Changing Environmental Values and a Changing World

by |July 18, 2016

People value the planet’s air, water, creatures, and natural wonders. While pundits do not always understand how the environment works as a political issue, this past Earth Day, Karlyn Bowman of Forbes analyzed the political dynamics of American environmentalism and accurately reported the latent power of America’s environmental values. Bowman observed:

“Each year since 1994, the Pew Research Center has asked about priorities for the President and Congress. Of the eighteen issues Pew examined in early 2016, 47% said “protecting the environment” should be a top priority. The issue ranked low—thirteenth of 18 issues the pollsters examined…These low rankings don’t mean that Americans no longer care about the environment. Having a clean and healthful environment is a core value for most people. What the responses probably tell us is that Americans think policymakers, regulators, and activists are paying sufficient attention to environmental issues and that they want them to turn their attention to more pressing concerns…On occasion, however, a specific environmental problem can elevate the general issue in importance. Is the unsafe lead level in Flint Michigan’s drinking water such a problem? We know from work by survey organizations such as Gallup that problems people can see in their communities such as air and water pollution tend to concern Americans more than issues that seem distant. As Gallup noted in a release in March, polluted drinking water and pollution of rivers, lakes and reservoirs “have consistently topped Americans’ concerns during the 27 years the organization has been measuring environmental attitudes.” This year, 61% told Gallup they worried a great deal about pollution of drinking water, and 56% gave that response about polluted waterways. Concern about both was up slightly from 2015.”

Bowman identified other surveys indicating that the public was increasingly concerned about the quality of the tap water they were drawing from public water systems. I believe that concern over tap water is part of the growing movement for locally-sourced food, physical fitness, and what has been termed “wellness.” The underlying source of support for environmental protection is a growing understanding of the relationship between a toxic environment and human health.

People wearing face masks in Asia to filter out air pollution, the popularity of bottled water, growing concern about the impact of football and boxing on the human brain, fast food salad meals, bans on public smoking, increases in auto safety equipment—all of these trends are part of a growing knowledge of health risks, and people are willing to take action to reduce those risks. For many people, a clean and healthy environment is deeply related to an effort to manage health risks, and they will therefore support government action to reduce pollution.

Flint, Michigan’s lead pollution crisis has affected public opinion throughout the United States. Unlike pollution that comes from a single factory or effluent discharge, pollution from an entire water infrastructure is more difficult to identify and decontaminate. Repairing a water system requires expensive analysis and testing to determine the source of contamination. In the case of Flint, some of the worst contamination was within households or at the point the household connected to the city’s system.

One of Flint’s most profound national impacts has been the growing number of schools that have begun to regularly test their drinking water for lead and other toxic substances. Flint has also focused local governments on the condition of their aging water infrastructure. Lead and some other toxics do not come from lakes, aquifers or streams that are our sources of water, but from aging pipes and pumping stations that often have lead pipe, solder and other chemicals that end up in household water. Sometimes the contamination is within the home plumbing system.

Some of the United States’ more developed, urbanized and populated cities include water, sewage, transport and electrical infrastructure that are a century old and in various stages of deterioration. As people learn that these expensive but essential resources are decaying and could harm their health or economic wellbeing, it possible that support for infrastructure reconstruction may grow. The costs of debt service, operation, and maintenance of infrastructure may raise taxes, but if costs are presented as “user fees” rather than general taxes, the American public may accept them. Smart grids could be built to transform our energy system, and mass transit and water infrastructure may make it possible to build cities that can support greater population density with lower environmental impacts.

All of these investments in urban sustainability will require political support from voters and leadership from political, business, and thought leaders. Engineers and other experts have been discussing America’s deteriorating infrastructure for decades. An effort to develop “green” infrastructure has helped to wed concern for the importance of concrete and steel to the role that natural plantings, drainage, and ecosystem services can play in filtering toxics and absorbing the hydraulic impacts of major storms.

Support for funding infrastructure can come from the local level when leadership and public concerns match. For major projects this can present an enormous challenge. New York City’s huge third water tunnel project was first authorized in 1954. The goal was to ensure that the city’s supply of water from upstate New York would never be interrupted. The decades-long process of building a new tunnel to eventually permit the repair of two aging tunnels didn’t start until the 1970s—and it’s still being built today. Several times during its construction the city ran out of money and construction had to stop. New York City has spent nearly $6 billon on this critical part of its water system.

Despite that huge commitment, we learned earlier this year that even a project this essential could be subject to the political whims of the city’s mayor. It turned out that Mayor Bill De Blasio had cut over $300 million from the project until excellent reporting by the Jim Dwyer of the NY Times exposed the cuts and caused a political uproar. While Mayor de Blasio’s made a clumsy effort to shift blame for the water budget cuts to his staff, concern for the city’s drinking water supply was so deep that the mayor reinstated the funds the very next day. We have seen similar expressions of support, like once people understood the water issue in Flint or when Charleston, West Virginia found its water supply polluted. The engineering and public health issues are complicated, but everyone shares the simple act of turning on the faucet and wondering if that liquid is safe for you and your family. The uncertainty of water supply quality can be used to build support for new infrastructure, but that support will disappear if the rebuilt water system is not competently, effectively and efficiently managed.

Despite the ideological noise of our political system, people know that the world they live in is not the same one they grew up in. In the United States, support for protecting the environment has been consistently high (typically 70%) since the 1970s. When a public health case can be made for investing in environmental infrastructure, the consensus can even be larger. But this must be presented against a backdrop of the nation’s continued anti-tax and antigovernment mindset. People do not trust big institutions to protect them and doubt that the resources they are willing to invest will ever make it to the project they need. Infrastructure, by definition, is a community-wide project, and is a long-term, complex undertaking. Everyone needs to pay his or her share, and expects to be paid back in the form of increased service. Government has the challenge of regaining the public’s trust. This may require public-private partnerships and other creative forms of program management to convince people that their money is not being wasted.

The potential is in place to obtain public support for infrastructure investment. People value a clean and healthy environment and have demonstrated over and over again a willingness to pay for it. Competent and mission-driven public servants, coupled with creative and technically-sophisticated private firms, could build on this support and modernize our infrastructure. This work will add to our national wealth and create jobs that cannot be outsourced.


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