State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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Rebuilding America’s Environmental Agencies and Environmental Consensus

For the past four years, EPA’s scientific and regulatory capacity has been decimated, NOAA’s climate research has gone underground, the White House environmental offices have atrophied, and it’s been open season on federal wilderness and parklands. While the first two years of the Regan presidency also included attacks on EPA and the Department of the Interior, in 1983 Ronald Reagan rehired EPA’s first administrator, Bill Ruckelshaus for a second tour of duty and sanity was restored at EPA. The Trump era was unprecedented.

The decades-long consensus on environmental policy that began in the 1970s ended during the period when the American economy shifted from a manufacturing economy to today’s brain-based economy. Some blamed closing factories on environmental rules and manufacturing-based pollution was seen as exported to the developing world. Undoubtably, some of that was real, although automation was the major cause of lost manufacturing jobs, as was the fact that the higher value-added and more profitable parts of the economy were found in services rather than manufacturing. American business strategy moved away from manufacturing. IBM sold its PC business, companies like Google and Facebook grew like weeds and economic life in America was transformed. Today, 80% of our GDP is in the service sector. Americans still wanted a clean environment but seemed more open to arguments that environmental rules were “job-killing regulations.” Still, polls indicate that public support for environmental protection remains strong, and the overall desire of families for wellness, safe communities and good health provide a base of support for well-designed environmental policy.

While new environmental initiatives stalled in the 1990s and President Obama could not get a cap and trade climate policy through Congress, the basic structure of American environmental law remained intact until the Trump administration took power. These past four years have seen our decades-long effort to improve environmental quality reversed. Donald Trump was by far the worst president for the environment since EPA was established in 1970. His two EPA administrators have worked overtime to dismantle our protections. The first of the two, Scott Pruitt had been a coal industry lobbyist and was forced to resign in the wake of numerous scandals. Pruitt was flamboyant but fortunately, relatively ineffective. He was followed by Andrew Wheeler, a far less visible and far more competent Washington insider who did much better than Pruitt in dismantling environmental rules and scientific capacity.

Still, I do not want to dwell on the history of the past four years; we need to face forward. I know that in the first 100 days of the Biden administration, COVID-19, economic stimulus, immigration, racial justice and the restoration of normalcy will be the highest priority. But I assume that the people who will manage the transition and staff the new government are capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time.

Environmental protection is not only about policies such as the Paris Climate Accord— it’s also about organizational capacity. That includes the capacity to conduct scientific research, inspections, enforcement, policy analysis and science communication. President-elect Biden must bring back the competent nonpartisan management that EPA, NOAA and Interior need during this difficult time. Mission-driven environmental professionals from both political parties need to be brought back to Washington to restore scientific capacity and management competence to these agencies. Lawyers interested in enforcing the laws we enacted during the 20th century must be attracted to federal service. Young people like the graduates of the master’s programs I direct need to be lured out of the private sector into public service.

An early task that I assume Biden’s transition team is already focused on is to dismantle four years of anti-environmental executive orders. A more complex task will be to withdraw newly revised and weakened environmental regulations and replace them with tougher but hopefully more effective environmental rules than the often decades-old regulations that were eliminated. The old rules should not have been eliminated, but we should do more than bring back what Trump destroyed. We should build a more flexible and effective system of environmental regulation.

In addition to rebuilding what was destroyed, we have a climate crisis that our federal government continues to ignore. Decarbonizing our energy system and transitioning from fossil fuels can and should be a key element of an infrastructure program to rebuild America while putting Americans back to work. The transformation of the auto industry from the internal combustion engine to electric vehicles can be accelerated by tax incentives. Federal policies must provide incentives for electric utilities to build more efficient and resilient electric grids. These 21st-century energy grids should be powered by solar and wind power made reliable by advances in battery technology. We, of course, must re-start our leadership in global climate diplomacy. Those are new initiatives that could attract a broad constituency and I assume they will begin in early 2021.

But the new administration must also remember the damage that has been done to the agencies that protect our environment over the past four years.

Talented people have left, and those that remain are demoralized and searching for hope. American businesses that have adopted environmental sustainability as a basic principle of sound management are ready to respond to sensible and sensitive environmental policy. As environmental law is revived, we need to also restore the tradition of accommodation to businesses that are making good faith efforts to comply with rules. We also must clearly communicate that protecting public health from environmental poisons can never be negotiated. Sometimes the traffic light is red and when it is, the failure to stop can cause damage and must be punished. America’s environmental regulation must be reasonable when possible and tough when necessary. As the new president seeks to unite the country, let’s unite around the idea that everyone has the right to breathe clean air, eat healthy food and drink clean water. Polls have long demonstrated public support for these goals. It is time to eliminate the idea that we need to choose between economic growth and environmental protection. Just as we can’t grow our economy without confidence in the public’s health, a poisoned planet also makes long-term economic growth impossible. Environmental regulators must learn to listen to the concerns of business and local communities and ensure that environmental regulation is careful and measured.

Here in New York, Mike Bloomberg wedded economic development and environmental sustainability with his PlaNYC 2030 sustainability plan. He attracted a talented team of analysts and managers to run that effort who also helped manage the city’s effort to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy. All over the country, state and local governments and non-profits have focused on wellness and environmental sustainability. These non-federal stakeholders know that green infrastructure is cost-effective and that elements of a circular, low-waste economy can be built. This creativity- and community-based enthusiasm and idealism need to be attracted to federal public service and translated into a new bipartisan brand of environmental policy.

The destructiveness of Trump’s environmental regime provides an opportunity to rebuild our system of environmental regulation with the goal of rebuilding consensus rather than seeking contentious and symbolic victories. There was a time when American environmental policy was bipartisan and reflected broad agreement on the importance of an environment free of poison. The goal of environmental policy is to convince institutions and individuals to behave in ways that preserve our planet. Command-and-control regulation is but one tool to achieve that goal. But so too are tax incentives, tax credits, grants, research, education, low interest loans for capital improvements, and taxes on emissions and effluents. Let’s be creative and use the entire tool kit. Environmental protection should be pursued as a partnership between the public and private sectors rather than a way to scold polluters for “bad behavior.” If we can wed the genius of free enterprise to the goal of a less polluted planet, we might find a pathway back to an American environmental consensus.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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