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Tuesday, March 22, 2005


Problems With the Environmental Movement

posted by Charles Bird at Tuesday, March 22, 2005 permalink View blog reactions

Nicholas Kristof was right when he wrote the following:

The U.S. environmental movement is unable to win on even its very top priorities, even though it has the advantage of mostly being right. Oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge may be approved soon, and there's been no progress whatsoever in the U.S. on what may be the single most important issue to Earth in the long run: climate change.

The fundamental problem, as I see it, is that environmental groups are too often alarmists. They have an awful track record, so they've lost credibility with the public. Some do great work, but others can be the left's equivalents of the neocons: brimming with moral clarity and ideological zeal, but empty of nuance. (Industry has also hyped risks with wildly exaggerated warnings that environmental protections will entail a terrible economic cost.)

The basis for his op-ed is a lengthy article titled the The Death of Environmentalism, which attempts to analyze the root causes of the failures of the environmental movement's quest to quell global warming. The authors' main thesis is that the movement is a victim of its own success, that it needs to define itself more broadly and that it needs to find new ways to achieve political success. Personally, I think they're long on identifying the problem but frustratingly short and vague on ways to solve it. Heretofore my own disjointed and rambling thoughts on the problems of the environmental movement and what can be done.

The environment movement has already won.
Just as the civil rights movement has already won the war in bringing equality to minorities (for the most part), so has the environmental movement in its major battles (for the most part). Our air and water and soils are cleaner than they were a generation ago. What the movement should concern itself with now is overstepping. How many more regulations do we need in the United States before eyes are cast on significantly more serious problems found in Russia, China, India and other hot spots. How much more should we ding our own economy for reducing emissions that may have no discernible effect on the global climate.

While we do consume a disproportionate share of the resources, too often the view is too America-centric. China is a potential environmental catastrophe, yet we hardly hear about it. Rush Limbaugh joked over a decade ago that the way to compete with Japan economically is to export liberalism, that introducing liberal causes would slow their economy to a point where we could better compete. In that vein, perhaps exporting environmentalism to China and India could level the economic playing field. We need a neo-environmental movement! We need neocons, or neo-conservationists, that is. The point is that instead of fighting battles that have already been won in America, the more important task is to fight and win environmental battles abroad where the situation is much worse.

Too many hardliners in high-profile positions.
Again, from Kristof:

"The Death of Environmentalism" notes that a poll in 2000 found that 41 percent of Americans considered environmental activists to be "extremists." There are many sensible environmentalists, of course, but overzealous ones have tarred the entire field.

The loss of credibility is tragic because reasonable environmentalists - without alarmism or exaggerations - are urgently needed.

I suspect that this is the kind of news that puts "activists" in the extremist category, further fueling negative perceptions. Do mainstream environmentalists need to condemn the wackos in its fold? You bet they do. Early and often. The notion that there are no enemies on the left is a fatal one. The watermelons (green on the outside, red on the inside) need to be jettisoned. How much better Kerry would have done had Michael Moore not showed up at the convention.

Too many alarmists.
Kristof touched on this, referring to the movement's numerous "I have a nightmare" speeches on the environment. This is a common problem with the Left, all too often criticizing the current state of affairs but not offering reasonable alternatives. This article is a perfect example:

Even if people stopped pumping out carbon dioxide and other pollutants tomorrow, global warming would still get worse, two teams of researchers reported on Thursday.

Sea levels will rise more than they have already risen, worsening the damage caused by extreme high tides and storm surges, and droughts, heat waves and storms will become more severe, the climate experts predicted.

It's not good enough just to say that the sky is falling without offering sensible ways to keep the sky propped up. Worse, the scientists in the above article are saying that even if we take some drastic economy-gutting measures, it's not going to help anyway. That's really inspiring. The environmental movement typically goes only so far but does not take the next step. Offering bad news but foresaking hope is the wrong way to do business. Shellenberger and Nordhaus brought up the Reverend King's I Have a Dream speech as a template for effecting change. An excerpt from King's speech:

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

The words spoken over 41 years ago still ring, as does the rest of his historic speech. Martin Luther King didn't effect change just by lamenting the state of race relations, he offered a vision of what race relations could be. That was a winning strategy.

Environmentalists need their own "I have a dream" speech, painting a picture of how they want to see the world, a world that is unpolluted but still able to successfully accommodate human activity, a world that is both livable and technologically advanced. This was part of the appeal for me of the decades-long Star Trek series. Gene Roddenberry envisioned a universe where humanity solved the thorny problems of global war and environmental degradation and other seemingly intractable issues. He offered hope (cool gadgets and hot space babes in tight-fitting suits didn't hurt either). He saw a world transcended. What world do environmentalists want to paint? Far as I know, they could just as well want us living in grass huts in clustered communities, cooking on wind-powered stoves and walking to work. This is America. Most folks want mobility, space, comfort, affluence, security, and of course a clean environment to live in. That's a more compelling picture, so paint it.

The perfect is the enemy of the good.
All too often the environmental movement pushes aside beneficial actions because they fall short of lofty standards. The failure to get the Clear Skies initiative out of a Senate committee is an example. Liberals, which includes the likes of Republican Lincoln Chaffee, have let wrong environmentalist propaganda take hold, allowing a good bill to fall by the wayside. NPR also bought into the party line, exemplified by Elizabeth Shogren referring to the bill as the "so-called Clear Skies initiative". It isn't "so-called", Lizzy, that is what it's called. Three months ago in the Washington Monthly, David Whitman made a convincing case that the Clear Skies initiative will provide a net benefit to the environment, more effective than existing the laws on the books. Sadly, overt partisanship and stubborn environmental groups decided to stand in the way of real progress. Writing in the Washington Post, Paul W. Hansen observes the following:

During the 1990s the major laws governing the fundamental environmental infrastructure of our nation -- the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and Superfund -- were all due to be reauthorized. All had been reauthorized before, some several times. But in the past 15 years, none of them has been reauthorized.

During that time progress came to a stop on emerging issues, such as climate change -- which threatens the entire planet -- and on old ones, such as improving energy efficiency, which saves money, prevents pollution and reduces dependence on foreign oil. The Environmental Protection Agency tells us that 860 billion gallons of raw sewage still flow into our waterways annually. And while our air is cleaner, it is still not healthful.

All of the major environmental acts of Congress that we rely on were imperfect bipartisan compromises. In the current climate, however, we have, by letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, chosen in effect to accomplish nothing. When we stop compromising in a bipartisan fashion, environmental progress stops as well.

That being said, I'm not absolving the conservative wing for its own resistance to compromise.

Too few viable solutions and too few alternatives.
Let's face it. The Kyoto Treaty is a miserable failure. Shellenberger/Nordhaus:

That lesson was driven home to Clapp, Hawkins, and other leaders during the 1990s when the big environmental groups and funders put all of their global warming eggs in the Kyoto basket. The problem was that they had no well-designed political strategy to get the U.S. Senate to ratify the treaty, which would have reduced greenhouse gas reductions to under 1990 levels. The environmental community not only failed to get the Senate to ratify Kyoto, industry strategists -- in a deft act of legislative judo -- crafted an anti-Kyoto Senate resolution that passed 95 -- 0.

The size of this defeat can't be overstated. In exiting the Clinton years with no law to reduce carbon emissions -- even by a miniscule amount -- the environmental community has no more power or influence than it had when Kyoto was negotiated. We asked environmental leaders: what went wrong?

"Our advocacy in the 1990s was inadequate in the sense that the scale of our objectives in defining victory was not calibrated to the global warming need," answered Hawkins. "Instead it was defined by whatever was possible. We criticized Clinton's proposal for a voluntary program to implement the Rio convention agreement [that preceded Kyoto] but we didn't keep up a public campaign. We redirected our attention to the international arena and spent all of our efforts trying to upgrade President Bush Sr.'s Rio convention commitments rather than trying to turn the existing commitments into law. We should have done both."

Responding to the complaint that, in going 10 years without any action on global warming the environmental movement is in a worse place than if it had negotiated an initial agreement under Clinton, Clapp said, "In retrospect, for political positioning we probably would have been better off if, under the Kyoto protocol, we had accepted 1990 levels by 2012 since that was what Bush, Sr. agreed to in Rio. I don't exempt myself from that mistake."

The Muck and Mystery blog has similar opinions on Kyoto. Political mistakes were certainly made, but where are the alternatives, the re-worked solutions, the adaptations? When the Clear Skies initiative became locked up in a Senate committee, the administration had a backup plan, the Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR), an EPA regulation which will end up doing pretty much the same thing as the Clear Skies initiative. This is the type of creativity that should be embraced:

Jason Mark of the Union of Concerned Scientists told us that he has begun the search for more carrots to the Pavley stick. "We need to negotiate from a position of strength. Now is the time for us to propose incentive policies that make sense. We've been working on tax credits for hybrids. Now we need to come up with tax credits for R&D into reduced emissions, and something to ease the industry's pension and health burdens. No one has yet put a big pension deal on the table for them. None of this has yet been explored."

Poorly played out politics.
The reality is this. The country has politically trended to the right for the past twenty years, yet most environmentalists are still doggedly fixed on the political left. In order to effect change, the environmental left is going to have to work through conservatives to get what it wants. That means persuading and cajoling, not dismissing and not attacking and not demagoguing. Frank Lutz offered some ideas for better political communication.

Yet I would assert that "responsible exploration for energy," which includes the search for incredibly clean natural gas, is a far different activity than plunking down a well haphazardly and just "drilling for oil."

To me, calling for a "cleaner, safer, healthier environment" and supporting helicopter rides over the Grand Canyon and, yes, snowmobiling in Yellowstone Park is not a contradiction. I don't believe our nation's natural beauty should be locked up. The environment and commerce can and should coexist. That's why I am a "conservationist" rather than an "environmentalist." The difference? Conservationists are mainstream and environmentalists are extreme.

Agree or disagree with his politics, environmentalists can succeed in bringing "conservationists" to their side by using conservative language. Christians are natural allies with environmentalists since, after all, we are called by God to be good stewards, and to be wise custodians of the earth and of animal life for example.

Environmentalists also blew it on fuel efficiency standards. Shellenberger/Nordhaus:

Thanks to action by US automakers and inaction by US environmental groups, CAFE's efficiency gains stalled in the mid-1980s. It's not clear who did more damage to CAFE, the auto industry, the UAW or the environmental movement.

Having gathered 59 votes -- one short of what's needed to stop a filibuster -- Senator Richard Bryan nearly passed legislation to raise fuel economy standards in 1990. But one year later, when Bryan had a very good shot at getting the 60 votes he needed, the environmental movement cut a deal with the automakers. In exchange for the auto industry's opposition to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, environmentalists agreed to drop its support for the Bryan bill. "[I]t was scuppered by the environmentalists, of all people, " New York Times auto industry reporter Keith Bradsher notes bitterly.

More from Paul W. Hansen:

For example, the Wilderness Act of 1964 was a compromise. It protected only a fraction of the land that qualified. But it did set up an inclusive process for adding areas, and every president since 1964 has signed bills protecting additional land. Few environmentalists would argue that passing the Wilderness Act was a bad idea -- yet, would they support this compromise if it were before them today?

In 1990, the last time the Clean Air Act was reauthorized, it was a compromise. Acid rain emissions were reduced by 40 percent, but not by the 60 percent that scientists told us was needed. Toxic mercury emissions were not controlled at all. It wasn't a perfect bill, but it reduced air pollution. Clearly, we are better off than we would be if it had not passed. But would such a compromise be acceptable if it were being considered today?

Before the 1990s, the leaders of national conservation groups took the political support and public opinion available to them and, in most cases, made the best deal possible. The nation passed some important, though imperfect, legislation.

In the early '90s, this dynamic changed. When Republican leaders attempted to roll back long-standing protections, national environmental leaders came under intense criticism from some local and more radical environmental groups for being too close to power, too accommodating and too compromising. This dynamic is reemerging today.

A lack of civility in the rhetoric and tactics used by some groups also has played a role in the stalemate on many current environmental issues. When communications about the environment are too extreme, too dire or too partisan, large segments of the public tune out and dismiss the message. Presenting solutions, expressing concern about lost opportunities or engaging Americans in "can do" thinking are better ways to generate interest in conservation.

The politics can be successful if done right. Again, from Paul W. Hansen:

Results from the last elections are a good case in point. Voters in 121 communities in 24 states passed ballot measures to create $3.25 billion in public funding to protect land as parks and open space. Since 1996, 1,065 out of 1,376 conservation ballot measures have passed in 43 states, raising more than $27 billion in funding for land conservation.

When given the chance, Americans vote for conservation solutions -- even if it means a tax increase. If you look at the campaign materials for these initiatives, you see little strident rhetoric and a lot of practical solutions.

One other helpful suggestion is to ignore the politics of Canada. If there is ever a country that would benefit from global warming, it is our neighbor to the north. Yet there they were, jumping in with both feet and codifying the failed Kyoto Treaty into Canadian law.

Failing to see the larger political and economic framework.
Consider this article from the Economist, which makes the case that Bush should go green:

Yet Mr Bush has a surprising amount of credibility with Main Street America on the subject. A recent Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll found that 49% of Americans approve of his handling of the environment. Moreover, the balance of power in the conservative movement may be changing. Some neo-cons worry about America's over-dependence on such an unstable region as the Middle East. Some fiscal conservatives worry about the impact of America's appetite for imported oil on the dollar. And some evangelical Christians worry that mercury pollution is damaging the unborn, and pointedly ask what Jesus would drive. Support for strict environmental regulation among evangelicals has jumped from 45% in 2000 to 52% last year.

Most of the environmentalist culture would collectively spit out its organically brewed coffee upon hearing that 49 percent approve of Bush's environmental efforts. What this means for conservatives is that conservation is ripe for the political taking, particularly since 41 percent think that environmentalists cannot be reasoned with. Shellenger/Nordhaus get it halfway right:

Whereas neocons make proposals using their core values as a strategy for building a political majority, liberals, especially environmentalists, try to win on one issue at a time. We come together only around elections when our candidates run on our issue lists and technical policy solutions. The problem, of course, isn't just that environmentalism has become a special interest. The problem is that all liberal politics have become special interests.

The problem is that the writers are so ensconced on the left that they only see the issue through a liberal prism. The factor working against the environmental crowd is, since the leaders and benefactors tilt so heavily to the liberal side, there is an inherent distrust of free market economies and the businesses that operate therein. It's no coincidence that the freest economies are the most prosperous economies. While they consume a higher proportion of natural resources, they use those resources much more responsibly. The major problem I see with the Shellenberger/Nordhaus thesis is that they're seeking to meld the environmentalist movement to the wider world of liberalism, embedding environmental issues with both the labor movement and with government, for example. Though a failed solution, it's not uninspired. Just as Bill Clinton succeeded politically at triangulation, the authors are proposing a similar strategy. However, they are going in the wrong direction, trying to move left against a rightward moving society. The solution isn't for environmentalists to back liberal causes such as universal health care. Rather, they need to embrace free markets and reach out to the conservative movement. The wealth generated from free market economies is what finances real environmental and scientific progress. This paragraph is revealing:

Environmental groups have spent the last 40 years defining themselves against conservative values like cost-benefit accounting, smaller government, fewer regulations, and free trade, without ever articulating a coherent morality we can call our own. Most of the intellectuals who staff environmental groups are so repelled by the right's values that we have assiduously avoided examining our own in a serious way.

Emphasis mine. How can the environmental movement make political progress when it fails to seek out common ground and fails to assess their own value systems? The Economist:

The emergence of a Republican environmentalism would not only be good for the party, but for the environment. The current monopoly of the subject by the Democrats is a triple disaster. It institutionalises policymaking gridlock. It marginalises environmental concerns. And it stultifies useful thinking. The greening of conservatism is a revolution waiting to happen.

If they truly desire progress, environmentalists should jump on board and help the conservationists make it happen. More emphasis should be placed on helping developing economies become more free, democratic and prosperous. Freer societies eventually become more economically successful societies. With expanded wealth comes more resources for improving air, water and soil quality.

There are other examples of how to do it right politically. Dick Morris:

He's [Schwarzenegger] doing it by providing aggressive state leadership to open the way for hydrogen fuel cell cars. While President Bush speaks of the advent of these vehicles in the indefinite future, Gov. Schwarzenegger is bringing them to the here and now by converting gas stations along California's interstate highways to provide hydrogen fuel as well as gasoline.

With financing projected to come one-third each from federal, state and private sources, California will offer hydrogen fuel every few miles in urban areas and at least every 20 miles along the highway system by 2010. Eventually, he and the leaders of Washington, Oregon, Baja California and British Columbia will work together to create a "hydrogen highway" that will run from B.C. (British Columbia) to B.C. (Baja California).

The Schwarzenegger plan calls for state-subsidized production of hydrogen and for tax incentives for those who purchase hydrogen cars.

Replacing gasoline engines with hydrogen-fuel cells would eliminate two-thirds of America's need for oil — a demand that we could meet entirely with domestically produced oil.

Since California accounts for 20 percent of U.S. new-car purchases, the tail will wag the dog.

No nuclear energy on the horizon.
If environmentalists are serious about carbon emissions, why isn't nuclear energy being pushed? Peter Geddes:

Is it time we rethink opposition to nuclear power? James Lovelock, promoter of the Gaia hypothesis, believes so. He writes: “Opposition to nuclear energy is based on irrational fear fed by Hollywood-style fiction, the Green lobbies and the media.… [N]uclear energy… has proved to be the safest of all energy sources. We must stop fretting over the minute statistical risks of cancer from chemicals or radiation. I entreat my friends… to drop their wrongheaded objection to nuclear energy.”

Nuclear energy is expensive to build and there are legitimate issues involving risk, security and disposal of spent fuel. But if reducing carbon emissions is of paramount importance, environmentalists should swallow hard and lobby for more nuclear power plants.

There are other issues besides global warming.
John Dowen writes this in the The Commons Blog:

In 1999, Yale economists William Nordhaus and Joseph Boyer estimated the net global cost of the Kyoto Protocol at $716 billion. By comparison (, for less than $50 billion we could greatly reduce malnutrition and control malaria in the developing world. Kyoto enthusiasts retort that the Protocol is just a first step in establishing a framework for future emission reductions. In the meantime, those most vulnerable to drastic climatic events, the world’s poor, will not be any better protected by the developed world’s collective penance.

Bjorn Lomborg has become one of the most vilified academics in environmental claques, so many of his suggestions have been categorically dismissed. However, the statement from here makes eminent sense: "I try to point out the costs and benefits of our different policy choices, and yes, I point out that for the benefit of Kyoto will be to postpone global warming in 2100 by six years, whereas the cost of Kyoto each year will be as great as the one-off cost of giving clean drinking water and sanitation to every single human being, forever."

Jeffrey Sachs was been thinking along similar lines in his treatise on eradicating global poverty, proposing the Big Five development interventions: boosting agriculture, improving basic health, investing in education, bringing power, and providing clean water and sanitation. I would add a sixth: bringing freedom and democracy to the squalid countries. Without it, there is no guarantee that the Big Five would take. All too often, the resources get misallocated, squandered and pilfered when the presiding government does not respect civil liberties and political rights. Sachs underlying premise is that global instability is the result of poverty. There may be quite a few nations that need a leg up, but to me the underlying instability is the result of fundamentally unstable governments and the contempt they have for its subjects.

Okay, I'm out of words. For now. From my perspective, nothing would please me more than to see an environmental movement that is strong on science, big on bipartisanship, brimming with ideas for solutions, unafraid of free market economies, aware of costs and benefits, pro on freedom and democracy, committed to pursuing progress in more polluted countries, able to work with conservatives, and that has an attractive vision when portraying the future. That's not too much to ask, is it?

(cross-posted at Redstate and Obsidian Wings)


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