pollution control. Public support culminated in a massive Earth Day demonstration on April 22nd, 1970 (Layzer 2016).

Such activism was impossible to ignore, and aspiring leaders competed to gain credit for reducing air and water pollution. Presidential and Congressional support resulted in the creation of the EPA with a goal of “establishing and enforcing pollution control standards, gathering and analyzing data, and recommending policy changes” (Layzer 2016). The EPA then passed the Clean Air and Water Acts, which had a series of clear deadlines and penalties and included provisions that forced businesses to develop new technologies, such as the catalytic converter. These acts led to a substantial reduction in emissions from 1980-2013, as NO2 pollution was reduced by 58%, SO2 was reduced by 82%, and carbon monoxide emissions decreased by 84% throughout that time (Layzer 2016).

Though the environmentalist narrative had so much success in the 1960s and 1970s, it is likely to encounter many more obstacles as the 21st century progresses. Business interests are much more organized now, as lobbyists have gained tremendous influence in the White House. Environmental protection has become a bipartisan issue, and is unlikely to receive as much support as it did in the past (Layzer 2016). There is a clear need for a different narrative to be constructed, a narrative that is effective in the 21st century. It is clear that such a narrative will have to synthesize both environmental protection and economic interests. Only then will it gain the salience necessary for widespread public support.













Honor Code: “On my honor I have neither given nor received unauthorized information regarding this work, I have followed and will continue to observe all regulations regarding it, and I am unaware of any violation of the Honor Code by others.”







Layzer, Judith A. 2016. The environmental case: translating values into policy. Los Angeles: Sage.


About Artem Khrapko

I am an economics major at Davidson College and have an interest in pursuing environmental policy research and law.

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