Top 5 Pieces of Environmental Legislation

Montreal Protocol Act Could Be Preventing 11 Billion Tons of CO2 from Entering Earth's Atmosphere

"You wouldn't have been able to go outside without getting sunburned in ten minutes," says Durwood Zaelke, president, Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development, considering current atmospheric conditions had their been no Montreal Protocol. Zaelke's answer sounds like hyperbole, but it's in alignment with a 2009 NASA simulation.

So that's what the Montreal Protocol did for humans.

Equally impressive?

The one-two punch it landed on behalf of the environment.

In the 1970s, chemists theorized that CFC molecules could be split apart by solar radiation to produce chlorine atoms, which could, in time, destroy the ozone. Expectedly, the aerosol and halocarbon industries pushed back, calling the theory "science fiction." Further studies bolstered the hypothesis, and in 1985 British scientists discovered an "ozone hole" over Antarctica. The report, published in Nature, catalyzed public sentiment. Something had to be done. Two years later it was, with the passage of the Montreal Protocol.

Because of the phase out—which is 98 percent complete, according to Zaelke—the ozone layer has not grown thinner since 1998. However, since CFCs have a long atmospheric life, the ozone layer will not fully recover until "…after 2050," says Zaelke.

As an added bonus, the treaty has helped slow climate change.

CFCs and HCFCs have heat-trapping properties that are significantly more powerful than C02. Because of this, it has been estimated that the Montreal Protocol is preventing 11 billion tons of CO2 from entering Earth's atmosphere every year—which is on par with delaying climate catastrophe by 7 to 12 years.

Oil Slick on Cuyahoga River in 1969 Ignited Grassroots Action

Clean Water Act

Ask an expert about the state of America's fresh water systems—lakes, rivers, streams—in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and here's the blunt answer:

"Basically, they were a toilet," says Jennifer Clary, a policy analyst at nonprofit organization Clean Water Action.

"The rivers of this country were sewers!" says Stuart Udall, former Secretary of the Interior, in American Experience's "Earth Days," a PBS special that premiered on Earth Day 2010.

One river, in particular, was on also on fire.

Yes, we're looking at you, Cuyahoga River—or at least the filthy, oily, gaseous 1969 version of you.

On June 22, 1969, an oil slick on Ohio's Cuyahoga River caught fire, drawing countrywide eyeballs. With tongue in cheek, a Federal Water Pollution Control Administration official told Time magazine, "The lower Cuyahoga has no visible signs of life, not even low forms such as leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive on wastes."

"We're a very visual society," says Clary. "That fire really sparked action. It was really a grassroots call for change."

Against this murky backdrop, President Nixon signed the Clean Water Act in 1972, the primary federal law addressing water quality standards for the nation's waterways.

The act has been amended many times, most significantly in 1987 to ramp up controls on toxic pollutants, and in 1990 to more adequately address oil spills after the Exxon Valdez disaster.

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