Energy & Environment

A Pox on Both Houses

When it comes to the acrimonious debate over threats to the environment, neither side has anything to be proud of right now.
by | February 2005

Tom Arrandale

Tom Arrandale is a GOVERNING correspondent.

There's even less reason than usual to expect that state governments can come to grips anytime soon with festering environmental threats. Michael O. Leavitt is moving on after barely more than a year as U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator. Like former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman before him, Utah's former governor leaves that post without making notable progress toward revitalizing the federal-state partnership to control pollution. If two savvy and capable governors couldn't get anywhere, it's not likely their successors can make any more progress at turning pollution-control agencies into smarter, more vigorous defenders of the environment.

Too many politicians--and they happen to control both the U.S. Congress and the White House--are hell-bent on scaling back pollution- control programs and shrugging off new threats such as global warming. Too many professionals who staff pollution-control agencies and advocacy groups are just as determined to keep practicing command-and- control regulation, which stifles creative thinking.

The political stalemate has begun costing the United States dearly, and not solely by tolerating unnecessary environmental damage. The country is also squandering its previous competitive edge at turning pollution-curbing technology into a profitable economic advantage.

Thirty years ago, new federal environmental laws sparked job-creating investments to upgrade municipal water systems, build sewage treatment plants and install emission-cleaning scrubbers on factory smokestacks. But if anything, stringent pollution-control rules that worked well in the 1970s now discourage more efficient and innovative environmental protection strategies. As David Rajeski, an environmental adviser in the Clinton administration, puts it, "today those first generation environmental laws and regulations are increasingly arcane--and our adherence to them is making us a laggard in the growing global market for environmental technologies."

Recently, Rajeski authored a useful report released in December by the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank affiliated with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. The study notes that other governments, notably in the Netherlands, are replacing prescriptive "one-size-fits-all" mandates and relying on government-industry covenants that free companies to come up with the most efficient steps to meet strict pollution-control goals. In response, European and Asian firms have begun surging ahead of U.S. corporations in pioneering new pollution-abatement technology and developing alternative-energy sources.

In a separate briefing book also published last December, the Progressive Policy Institute took note of how state and local governments continue leading the way in pioneering "second generation" innovations for dealing with new environmental challenges posed by climate change, continued water pollution and suburban sprawl. Calling on the Bush administration and the U.S. Congress to look at the approaches being taken at the state and local levels, the report outlines "a modernization agenda that makes environmental management more flexible and information driven; decentralizes decision-making to address problems specific to regions; and catalyzes civic environmentalism."

For the past several years, both sides of the environmental debate have brushed aside similar regulatory overhauls. Like generals fighting the last war, most academics and environmental advocates still find it more rewarding to take potshots at conservative foes than to talk about updating how governments go about regulating pollution. "The environmental movement has gotten to be a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party, particularly its left wing," says Bowdoin College environmental studies Professor Dewitt John, who worked on the recent PPI recommendations. "And textbooks on environmental policy all just celebrate the 1970s."

Such retrogressive thinking may finally be giving way as green activists assess the 2004 election results and their failure to rally the American public to action against global warming. "What the environmental movement needs more than anything else right now is to take a collective step back to rethink everything," strategists Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus argued last year in a widely debated essay on "The Death of Environmentalism."

Governments also need to engage in similar soul-searching. The PPI reports offer useful suggestions, but the most significant contribution could come from alerting mainstream political leaders at all levels of government to the need for creative thinking about the next wave of environmental threats. The organization distributed its case studies on promising pollution-control innovations to more than 2,500 elected officials from both parties who serve in state and local positions. Regardless of who's in charge in Washington, D.C., it will be up to open-minded state and local officials to adapt environmental protection to changing times.


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