Rapidly decreasing forests, constant threats to the world water supply and higher carbon dioxide levels are reversible trends, said Carol Browner, former administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency under President Clinton.
But yesterday, in the inaugural lecture of the University”s new Program on the Environment, Browner said, “climate change is the greatest challenge ever faced.”
“To fail to act now is to leave future generations not just a burning river, but an irreversibly changed environment a permanently altered earth,” she said.
Carbon dioxide levels have increased 30 percent since the industrial revolution, Browner said, indicating that human activity is responsible for recent changes in weather activity.
“These are not just threats to our environment, but to our economy and security as well,” she said. “More than 2,000 experts have told us this is real, and the time to act is now.”
Browner urged that lawmakers not wait for all studies to be completed, or worry about how policies will be implemented. She noted that lead was banned from gasoline before there was definitive proof that it was detrimental to a person”s health.
“If we wait until every single study is done then we will have waited too long,” she said. “To have waited for every study, two or three more generations would have suffered needlessly.”
“We must be willing to set public health standards even when costs appear greater than benefits,” Browner said. “After the fact, we find costs tend to be less than estimated, and the benefits far greater.”
Browner urged the creation of public standards that protect not only the environment, but improve the status of public health.
She said that in the past standards were based on the tolerance levels of white males. Scientists now realize that other demographics may be impacted differently.
“Millions of our fellow human beings lack health, dignity equality,” she said. “To argue for fairness, social justice and equality is this generation”s moral and ethical responsibility.”
In her position as EPA administrator, she said she often had difficulty convincing the U.S. Congress of the need to enact new standards and often acted as an environmental educator.
School of Natural Resources Dean Rosina Bierbaum, former director of the White House Office of Science and Technology, said Browner “can simplify scientific, legal and political issues in a way very few others can.”
“Conventional wisdom is that policymakers have a limited attention span to deal with any particular issue,” Bierbaum said. Browner “was talking about the quality of life for generations to come.”
Browner expressed optimism of that future, saying she believes in the general goodness of people and the power of individuals.
“I don”t believe this generation will leave to the next an irreversible situation,” she said.
The University”s Program on the Environment is a new joint degree program implemented by SNRE and the College of Literature, Science and the Arts.