Journalist Dominique Browning launched the activist-oriented Moms Clean Air Force in 2011 in partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund to raise awareness and pressure policymakers about doing the right thing regarding the regulation and monitoring of air quality across the country. She’s written extensively for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, and Travel & Leisure, among other publications, and served as Editor-in-Chief of House & Garden for a dozen years through its closure in 2007. EarthTalk’s Ethan Goffman caught up with her recently via telephone from her home on the Rhode Island coast.
EarthTalk: Why and when did Moms Clean Air Force get started, and what prompted you to organize?
Dominique Browning: We got started about six years ago. I was prompted to organize when I started understanding the connections between things like air pollution and water and our food. For example, mercury, which is a really potent neurotoxin, is in a lot of large fish, and I was told when I was pregnant not to eat fish with mercury in it, and I never thought about it again. But when I started reading about air issues, I learned that mercury in our food comes from the emissions of coal-fired power plants. So there’s a direct air pollution link to our health and the health of our babies. So, as I started exploring this further, I started thinking, “Well, moms need to know about these things so that we can tell our political leaders, ‘Take care of them. Clean them up.’”
E: Okay, so it was a personal concern, but would you say you were pretty much the founder? Or was it a group of people? Or, how did it morph into…
Browning: So, I’m the founder and I found kindred spirits—Environmental Defense Fund. We all put our heads together, figured out how to get this off the ground. That was about five years ago that we started, and we began working with the EPA to urge them to pass mercury regulations and to start thinking about how they would deal with climate change. And we are now up to a million members across the country.
E: Wow, that’s an impressive number.
Browning: It’s exciting. I think people want to know what they can do.
E: I guess you do a lot of grassroots organizing. Petitions, letters, that sort of thing. Phone calls.
Browning: We do. We work on two levels. One, we’ve got a great website full of resources and information, and we’re very, very careful to make sure everything is scientifically and medically vetted, reliable, and 100% correct. So, we get petitions going from our website; we have writers and bloggers talking about our issues. We also have fueled activists around the country who are meeting with their state senators and their governors, who are organizing mothers—and some others, and grandmothers—to go and meet with their elected officials and talk about what we want to see done with air and climate problems.
E: Okay, and let’s get right into the Trump part, and then maybe come back to your organization a little bit. Because it’s clear the Trump administration is pretty unique in its attack on air and water quality and climate change. So what do you see are the most important threats right now, and how might they emerge?
Browning: Well, you put it really well. It is a unique administration in all of its indications of hostility to clean air and climate regulations. Right off the bat, we are very worried about the nomination of Scott Pruitt to run the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency. That is an agency that was founded by a Republican president, President Nixon, and was strengthened by the first President Bush. So, this was a bipartisan organization because clearly people understood that you have to have bipartisan support to clean up the air and clean up the water. Not fifty years ago, the U.S. was extremely polluted. EPA and the Clean Air Act have done a fabulous job over the last fifty years. I mean, our air is so much cleaner, and our economy has hummed along quite nicely through it all. But there’s still more work to do. In nominating Scott Pruitt, President Trump has put forward somebody whose entire career is based on suing EPA. This is a man who does not even believe that mercury is toxic to fetuses and babies. Which is scientifically wrong. So, he will do nothing to uphold the spirit or the letter of EPA. He will try to dismantle it, basically. That’s extremely troublesome for everybody, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat.
E: So, our air and water could even get back to where they were in the 1950s, 1960s? Or we can see the horrible air in China, right?
Browning: Sure. If we get rid of regulations, we will be right back where we were because it’s very obvious that industry doesn’t do this on its own.
E: Right. It needs the hand of government. What about the climate change part of the piece? How are you involved in that, and how might the Trump administration be threatening that?
Browning: We’re very involved in the climate change piece. To be honest with you, that’s the piece that keeps me awake at night. I have a little grandchild, my first grandchild, who’s not even a year old. I think about what kind of world I’m going to be leaving behind for him, and it disturbs me deeply. Climate change is so dangerous. Because we could not get congressional action on climate change, President Obama put forth a Clean Power Plan, American’s Clean Power Plan; administrator Gina McCarthy, the previous EPA administrator, made thousands of trips around the country, meeting with governors and various officials to put in place state-driven plans so that the states would control how they would bring down their carbon and their methane emissions. Their carbon emissions, mainly. And it’s a plan that needs to be refined; it needs to go forward, but it’s legal—the Supreme Court has said that we need to regulate carbon emissions. And Pruitt and Trump have basically stated that they are going to drop it. And they’ve also stated that they want to be out of the Paris Agreement, which is a global agreement in which America has leadership in bringing down its carbon emissions. So, all of these things are basically denial of science. And denial of life.
E: Yeah. Especially the future generations.
Browning: Well, and even for generations now! We are feeling heat waves from climate change. We’re seeing unprecedented flooding. We’re seeing mega-droughts. We’re seeing ocean level rises, so that you’ve got cities up and down the East Coast that are flooding, sometimes even on sunny days, like in Miami and in Charleston. Wildfires, devastating floods in the northwest. These things have always happened, but they’re happening now as if it were weather on steroids. And that’s exactly what climate scientists have predicted would happen as the globe warms.
E: Right, so we are fitting what the models were telling us. Now, the Trump administration—they can use executive action to roll back some of these reforms, but what about Congress? What role will Congress play? Because the Clean Air Law is still in place.
Browning: Oh, exactly. To change laws, there will have to be congressional activity. In order to roll back rules, that’s a much more tedious process. Lawyers will be involved. It’s a slower process. The Supreme Court has ruled that greenhouse gas must be regulated, and so therefore, if the administration—the Trump administration—destroys the Clean Air Act, they will have to come up with something else. If they destroy the Clean Power Plan. Basically, what we’re seeing out of the Trump administration is destructiveness. Every single thing that they have announced they want to do about clean air and clean water is to destroy what is already in place as protections for our children. That’s the most disturbing part of it.
E: Do you see a danger that that Congress would actually—because it also has quite a lot of climate skepticism and anti-environmentalist sentiment—do you think they might actually change the underlying laws, such as the Clean Air Act?
Browning: I know what you’re saying because there certainly is a great deal of — I wouldn’t even call it skepticism any more, I would call it lying about the science. Because I think many people know exactly what’s going on, but it just isn’t convenient for them to do anything about it. I think that they might try, but I also think that there are a lot of both Republican and Democratic senators who hold the center and who do think about the future for their children, who see what’s going on right now in our cities, and they see what’s happening with insurance rates. I think that they will want to do better than just destroying the protections we have. So I don’t think any of this is going to go down easily.
E: Okay. So that gets to the question of what Moms Clean Air Force, specifically, is doing about these issues. As a group, how are you trying to fight the threats to our air and climate.
Browning: So, as a group, we have been all over the nomination of Scott Pruitt. We’ve been at the hearings. We’ve been meeting with senators regularly to educate and inform them about who he is and what his record is. We’ve been marching into people’s offices, both in Washington, D.C. and in state. As things proceed, we will continue to target both senators and governors. A lot of the work for keeping our air clean is going to be state-based, and so we want to make sure that governors and state legislatures are aware that moms demand clean air protections for our children. So we’re doing a lot of grassroots organizing, a lot of visiting, a lot of talking, and a lot of educating. You know, for people who don’t understand the climate science, we want to just work harder on getting our materials even clearer.
E: Okay. And the state is the level that would actually be implementing the Clean Power Plan. So are you seeing—do you feel you are able to shift governors and state houses, or are you seeing resistance to implementing the plan? And especially if the President is no longer behind it?
Browning: We’ve seen both. We’ve seen resistance, and we’ve seen state AGs, among them Scott Pruitt, suing to stop the plan, but we’ve also seen states band together, support the plan, and come up with creative ways to meet their requirements. We know that a lot of states—take a look at Texas, for example—a lot of states are getting really robust renewable energy sectors. Texas, I think, is now the biggest wind energy producer. So people are beginning to see that there are businesses to be built and there are thousands of jobs to be created when we move our grid off of fossil fuels and on to renewables. We know there’s a path forward. It’s a long path, but hopefully we will be able to continue to go in the right direction.
E: So economic interests are changing, but how about the level of environmental concern? Especially with all the organizing, the Women’s Marches… I know there’s a big Climate March coming up. Are you seeing that that is also having an effect?
Browning: Absolutely. There’s a Climate March coming up the week after Earth Day, and on Earth Day there’s also a Science March, which was just announced yesterday, and I’m very excited about that. Science teachers, scientists want to basically remind America, “We are the backbone of driving your economy forward: all our discoveries, our creations, our engineering.” So, yeah. I think all of this is working. And I also noticed that this time around, even in the Cabinet hearings, we didn’t hear that much about “climate change isn’t happening.” The dialogue has shifted a bit, and now people are saying, “Well, it’s happening, but we don’t know how much humans have contributed to it.” Well, that’s not true. We know exactly how much humans have contributed to the carbon in the atmosphere because those man-made carbon particles actually have a fingerprint, a molecular fingerprint, that we can measure them. But at least now, it isn’t right anymore to say it’s simply not happening. Except for the most retrograde politicians.
E: Denial is getting harder, but there are always people who will find a way to avoid the truth if they want to enough.
Browning: Well, they’re being paid to avoid the truth. They’re being paid by the fossil fuel companies.
E: Yeah. What about Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State? Have you weighed in on that? Because he is a former fossil fuel executive.
Browning: Well, not only—and I don’t want to say all fossil fuel executives are terrible people. Listen, we are where we are in this modern age because of fossil fuels. We owe those industries great debt as well as, you know, fury over how polluting they’ve been and how destructive they’re been in hiding the truth about—they knew. ExxonMobil knew what it was doing to the atmosphere. Tillerson seems to have been a more reasonable CEO on climate change, but we have yet to see whether he actually does something about it. If he maintains American leadership in the Paris Agreement, terrific. That’ll be great. He’s certainly not ignorant. He’s not a stupid person. He has children, and he has grandchildren, and I’m sure he must be wondering, “What is the world going to be like?”
E: Now, a couple of other issues regarding fossil fuel uses: the pipeline that carries tar sands, which are dirty fossils, from Canada through the U.S.; and then the Standing Rock Sioux are also fighting a pipeline that threatens their water. Is Moms Clean Air Force weighing in on either of these, or do you have a position on these?
Browning: Oh, sure. We have been weighing in. We’ve had moms right up there with the Dakota protestors. But let me pull back from any single pipeline and say, our biggest problem with all of this is that we have more than enough pipeline infrastructure right now. We’re just not using it properly. We don’t need more pipelines; we need to use the pipelines we have in a more efficient way. And we need to be transitioning away from polluting fuels to renewable fuels.
E: And when your organization does weigh in, how much of it is you, or staff members, going, say, to Congress, or governors’ offices, and how much of it is more grassroots, letter-writing, email, telephone campaigns? What kind of balance?
Browning: Oh, it’s a huge mix, and the balance is more on volunteers than anything else because we have a very small staff. The way we organize it is, say, we’ll have a mom who’s working in Montana part-time as an activist, and she will then find Super Moms in her area who want to jump in and write letters or go visit senators or their governors. So it spreads to a grassroots level very quickly.
E: Okay, great. And then it still—we know a lot of environmental organizations are hard at work, but it’s kind of easy to either, as individuals, to give in to despair or say, “What can one person do?”, or just be apathetic. So what would you say to listeners of this podcast as to how they might be able to actually make a difference or respond?
Browning: You would be amazed what a difference one person can do. You’d be amazed at what a difference ten of you and your friends can do. When senators get hand-written letters, when they get phone calls, when you go see them in their offices—it makes an enormous difference. I’ve seen that in the last five years that we’ve been doing this, and I know so many people have. I think the best antidote to despair is getting out of bed, facing the problem, and feeling every single day, as if you are doing something to make the world a better place.
E: Great. Thanks very much.