July 21, 2019 | 92° F

EPA administrator urges student involvement in climate change debate

Photo by Firas Sattar |

Judith Enck, an administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, discusses the future of her agency and the changing climate Tuesday at the Cook Campus Center.

Even though environmental policy is at the forefront of President Barack Obama’s agenda during his second term, the future of the Environmental Protection Agency depends on confronting climate change for direct results.

Judith Enck, the EPA’s regional administrator for New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, relayed this message yesterday in the Cook Campus Center during her lecture on the past, present and future of environmental protection.

“Carbon pollution, which is the release of what is commonly known as greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, [is undoubtedly] warming the Earth,” she said.

Greenhouse gases become trapped in the atmosphere and cause the planet to warm. The two leading causes of carbon pollution are the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas and the carbon emissions that come from the transportation sector, she said.

Federal and local governments are key to saving the environment in this nation, Enck said.

She said political rhetoric is disconnected from what is actually happening.

“My experience, almost always, is that [Republican and Democratic] members of Congress want the EPA to be more active in protecting the environment and their community,” she said.

But action on climate change will only come when students get directly involved, Enck said.

“Whether you think global warming is legitimate or you think it’s a hoax — I think students have an obligation to voice their opinion and become active in these debates,” she said.

Just 50 percent of the public votes and an even smaller percentage make contact with elected representatives, she said.

“A smaller number of people can have a disproportionate impact,” she said.

Enck said she works with Native American tribes living in New York. They understand climate change’s implications, she said, because they look to the future seven generations when making decisions.

John Weingart, Associate Director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics, said the EPA is in a difficult position politically. Its actions are often viewed as limiting an individual’s activity or informing concerned citizens that they cannot do anything about a particular environmental issue.

He said he believes climate change would be an apolitical issue at any other time in the nation’s history.

“Once you accept that something has to be done about climate change, there is room for compromise,” he said.

Jennifer May, special projects coordinator with the EPA’s Public Affairs Division, said Enck is in charge of the second of the EPA’s ten divisions.

“Before the EPA there was a hodgepodge of local regulations,” she said.

Enck said she recalls avoiding oily sheens from petroleum pollution while waterskiing on the Hudson River in upstate New York.

The Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire in 1969 and the blaze reached a height of five stories and burned for at least 20 minutes because it was heavily polluted, according to the Ohio Historical Society.

The Clean Air Act, which sets federal standards for air contamination, has prevented 360,000 premature deaths, Enck said.

That number is 10 times the amount of the University’s full-time student population on the New Brunswick campus.

“The things that come out of the smoke stacks, whether it’s particulate matter or air toxins, can make people sick,” Enck said.

She said particulate matter triggers asthma attacks and causes respiratory and heart disease, while airborne toxins can cause cancer and neurological damage.

Enck also said the standards for clean drinking water have risen over the past two decades because of a similar act, the Clean Water Act. In 1993, 79 percent of Americans had access to clean drinking water, she said. Today, the number is 92 percent.

“To me, there is no doubt that the environment is cleaner than it would have been without these laws,” Weingart said.

Enck’s appearance was in conjunction with “Documerica: Then and Now,” an ongoing EPA photo exhibit at the Cook Campus Center that documents changes in the environment over the last 40 years, said Mark Robson, Dean of Agricultural and Urban Programs at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences.

Enck said the exhibit is an examination of today’s environment in comparison to the environment at the time of the EPA’s founding.

“I think photographs are a really powerful way to show progress,” she said.


Corrections: A previous version of this article's headline was misleading. The EPA administrator did not say the agency's future is questionable. 

Judith Enck, an Environmental Protection Agency regional manager, did not say President Barack Obama's acknowledgement of climate change in his inaugural speech is not enough.

The statement about the Cuyahoga River fire was misattributed to Enck. The information is instead according to the Ohio Historical Society.

Clarifications: The fact that the number of prevented premature deaths by the Clean Air Act is 10 times the amount of the University's full-time student population on the New Brunswick campus is a calculation made by the reporter. 

By Simon Galperin

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