A California state of mind

Congressman Henry Waxman was a champion of the environment long before it became chic.

henry waxman 88 (photo credit: )
henry waxman 88
(photo credit: )
California Congressman Henry Waxman speaks with the voice of experience: His Los Angeles constituents have sent him back to the US House of Representatives 17 consecutive times since 1974. Waxman is so popular that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats will even attempt to field a challenger for his district during the next congressional elections in November. Waxman was a champion of the environment long before it became chic to be one and long years before Al Gore's documentary stirred the multitudes. In the mid-1980s, he got safe drinking water amendments passed. He sponsored the 1990 Clean Air Act, which vastly improved the original bill, first passed in 1970. Most recently, he's written legislation to combat global warming. Waxman has sat on several environmental committees and became chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, the principal investigative committee in the House, last year. He served on the committee for a decade before that. Waxman is also a member of the Committee on Energy and Commerce. He sits on the Subcommittee on Health, the Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality and the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. From 1979 to 1994, he chaired the Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Health and the Environment. The Jerusalem Post caught up with him last week when he was here as a guest of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (Adam Teva v'Din). The NGO brought him here to meet with many of the relevant players on the environmental activism scene and offer his advice. He was also a keynote speaker at the Environment 2020 conference, one of the major annual environmental symposiums. This was not Waxman's first trip here by any means. Like any doting grandparent, he tries to come over at least once a year to see his three sabra grandchildren and their mother, one of his two children. His appreciation and respect for Israel is obvious, as is his commitment to maintaining its strong alliance with the US. Through fortuitous chance, Waxman has been present at some of the country's most momentous occasions. "I've been to Israel over the last 32 years on many historic occasions. I have a real love for Israel. I was here when [Anwar] Sadat came from Egypt and visited Jerusalem and I sat in the Knesset to hear his speech. I was here during the first Gulf War, and when Ethiopians came in two waves. I was also involved in efforts to bring Jews from the Soviet Union," he told the Post. Coincidentally, the Knesset Environment Committee was holding a marathon discussion trying to pass a clean air act the day the Post sat down with Waxman. Adam Teva v'Din consulted with Waxman on the bill nearly a decade ago calling on his experience with the same issues in the US. Sadly, the vote was delayed another two months until May. "I was the author of strengthening changes in the Clean Air Law in the United States in 1990 and that law is probably the most successful environmental law that we have in the United States. It has reduced pollution in areas that have been heavily polluted with smog, cutting key air pollutants by 35 percent and reducing smog emissions from cars by 75%. It has dealt with the deterioration of the upper ozone caused by fluorocarbons," he said. "It has been a successful effort by the US and the world community to stop a great threat to the environment, not just to us. The United States took a leadership role in reducing those pollutants that caused deterioration of the upper ozone layer, and other countries joined with us in what was called the Montreal protocol. "The legislation deals with toxic pollutants from chemical plants and other sources. And it dealt with the problem of sulphur emissions that caused acid rain. These were emissions primarily caused by coal-burning plants in the Midwest where the plumes were so high the pollution was carried long distances and did a great deal of damage to lakes and other natural resources in the northeast and Canada," he explained. There is a similar coal-burning plant in Ashkelon. "The law has been very successful, and because it has been successful in some of the areas it was intended, it has also been helpful in reducing global warming." Waxman said he was hopeful the Knesset would pass the clean air bill and had some succinct advice to the MKs about how to go about passing major environmental legislation. "It's never easy to get some of these far-reaching environmental laws passed because there are so many misconceptions about them. A lot of the industry people feared that costs would be enormous, but in reality the costs were a small fraction of what was predicted. But the economic and health returns have been at least four times whatever has been spent to come into compliance with the law. For every $1 spent, there has been $4 in benefits. "The Clean Air Act in the US has reduced premature deaths, time spent in emergency rooms in hospitals, lost time at work, lost productivity in the economy because of air pollution itself," he declared. In fact, according to Waxman, pollution laws have only made industry more profitable. "The fears of the costs of the law were overstated. When American industry established their ways of reducing pollution, it made their whole system much more efficient so they became much more competitive, much more successful economically," he said. "The government and utilities and some of the industries have to think in a different way than they've approached these issues in the past. Energy and environment go together, economic growth and environmental protection go together, and they are not opposed to each other. "The argument is often made that you can have greater energy but not environmental constraints. A lot of people think you can have a growing economy but you can't spend money on environmental requirements. That hasn't been true in the United States, where our economy has prospered and our industry has become more efficient. Energy and environment must be thought of together because they go together." ENVIRONMENTAL LEGISLATION has never been easy to pass but Waxman sees growing interest and understanding among the public. "When you take a poll of public opinion, there is strong support for strong environmental laws. People understand that we need to protect the environment, and I think there is greater awareness of the need to protect our planet and more of a sense of urgency about it. There is consensus among scientists that we need to act aggressively if we are going to stop climate change," he said. Climate change and energy alternatives to traditional sources of fuel are also national security issues of the first order for both the US and Israel, according to Waxman. "Climate change is a national security problem. In Israel it is too. It will cause diseases that will affect a lot of people. "Some of the problems in Israel are very similar to the United States, though the problems in the US are much larger because of the size of the country," he noted. "The United States has historically been the leader on environmental issues, but in the last seven years of the Bush administration we've reversed course. When President Bush first took office, he proposed that we adopt an energy bill to increase supply whether by increasing drilling in nature reserves or off the coast. He provided billions of subsidies to oil, gas, coal industries, which is so ironic because these companies were experiencing record profits and certainly didn't need any government subsidies. "What was missing from their proposal was any sense of balance in trying to reduce the demand side of the equation," he said. "It is foolhardy to think that we could drill our way to energy independence. We have around 3% of the oil reserves in the world and we consume 25% in the US and we're growing every year in our consumption. Israel uses 250,000 barrels a day, all imported. That equation leaves us with a growing and greater dependence on importing oil from those parts of the world that have a greater allocation of oil reserves. Those countries are hostile to Israel and the US, and it is foolhardy of us to transfer resources to suppliers of oil like Iran and Saudi Arabia and think that our national security interests are being protected by doing so. We need to adopt legislation in the US and urge other countries around the world to join together in looking for greater efficiencies and alternative sources for our utilities and motor vehicles. "We can't have these countries having so much control over our national interests." Waxman sees a lot of similarities between his home state of California and Israel as well. California has been a leader in the development of renewable energy sources, which Israel hopes to begin developing on a large scale. "Just as California was ahead of the country in reducing emissions, California has been ahead in looking for alternatives to reliance on fossil fuels, oil and coal, and making changes so that we can conserve our energy and become more energy efficient. Our utilities are ahead of the curve - they're calling very strongly for government requirements to reduce pollution from carbon emissions because they've already taken steps and the steps they've taken have been so successful so quickly that they've even called on the state government to tighten the laws," he said. Waxman has also begun to address global warming and the potential climate change systematically in the last few years. He passed the Safe Climate Act of 2006 to significantly reduce US emissions of greenhouse gases and he is insistent that the US lead the fight to stop global warming. "What we're eventually going to need for global warming are limits, total caps on the amount of CO2 and other global warming emissions. California has adopted legislation to do that, to try to set up mechanisms to trade pollution allotments which will produce greater financial incentives to reduce pollution and alternatives used that will make us more energy efficient. "The utilities are large sources of pollution, but in the broader public interest we can have the power that we need, the energy that we need, but we can be much more efficient in the use of the energy. We can be far better off to become more energy efficient - to save dollars and to save the energy resources than to build more power plants, for example. "The building of a coal-burning power plant would not meet energy needs as well as conservation, which can be done in many ways without a great deal of expense," Waxman said. While here, he visited Ashkelon to meet with the mayor and discuss the city's coal-burning plant as well as plans to build a second one. Aside from reducing the damage to the planet, green tech and green industry could be enormous sources of profit for both Israel and the US, Waxman concluded. "Whole new sectors of the economy are being built up for energy efficiency and alternative fuels in the United States and Israel, and I think there is strong reason for both of our countries to be looking ahead and planning for changes that will occur in the near future. "I wish the US in the last seven years had continued being a leader in these areas because it would have allowed American industries to be leaders around the world for these new technologies. But some of these new technologies are being developed here in Israel and they will be in greater demand if we all work together to reduce CO2 emissions. With that greater demand, I think the intellectual capacity in Israel and the United States and the commitment of both countries could lead to great economic revenues in some of these areas that we've never been able to imagine as sources for our national wealth."