Getting Sustainability on the Agenda of Our Dysfunctional Federal Government

by |November 2, 2015

Last week I participated in a very timely panel discussion at Columbia University on the impact of climate and the environment on the 2016 elections. The panel was moderated by Chuck Todd, the brilliant and politically savvy moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press, and the participants included Emily Lloyd, the Commissioner of New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection and Bill Eimicke, my colleague and frequent co-author from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. The two most difficult issues our moderator asked us to address included: 1. How do we make environmental problems meaningful and actionable issues on the political agenda?; and 2. How do we generate the revenue needed to fund the community resources required to address these problems?

I think Chuck Todd expressed the heart of the issue when he began our discussion by relating the costs of extreme weather events in the U.S. subsequent to Hurricane Sandy. Since Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, the United States has experienced 97 extreme weather events that have cost more than $100 million each. These extreme events range from hurricanes and tornados to wildfires and droughts, to simply severe weather over a period of a few days. Between October 2012 and October 2015, extreme weather events cost the U.S. $176.8 billion and have resulted in 861 lives lost. The most costly of these include Hurricane Sandy in 2012 ($65 billion), droughts and heatwaves throughout 2012 ($31 billion) and 2013 ($11 billion), and severe weather in the Midwest in May 2014 ($4 billion). These numbers are based on a compilation of data from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Association (list of billion-dollar weather and climate disasters) and the insurance company AON (specifically, the Global Climate and Catastrophe Report in 2013 and 2014, and the Global Catastrophe Recap in 2015).

In the 156 weeks since Hurricane Sandy, we have had, on average, more than one $100-million-plus weather disaster every other week. When an emergency happens twice a month it is no longer an emergency but a regular event. If we invested $50 billion now, could it pay off in averted costs down the road? Probably. Should we be thinking about framing the issue of climate change as one of protecting the public’s safety and money from the impacts of extreme weather? Definitely. But how can we do that if anti-governmental ideology continues to dominate political dialogue?

The United States is in the middle of the third decade of a concerted attack on government. The most recent Republican presidential debate presented government incompetence as a fact of life, not a debatable proposition. While there is plenty of incompetence in government, there is plenty in the private sector too. Bankruptcy weeds out some private incompetence, but not most of it. The issue at stake is that infrastructure like roads, water and sewage systems, mass transit, and the electric grid are natural monopolies. It makes no sense for us to have three interstate highway systems, although having ten companies selling us cars makes perfect sense. So we need to cooperate as a community to build infrastructure. The infrastructure can be built and even operated by the private sector, but it must be authorized and at least partially funded by government. To do that we need a government; while we have those institutions in our towns and cities, we seem to be destroying them in some of our states and in our federal government.

On the issue of government incompetence: Undeniably, it exists. And without the pressure of day-to-day service demands, we find more bloated bureaucracy at the federal level than at the local level. But let’s remember that the private sector has it easy. If there is money to be made the private sector is more than delighted to take on the task. On the other hand, if the job is tough and no market can be created for the work, we assign it to government. The private sector gets to make a beer that “tastes great and is less filling”; the public sector gets the job of fighting crime, homelessness, toxic waste and global warming. Which set of tasks is more likely to result in failure?

Ronald Reagan was wrong: government is not the problem. Bill Clinton and Al Gore were right: government management needs to be reinvented. We did that in many local settings. In Washington we haven’t reinvented anything, and instead the Tea Party “starved the beast.” In 1966, we had about 2.6 million civilian federal workers; in 2015 the number is about the same. Federal workers were about 4% of our workforce in the 1960s and about 2% today. In the 1960s we had about 180 million people in residing in this country; today it is over 320 million. Of course government has grown over the past fifty years—some of that is simply a result of population growth—but all of the growth of the federal government has taken place in private firms under contract to the government. Nevertheless, over the past half-century we have been steadily destroying government capacity instead of building it. Talented people drawn to public service avoid the federal government. We need a capable government to form a partnership with the private sector and lead the transition to a renewable resource-based economy. We need public leadership if we are to reinforce and rebuild our decaying infrastructure to enable it to adapt to the forces of climate change already in motion. Instead, we have dysfunction and an active effort to delegitimize the role of government in modern life.

Still, environmental issues inevitably find their way onto the political agenda. In some cases, the harm of pollution is obvious to one’s sight or sense of smell. Governments are expected to protect people from danger, and pollution’s impact on health ensures that environmental damage periodically achieves a high priority on the political agenda. In many cases, the issues are framed negatively in an effort to frighten people into action. That can and has worked in the past, but when the solutions called for by environmental activists are wholesale changes in lifestyle, rather than regulation requiring the use of a cleanup technology, I suspect the strategy will tend to backfire. The fact is that people like their mobility, air conditioning, Internet and all the toys of modern life. People living by the beach do not want to move to the mountains- and even if they do, they’d then need to fear mudslides and forest fires. People do not want to give up their way of life and asking them to do so is a losing political strategy.

What is needed politically and in reality is a positive vision of a sustainable society. In the case of this country it will need to be built on the traditional values that have always attracted people to America: freedom, rewarding individual achievement, a love of the new and novel, innovation, and acceptance (even if reluctantly) of other people, cultures and lifestyles. We may end up living in smaller and better-designed personal spaces along with increased access to more interesting and beautiful public spaces. More of us will spend more of our time in cities and towns. Some of our personal transportation may be replaced by mass transit or Uber-like shared transport. Our diets will continue to change; our engagement in physical fitness, health care, wellness, education, and electronic media will increase. And we will pay more attention to the source of our energy, food and water and will look to ensure more that it is renewable and free of toxics. We will pay more attention to where our garbage goes and think about how to make sure that our waste does not go to waste.

My hope is that all of this will result in more concern for the well-being of our neighbors and our community. That concern could lead to a more determined effort to develop new revenues to pay for infrastructure and to care for each other. It could lead to an examination of our tax structure and an effort to increase taxes where taxation will do the least harm and reduce taxation where it will do the most good for society. I know this sounds naive, but my first moment of political awareness was watching a young president ask all of us what we could do for our country, not what we could do for our stock portfolio. If we are to effectively make the transition to a sustainable, renewable resource-based economy, we will need to rebuild that sense of community and shared sacrifice that we have drawn on in the past.


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