Bringing Consensus Politics Back to Environmental Issues

by |January 13, 2020

The surest sign that environmental protection has moved into the political mainstream around here is Andrew Cuomo’s now constant articulation of environmental initiatives in New York State. New York’s Governor has been a politico since he was a teenager working in his father’s political campaigns. Political calculation is hardwired into his approach to governance. In his recent State of the State Address, he announced a $3 billion-dollar environmental bond act that is designed in large measure to help New York adapt to climate change. In addition, Cuomo is investing substantial state resources in a multi-decade effort to modernize and decarbonize the state’s energy system.

Meanwhile, in our nation’s capital, our amateur politician President Donald Trump is continuing to claim that human-induced climate change is a hoax and is busy reducing the rigor of any environmental regulation that lobbyists can put in front of him. His goal is to promote the use of fossil fuels. He attacks wind energy, energy conservation and water conservation policy while promoting pipelines, coal mines and the fossil fuels he sees as central to a muscular American economy.  He is convinced that environmental regulation prevents businesses from creating jobs. His view of this is stuck in a time warp dating to about 1980 that does not recognize the vigor and market strength of the growing green economy. He also seems willing to ignore the broad American consensus supporting environmental sustainability.

The politics that underlie all of this are obvious. As always, Trump’s main political concern is his base. According to a March 2019 Gallup poll, six in ten Americans want to see America reduce its use of fossil fuels, but 58% of all Republicans oppose reductions in fossil fuel use. Significantly, there is an American consensus behind developing renewable energy: 80% of the country favors more development of solar energy and 70% would like to see more wind energy. The president’s recent rant against windmills might reduce support for wind energy by his hard-core supporters, but the country as a whole supports renewable energy.

One target of the Trump Administration’s attack on environmental regulation has been the time and cost of analyzing and mitigating the environmental impact of products and projects. The attack on the amount of time major projects are delayed by environmental impact analyses has some basis in reality, although data indicates that most major infrastructure projects are delayed by inadequate financing rather than regulatory roadblocks. If the money is in place to build something it tends to get built. The exception is projects like pipelines that take on symbolic meaning and are opposed for their overall impact on environmental quality. Anti-development efforts are often based on “Not in My Backyard” (NIMBY) issues raised by those in or near the path of development. These are sometimes based on environmental issues but are just as often based on a conservative impulse to protect what we have and leave things unchanged.

What is missing from all of this is an understanding of the long-term impact of an environmentally damaging product or project and the long-term cost of addressing those impacts. All the poisons we have released into the environment must eventually be contained or cleaned up, and those that we miss often result in health care costs from cancers and diseases caused by toxic substances. The U.S. has spent close to a trillion dollars on toxic waste clean-up since we enacted Superfund in 1980. The military spent hundreds of billions of dollars cleaning up their mess, and the private sector has spent a small fortune making sure that the worst mistakes of toxic mismanagement were remedied. We learned that burying toxic chemicals underground in metal containers didn’t work because of a simple phenomenon called rust. And once these chemicals leach into the soil, they eventually reach aquifers and can poison our water and food supply.

Some projects that are delayed or stopped due to anti-development or pro-environment impulses cause short-term pain but long-term gain. A wonderful example was the effort to replace the West Side Highway in New York City with an interstate highway. Had that happened there never would have been a Hudson River Park and the Highline and development of the far west side of Manhattan would have never taken place. Visual and recreational access to the river turned out to produce more economic growth than another superhighway would have generated.

Environmental politics has slipped into the polarized symbolism we see in most of America’s national politics. However, since environmental pollution is directly experienced in our communities, the most important political discussions and decisions tend to take place at the local level. It is easier to build consensus when we are focusing on real impacts rather than symbols. It is also easier to resist the paid lobbyists who make their living off of polarized division since in most cases our local concerns aren’t important enough to attract their attention. No one wants their children to breathe polluted air, drink water with lead in it, or play in chemically contaminated playgrounds. No one.

The effort to delegitimize science may make it hard for the public to understand the potential impact of particular projects or products. Propaganda messages sometimes dominate the communication of scientific facts. I am afraid we are in for a difficult period where the impacts will only be believed once they arrive. We are now seeing that with climate change. The need to adapt to new conditions is apparent and widely supported. The effort to mitigate climate change is more controversial but gaining support as the impacts become more obvious.

That is the fundamental feature of environmental politics. The battles in Washington may sometimes be over symbols, but conditions on the ground, in our communities are real. The waters are rising, the lead pipes in need of replacement, the air is orange.  There is an objective reality that is only denied by the delusional. If we lose the ability to define, describe and communicate that reality we will not be able to manage the new technologies human brainpower can and will invent.

There are honest disagreements over what causes damage and what doesn’t. The chemicals and technology of food production are poorly understood, and the food industry has done it’s best to avoid the kind of transparency and information exchange that would facilitate effective and efficient regulation. Businesses are terrified of engaging in an honest conversation about the costs and benefits of their production processes out of a reasonable fear that such conversations are not possible in today’s polarized political culture.

But if we are to move toward an environmentally sustainable economy, we need to be able to discuss the impacts of human activity on the planet with calm, realism and humility. Everything humans do creates an impact and our goal cannot be to eliminate impacts but reduce them. It is in our interest as a species to permit economic development so that all humans can benefit from the wonders and bounty of the modern world. My view is that political stability and public safety requires continued economic development. But it is also important that the high throughput economy many of us benefit from moves toward becoming a circular and renewable resource-based economy. To do this we need to study, understand and measure our environmental impacts. We then need to discuss them and reduce negative impacts through rules and better management.

Environmental protection must move out of the arena of symbolic politics. Our national politics is completely focused on symbols, manipulation of image, defining reality and achieving power. But we are living, organic creatures. Our health is an objective reality and while symbols impact our mind and indirectly our body, one can’t wish illness away. Just as in health care, we can and will disagree about the methods used to protect our planet or our body. But the need for such protection is beyond dispute.

In the blue-red political world we’ve created we need to remember the values we share and our interdependency. As individuals and families, we can do a great deal to create the world we want to make for ourselves. But we also require the collective resources that can only be achieved by a community. We depend on each other for clean air, clean water, healthy food and protection from floods and fire.  Governor Andrew Cuomo’s $3 billion-dollar bond proposal will provide some of the resources New York’s governments need to build resilient communities. Perhaps some day soon our national government will do the same.

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