What can be learned from past American environmental policy?

Join the Human Impacts Institute for our weekly blog series on our journey to Rio+20 in June of 2012. We will explore the role of U.S. communities in the Rio+20 process, and investigate tools for engagement and issues surrounding sustainable development domestically and abroad. Check out our MobilizeUS! coalition for more ways to engage in Rio+20 and to see what our partners are up to for healthy communities and a healthy environment in the US.

What can be learned from past American environmental policy?

To look to the future, we must first learn from the past.

The United States has done much in its recent history to ensure that the environment was protected. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, citizens became increasingly concerned with the state of the environment, and the environmental movement was born.

A promising beginning

In 1969, Congress passed NEPA, the National Environmental Protection Act, which has since served as a basis for many environmental laws. These are a few examples of what came from NEPA:

  • the Clean Air Act

  • the Clean Water Act

  • the US Water and Wetlands Policy

  • the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act

  • the Toxic Substance Control Act or TSCA

In 1970, President Nixon created the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency(EPA). Legislation and regulations were passed concerning pollutants of the air, water and solid waste. The Clean Air Act, also in 1970, encouraged the country to develop new technology to achieve the set standards. It also helped to greatly reduce car pollution. Under President Clinton, the EPA’s budget was increased and there was more protection for the country’s natural resources.

Success Story

In 1990, the U.S. helped push forward the Montreal Protocol, which banned toxic substances (CFCs) contributing to ozone layer depletion. This was a great success in recovering the Ozone layer and many argue that the relative speed and success of the Protocol was due to the simple visuals of our human impacts: we had pictures of the ozone holes.


as the U.S. is a country who leads the way in per capita greenhouse gas emissions and many other pollution and consumption statistics, it’s falling behind on leadership for solutions. Since the Montreal Protocol, the U.S. has hardly been a leader in international environmental policy. In 1992, at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, President Bush refused to sign the biodiversity treaty, and refused to accept binding targets on limiting carbon emissions. The country has not contributed to global environmental policy by not accepting international treaties, such as the Basel Convention, the Kyoto Protocol, and the Stockholm Convention.

It is now President Obama’s turn, and as of yet, he has not lived up to the expectations of many environmental groups, nor has he confirmed his attendance at Rio+20.

While the American legacy on the environment has faced many up and downs, there are a few lessons to be learned. There have been significant achievements in the way of improving air and water quality, and control of hazardous waste, thank to concerned citizens who raised their voices and educated others. What is clear is that policymaking in the U.S. relies on a society’s wish to act: An issue needs to gain public support in order to be put into effect.

Rio+20 is a great opportunity to bring issues of concern to the attention of the public and leaders around the world. Climate change faces significant resistance in the U.S., due to a backlash from business and political interests. It is essential to raise awareness and put Rio+20 in the spotlight.

Learn more about the history of U.S. environmental policy.

By Mariana Orozco, 2012 Human Impacts Institute Environmental Leadership Intern

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