In 2020, California experienced its worst wildfires in state history, Michigan dealt with unprecedented floods from abnormally heavy rains and Arizona hit record-setting high temperatures.
Over the course of this apocalyptic-seeming year, our negative externalities are starting to catch up with us — and it hasn’t exactly been pretty.
While the president alone can’t stop or reverse any of these anthropogenically induced environmental crises, their administration does have the power to at least shift the trajectory. Barack Obama did so by announcing his 2015 Clean Power Plan. Nixon did so by establishing the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA.
It is therefore up to us — as voters who can air our grievances using our ballots — to collectively decide whether we’ll take action or continue our complacency. Hence, here are the stances of both major party candidates on critical environmental policies at stake in this upcoming presidential election.
Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act
Although signed nearly a decade apart, both the Clean Air Act, or CAA, and the Clean Water Act, or CWA, were forged with the same basic premise: Protect our environment from industrial pollutants.
To achieve this, the CAA established the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, or NAAQS, which allow the EPA to identify, address and regulate certain air pollutants it deems “hazardous” to public health. Such examples include lead, mercury and benzene compounds — pollutants that are standard fixtures in large industrial power plants and refineries.
Similarly, the CWA uses a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, or NPDES, to oversee and protect the quality of the nation’s “navigable waters.” As dictated by the EPA, it is thus illegal to “discharge any pollutant” into U.S. waters unless granted permission to do so via an authorized NPDES permit.
When asked about his environmental platform on the debate stage, President Donald Trump asserted that he’d “continue” to prioritize “the cleanest air and cleanest water” if reelected, but his past policies say otherwise.
Effluent limitations guidelines have been significantly weakened, studies analyzing storage tank spills on people’s health were effectively dismissed and a new EPA loophole is being exploited to freely contaminate groundwater.
On the other hand, Democratic nominee Joe Biden promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well protect vulnerable watersheds from waste discharged by industrial factories. His aim is to ultimately preserve the integrity of the Clean Air Act and expand upon clean water infrastructure, with a particular emphasis on wetland restoration.
National Environmental Policy Act
Signed by Richard Nixon on Jan. 1, 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, is widely considered to be the “Magna Carta” of U.S. environmental legislation. At its core, its goal is straightforward: Improve transparency between the government and its citizens for proposed federally funded projects such as dams, buildings and highways.
Specifically, the act mandates that the government take special consideration of the environment through environmental assessments and environmental impact statements. Environmental assessments, standard for every proposal, determine whether the upcoming federal project will “significantly affect” its surrounding ecosystem. Environmental impact statements then analyze the consequences of said impacts, if necessary.
In the eyes of the Trump administration, both procedural provisions are nothing more than “bureaucratic red tape.” During his first term, he successfully sped up the environmental review process, shortened strict page limits and closed off any additional opportunities for public comments and rebuttals.
Conversely, Biden vows to roll back Trump’s dismantling of NEPA and invest $2 trillion into strengthening new and existing environmental policies. Most notably, he intends to incorporate feedback from local communities who live within potential zones of construction. In doing so, Biden’s team has made environmental justice and sustainability a focal point of its campaign — a stark contrast to the sitting president’s pro-industrial platform.