State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

The Midterm Elections and Environmental Protection

Over the past two years, unified Republican control of the presidency and congress has resulted in a sustained attack on environmental regulation and the protection of public lands. This in turn has emboldened those who make their fortune off of environmental destruction. While they are a small portion of American business people, these polluters are working as quickly as possible to exploit the relaxation of national environmental rules. At this point most of the impact of these past two years has been symbolic and psychological. Most state and local governments continue to monitor and respond to threats to the environment and public health. In the second year of the Trump administration only the press, the courts, state attorneys and citizen suits are serving as a check on these efforts to promote pollution. But a re-elected Republican congress might well begin to attack the nearly half-century-old structure of national environmental law that serves to protect us.

Environmental protection is very popular, and every politician knows how to read public opinion polls. But this administration’s ability to lie about what they are doing should not be underestimated. Their newfound support for requiring insurance companies to cover pre-existing health conditions is a case in point, because every effort to repeal Obamacare ended protection for those with preexisting conditions. The president’s ceaseless propaganda about caravans of invading terrorists contrasts with the reality of desperate refugees walking thousands of miles to avoid getting killed. Somehow this is a large enough threat to America to require the mobilization of thousands of troops. The list goes on. While Republicans and Democrats joined together in the 1970s and 1980s to create America’s environmental laws, the 21st century Republican party seems to think these laws interfere with freedom. But the radical right knows they have a problem with environmental rules because one person’s freedom to ruin someone else’s air takes away another person’s freedom to breathe. At a minimum they have a PR problem, something George W. Bush recognized when he called his air pollution deregulation program “Clear Skies,” and his proposed land use exploitation law “Healthy Forests.” He knew that breathing clean air and drinking clean water was politically popular.

I am not certain that a re-energized Republican congress would try to change our environmental laws, but I’d rather not find out. The Trump Administration has not needed Congress to repeal environmental laws and instead has relied on executive branch departments to weaken rules, eliminate enforcement, and destroy scientific capacity. A Democratic House of Representatives could conduct oversight hearings on these executive actions and provide a check on abuses of power by the ideologues now running EPA, the Department of Energy, and the Department of the Interior.

EPA itself is at a critical juncture in its 48-year history. It now has less staff and budget than at any time since Ronald Reagan was president. The U.S. has over 100 million more people today than it had when Reagan was elected president. In 1980 we had a population of 226 million people, in 2018 we have 328 million. The agency’s budget has also failed to keep pace with need. Keith Gaby, an Environmental Defense Fund staffer and opinion writer for The Hill recently observed that:

“In 1979, the agency’s budget was $5.4 billion. In 2017, its funding was $8.2 billion. But adjust that for inflation — so you can actually compare what EPA had to spend on enforcement, state and local support, science and all its other responsibilities — and the 2017 budget was really worth just $2.4 billion in 1979 dollars. This dramatic drop occurred even as our population increased by one hundred million people and our economy doubled in size.”

Over the years, EPA has done an excellent job of delegating key functions to state governments, who have in turn often delegated responsibilities to county and local governments. But as we saw with the lead contamination of water in Flint, Michigan, and apparently now in Newark, New Jersey, there are times when we really need national level expertise and federal resources to effectively protect ourselves from the complex causes of poisons in our environment.

I deeply worry about the long-term impact of further cuts in our capacity to protect the environment. The growing toxicity of our economy coupled with global supply chains is making it harder to understand the causes and impacts of environmental pollution. We demonstrated over the past half-century that effective monitoring and enforcement of environmental rules, coupled with ingenious engineering of pollution control technology enables our economy to grow while pollution shrinks.  But this requires a balance of power between those willing to pollute and those responsible for controlling pollution. That balance is already slipping and with another two years of national Republican rule, could be permanently damaged or even destroyed.

Although public opinion experts believe that the Democrats have a good chance of retaking the House of Representatives, I confess that I have no idea. They could win big, scrape by or lose. As a political scientist who many years ago made a living off of working on public opinion surveys, I used to think I had a pretty good idea of what surveys said. Now, turnout is so unpredictable that I question the value of most election polls. We can measure public opinion, perceptions and sentiment, but we seem less able to predict public behaviors such as voting.

I am not prone to panic on environmental policy issues because I’ve seen enormous progress in environmental protection throughout my life time. The environment in the United States is cleaner today than it was when EPA was created in 1970. When I first began my study of environmental policy in the fall of 1975, the environment was a fringe issue, largely considered of little importance and low political salience. Very few politicians were like Ed Muskie of Maine who made it a signature issue. Today, environmental sustainability is a central issue. While elections are not often decided on environmental issues, they are often part of the discussion. Foreign policy and trade agreements address environmental issues as well. Young people support sustainability and environmental protection in far greater numbers than older people, so the long-term outlook is good.

But the midterm elections on Tuesday have the potential to change that. An unchecked federal government with a national policy of making a fast buck wherever possible could lead to massive exploitation of treasured natural resources. The end of national enforcement of our incredibly successful environmental laws could end up giving us air that looks like China today or Los Angeles in the 1960s. I refuse to believe that the American people would tolerate that, but I never imagined a national government as anti-environmental as the one we now have.

The tactic in Washington has been to demonize your enemy and delegitimize opposition. If the Democrats regain the House of Representatives I hope they do not simply become the left of center version of the Tea Party (perhaps the Latte party?). They need to find some causes that can break the fever of dysfunction that has gripped Washington. Infrastructure, immigration, and environment are all areas that national consensus can be reached on critical areas. If he’s beaten badly enough, Trump may realize his appeals to his political base are a losing strategy. The president’s only ideology is winning, and while he lies too much to be a real partner, even opponents can make deals in their mutual self-interest. My hope is that America’s national government regains its footing, and the first step is reconstruction of a legislative branch with the independence and power that the Framers intended. In 2018, that will require the Democrats to control of one of the houses of Congress.

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