Cato Books: “Economics, Technology Cleaned the Air”

March/​April 2000 • Policy Report

In Clearing the Air: The Real Story of the War on Air Pollution, a new book published by the Cato Institute, author Indur Goklany argues that economic growth and technological change, not expanded federal regulations, are primarily responsible for the safer, cleaner air we now breathe. The book provides a comprehensive examination of American air quality data never before assembled in one place: long‐​term empirical data on air quality and emissions data extending from the prefederalization era to the present.

Goklany finds that, contrary to popular belief, state and local efforts to clean up the air were well under way before the Clean Air Act of 1970 was passed, and the air probably would have continued to improve regardless of federalization. The CAA and its subsequent amendments were passed in the belief that state and local governments had failed to protect the air because they were engaged in a “race to the bottom,” as, in the pursuit of economic growth, states allowed lax environmental regulations. But municipal and state clean air programs existed before the CAA, and many emissions standards were tightened in a “race to the top,” as states tried to meet their citizens’ desires for a more livable environment.

Formerly chief of the Technical Assessment Division of the National Commission on Air Quality and a consultant in the Office of Policy, Planning, and Evaluation of the Environmental Protection Agency, Goklany argues that such a “race to the top” is inevitable, as states and localities constantly attempt to improve the quality of life. He offers a regulatory reform agenda that would improve upon the economic efficiency and environmental sensitivity of air quality regulation. He recommends that emissions trading be expanded to allow trades between old and new sources. Control of interstate pollution should be negotiated between affected states, with the federal government stepping back into an equal role with the states. Under such a federalist approach, the federal government would set idealized goals, and states would determine their own policies for pollutants affecting their jurisdictions, Goklany writes.

“Indur Goklany has the audacity to question the premise upon which the federal EPA has built its ever‐​growing power—that states and cities would fail to control pollution if not under Washington’s thumb,” said David Schoenbrod, cofounder of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “By unearthing fascinating records from the first 70 years of this century and bringing them to life, he shows convincingly that America was cleaning up its environment just as fast before EPA came along as afterwards. By taking a cool look at the facts, Goklany reveals the environmental emperor to be wearing hardly a stitch of clothing.”

This article originally appeared in the March/​April 2000 edition of Cato Policy Report.