Richard Nixon is an unlikely environmental hero. Not a stereotypical tree hugger. He did, however, recognize the significance of the environmental crises of the 1960s and 1970s and demonstrated that it is possible to reverse the course we were on. This gives me hope as we confront the climate crisis today.
As we reflect on Earth Day, it seems fitting that we consider the magnitude of the environmental challenges we have overcome since the first Earth Day in April 1970. The progress we have made is evidence that we can tackle the climate crisis and avoid the most severe consequences if we act now.
Before the first Earth Day, there was no EPA, Clean Air Act or Clean Water Act. The EPA can trace its origins to a series of inflection points. These include Rachel Carson’s publication of Silent Spring, which exposed the devastating effects of pesticides like DDT on humans and wildlife - perhaps most prominently the bald eagle, which was then on the endangered species list. The acrid Cuyahoga River regularly caught fire. Acid rain, the depletion of the ozone layer, lead paint poisoning, and thick air pollution were headline news. The challenges were urgent and daunting.
In July 1970, President Nixon presented to Congress a Reorganization Plan that led to the establishment of the EPA and a large-scale governmental program to address the environmental crises strangling the country and the world. “Our national government today is not structured to make a coordinated attack on the pollutants which debase the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land that grows our food. Indeed, the present governmental structure for dealing with environmental pollution often defies effective and concerted action.”
To be clear, Nixon was not a big government kind of guy. He said it himself, “In proposing that the Environmental Protection Agency be set up as a separate new agency, I am making an exception to one of my own principles: that, as a matter of effective and orderly administration, additional new independent agencies normally should not be created.” This crisis, however, called for concerted action.
Just as the EPA was taking shape, the SEC was also addressing the impact of environmental issues on investor returns. An interpretive release issued in 1971 advised companies to consider the need to disclose material financial impacts of their compliance with environmental laws [SEC Release No. 33-5170 (July 19, 1971)]. This release was the first of many such SEC statements on the disclosure of the financial implications of companies’ environmental impacts.
Upon the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, Denis Hayes - the organizer of the first Earth Day - recalled the progress we have made since the 1970s. Cars now produce approximately 3% as much pollution as the average 1970s car, pollution from power plants is substantially controlled, the bald eagle and other endangered bird populations have been restored, children in newer homes are not consuming lead paint, and people can swim and boat in rivers and lakes that were once toxic. There is still work to do but we can see the progress achieved over the last half century.
Why all this history? I am not a Nixon booster. The fact that he, of all our Presidents, was the one to address our environmental crises head on, is important. This was an emergency that transcended partisan politics. It required swift, decisive action. As we stare down the climate crisis, it can seem impossibly daunting. But we have faced complex environmental challenges before and have met with success. We can do it again.
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Wyatt joined Persefoni from the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC), where she served as Senior Counsel for Climate & ESG to the Division of Corporate Finance, led the rulemaking team through drafting proposed climate disclosure regulations, and worked closely with the Office of International Affairs.
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