By Becca Bayham

“Environmental and health threats are unambiguously non-partisan concerns,” EPA administrator Lisa Jackson said during a Dean’s Series lecture at Duke, Dec. 6. “The quality of our air and our water has an effect on our way of life whether we live in a red state or a blue state.” (View Jackson’s talk at Duke on Demand)

And yet, Republican leadership has orchestrated 170 votes against environmental protection laws since the beginning of this year. According to Jackson, these votes were mostly in response to myths. She cited one false, but commonly used statistic that the EPA plans to triple its budget and hire 230,000 new regulators (a 1,200% increase over its current 17,000).

“It’s striking how easy it is to get information to the American public that is scary or misleading,” Jackson said.

Back in 2009, an anonymous source leaked a series of emails exchanged between British climate researchers, setting off a controversy dubbed “Climategate” by one climate skeptic blogger. The emails were the subject of intense media coverage, even though later investigations found no evidence of fraud. However, when a leading climate skeptic recanted his beliefs earlier this year, the event received very little media attention.

“Right now there are two visions competing for the future of our country and our economy,” Jackson said.

The first is a trust in science and a belief that our country can institute changes that will both protect the environment and create a surge of new jobs. The second vision, according to Jackson, is that “moving forward requires rolling back.” Namely, that the U.S. should maintain policies that protect polluters, thereby preserving a small number of jobs.

But, “a strategy to grow our economy by doing less is not sufficient to deal with the problems we have now,” Jackson said.

Furthermore, actions that benefit the environment can also benefit the economy, she argued. Contrary to belief, smart regulations generate jobs rather than eliminate them. Congress will soon pass a mercury standards act to limit toxic emissions from smokestacks. This legislation will create an estimated 31,000 short-term construction jobs and 9,000 long-term jobs. The EPA predicts that the standards will save 17,000 lives a year (via reduced incidence of heart attacks, asthma and acute bronchitis).

Most Americans have grown up in a country regulated by the EPA. Thus, people may underestimate how much the agency has done during its 40-odd years of existence, Jackson said. Americans enjoy clean air and water, things that are not a given in other countries. However, budget cuts threaten enforcement while toxic substances such as mercury, lead, VOCs and nitrous oxides still pose a threat.

“The future of the environmental movement is educating the public that the threat is not done,” Jackson said.

However, she finds ample reason for hope in the actions that communities — red and blue alike — are taking to improve efficiency and reduce their environmental impact.

“I think that if we do our jobs right, we will keep moving forward,” she said. Not quickly, “but we’re not moving backwards either.”