Dear Senator Johnson: To support our state, you must support environmental policy

Dear Senator Johnson,

We thank you for recently responding to our concern regarding efforts in Congress and within the Trump Administration to roll back environmental policy, and since your office has denied us the opportunity to meet with you in person, we chose to respond to your comments in this open letter.

The email we received from your office emphasized your fear that the “misguided efforts” made to protect public lands, conserve natural resources, and ensure that Americans have access to clean air and water will endanger our country’s economic growth. We are writing to assure you that these efforts are not misguided. The regulations imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have not been consistently, directly linked to any sort of decline in our nation’s economic growth. In fact, rolling back environmental regulations, including climate policy, could not only put the health and safety of Americans at risk, but also cause our country to fall into economic decline.

While most Americans might not think about how privileged we are to breathe clean air and have access to safe drinking water, it is only because of national environmental policy such as the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and cross-state pollution regulations that these resources are protected from contamination. Studies show that air quality regulations dramatically decrease the incidence of acute and chronic cardiovascular and respiratory disease,[1] including asthma,[2] and increase life expectancy.[3] In addition to health benefits and reduced healthcare costs,[4] these regulations decrease the number of lost work days due to illness, increasing average productivity in the workplace.[5]

Not only do environmental policies result in measureable improvements to society, they are also cost effective, and do not translate to a financial burden on the American people. The EPA is required to conduct an extensive cost-benefit analysis for any proposed regulatory action of economic significance prior to its implementation.[6] According to a 2014 report by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the benefits of regulatory actions taken by the EPA dramatically outweigh the costs, with estimates of the benefits-to-costs ratio of enacted environmental regulation ranging from 3.5 to 18.[7] There is also little evidence that environmental regulation outright kills American jobs. It’s fallacious to assume that all governmental actions are automatically job-killing actions. The OMB actively encourages regulatory agencies such as the EPA to consider how proposed regulatory actions may both positively and negatively affect employment,[7] and many economists argue that regulatory action taken by the EPA does not have a long-term effect on employment in the United States while still providing for vital improvements to public health and safety.[8, 9] Furthermore, to date, there is no clear, consistent evidence that directly links environmental regulation to a negative impact on the economy.[7] While there are, of course, high costs associated with environmental regulation, estimated effects of environmental regulation on measures of economic growth and security are either small or statistically insignificant, even as the long-term impacts of a cleaner, safer environment on economic growth are nearly impossible to quantify.[7]

We furthermore believe that current environmental regulation should be extended to include national climate policy. Developing national climate policy is a common-sense measure to protect public health and safety and foster economic growth, and as such should be a top priority for Congress, the Trump Administration, and the EPA. Climate change is not an “alternative fact,” and we should be “alarmed.”[10] The clear majority of scientists (over 97%) agree that climate change is real, it is happening now, and it is driven by human activity.[11] Addressing climate change is not a partisan issue. Recent polling shows that over 60% of Americans who voted for President Donald Trump in the 2016 election agree that emissions of the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming should be regulated or taxed.[12]

As the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continue to increase due to the combustion of fossil fuels, both the atmosphere and ocean are warming,[13, 14,15] snow accumulation is diminishing,[13,16] ice sheets are melting at an unprecedented rate,[13,16] and sea levels are rising.[17] This has profound effects on our daily meteorology in Wisconsin, with an increased potential for floods and deadly summer heat waves.[18] Our infrastructure is at risk of flooding due to increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events,[19] and animal- and water-borne diseases (e.g. West Nile Virus) are more likely to thrive as temperatures rise.[20] Communities around the world are already experiencing the effects of climate change,[21, 22, 23] including coastal towns in the United States.[24] Because of this, climate change is currently considered a threat to international security, even by our own Department of Defense.[23] Extreme weather events such as floods and drought often lead to food shortages, intensifying wars and refugee crises.[23, 25, 26] This not only aggravates human suffering around the world, but might also contribute to a rise in terrorism.[23] Without international efforts to reduce emissions and mitigate and adapt to climate change, we risk endangering public health and safety, the global economy, and international security.

Climate policy is therefore not in any way misguided environmental regulation. To date, 123 countries around the world have signed and ratified the Paris Agreement,[27] an international resolution to mitigate and adapt to climate change by setting goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and developing national climate action plans. Given the support for this agreement demonstrated by political leaders and corporations around the world, it is clear that establishing climate policy and supporting economic development are not mutually exclusive endeavors. Furthermore, withdrawing from the Paris Agreement could mean that the United States faces diplomatic, economic, and strategic isolation, according to a recent report published by the World Resources Institute. This could imperil America’s relationship with our allies and prevent the United States from having a seat at the table when it comes to guiding foreign policy.[23]

Today, markets are already favoring investments in renewable energy over fossil fuel projects. The cost of generating electricity from solar energy and wind power is dropping rapidly.[28] Solar-powered utilities will be cost-competitive by 2020,[29] and the solar industry continues to add jobs each year to the American economy.31 In fact, one in every 50 new jobs created in the United States last year was in the solar industry,[30] the same industry that employed 2,813 Wisconsinites in 2016.[31] Around the world, banks have vowed to no longer fund new coal projects.[32, 33] Clearly, financial institutions would not do this if there was not an immense opportunity in investing in cleaner fuels. Our country has an opportunity to join them and be a global leader in these efforts, reaping the financial benefits of being among the first to make the switch to more sustainable energy systems.[23]

If we do not begin to take climate change seriously, our state will lose out. Agriculture, a key economic activity in our state, is already negatively affected by climate change.[34] For example, flooding events (which again are expected to increase in both frequency and severity as a result of climate change) reduce agricultural yields.35 In 2008, flooding in the Midwest resulted in $15 billion of financial loss due to reduced agricultural yields.[35] Revenue from tourism, another important economic activity in our state, is also at risk due to climate change. Door County, one of our state’s most sought-after vacation spots, brings in over $300 million in direct tourism spending and employs 3,110 Wisconsinites each year.[36] Climate change is expected to increase production of toxic algae in the Great Lakes Region,35 endangering wildlife and reducing the scenic beauty of Wisconsin’s most popular tourist destinations, such as Door County, likely reducing tourism revenue.

You wrote in your letter, “I will continue to support environmental policies that protect the world we live in but allow our economy to grow.” It is obvious that efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change do protect the world we live in without negatively impacting our economy. We therefore expect you to stand by these efforts and support existing environmental regulations and contribute to the development of national climate policy.

We encourage you to consider the overwhelming scientific and economic evidence in favor of current environmental regulation when making decisions regarding environmental policy. We urge you to join the millions of voices around the world in support of climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts. We challenge you to stand up for people over profit, for common-sense environmental policy, for economic growth, and for public health and safety. It is your job as our senator to make decisions that benefit society, and we look forward to working with you as your constituents to find bipartisan solutions that future generations can be proud of.


Olivia Sanderfoot, B.S.*¨

Graduate Researcher, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies

University of Wisconsin­ — Madison

Madison, WI

Amy Weisman, B.S.¨

Graduate Researcher, Department of Medical Physics

University of Wisconsin — Madison

Madison, WI

Alexandra Karambelas, Ph.D.*¨

Research Scientist, The Earth Institute

Columbia University in the City of New York

New York, NY

Chris Browman, B.S.*¨

Graduate Researcher, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies

University of Wisconsin­ — Madison

Madison, WI

*alumni of the University of Wisconsin — Madison

¨long-time residents of the Midwest (>20 years)

Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, October 2015