State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


The Impact of the American Consensus Favoring Environmental Protection

Americans disagree about the best way to ensure a clean environment, but for over a half-century, they have supported the goal of a clean environment. They even agree that government has a role in ensuring that we reach that goal. They disagree about the nature of government’s role. People want a clean environment because they connect environmental quality to personal and familial wellness. While there is far too much poverty and hunger in America, most Americans are confident that they will secure food, clothing, and shelter. Most Americans are not impoverished. When basic needs are relatively assured, people are free to focus on wellness. They ask: Is the food I eat nutritious for me and my family? Are I and my children getting enough exercise? Those are questions people can address on their own since they have control over what they eat and what they do with their free time. But then there are elements of life beyond our control that impact our wellness:

  • The possibility of violent crime, extreme weather, or random events such as an auto accident.
  • Polluted air, water, and toxic releases into the air, water, or land.

Reduction of the risks posed by these threats requires collective action by government. These threats cannot by reduced by individual action.

The people in East Palestine, Ohio, were exposed to toxics from a train accident. The people in Flint, Michigan, were exposed to lead poison in their water due to incompetent government officials. People all over the world are exposed to a growing number of extreme weather events made worse and more frequent by global warming. Climate change is a tougher issue for the public to grapple with since its causes are global, and it requires more than our senses to connect cause and effect. Dirty air, water, and toxics in our environment are obvious, visible, and local. No one wants it. In the mid-twentieth century, environmental protection was seen as an aesthetic issue. Pollution was unsightly and unpleasant but not seen as a threat to our well-being. This was the same era that considered tobacco smoke to have health benefits. By the 1970s and 1980s, we learned that pollution could make you sick and, in the case of toxics, could kill you and damage fetuses. The lesson was brought home dramatically by the long-term illnesses suffered by first responders working the toxic “pile” left behind by the terror attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

The awareness of the health impacts of pollution is widespread and not subject to ideological filtering. What is the subject of constant disagreement is the role of government in preventing pollution, but sometimes the situation is so bad that political consensus becomes possible. After the toxic train accident in East Palestine, Ohio’s Democratic and Republican Senators led a bipartisan effort to regulate train safety. According to Wall Street Journal reporters Natalie Andrews and Esther Fung:

“Ohio senators are leading a bipartisan effort to respond to last month’s train derailment their state, proposing legislation that would subject railroads to a series of new federal safety regulations and increase fines for wrongdoing. Sens. Sherrod Brown and J.D. Vance of Ohio, along with Sens. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), Josh Hawley (R. Mo.), Bob Casey (D., Pa.) and John Fetterman (D., Pa.), introduced legislation on Wednesday intended to prevent future train disasters such as the Feb. 3 derailment of Norfolk Southern Corp. railcars near East Palestine, Ohio. The incident has raised concerns about the long-term health risks near and around the village of 4,700 people. Senators said the bill would strengthen safety procedures for trains carrying hazardous materials, establish requirements for wayside defect detectors, create a permanent requirement for railroads to operate with at least two-person crews, and increase fines for wrongdoing committed by rail carriers.”

Even during this fiercely partisan political era, our elected officials understood that these rules were needed to ensure public safety. While regulating firearms is nearly impossible in America, regulating transportation operations does not generate the same level of ideological intensity. Moreover, the threat of exposure to toxic substances draws on everyone’s fear of cancer, a poorly understood threat to health that touches many people directly and indirectly.

What does this consensus behind environmental protection mean, and why is it important? Even as Americans disagree about specific environmental policies, organizations and individuals all over America are paying attention to their impact on environmental quality. When a new product or service is being designed, engineers and project managers are considering environmental impact as a design parameter: How much energy are we using? What is the source of the energy? How much waste are we producing? What do we do with the waste? What toxics are produced here, and how do we keep them from harming people and the planet? These questions are now integral, not peripheral, to business decision-making. Waste reduction and energy efficiency are seen as ways of reducing costs and enhancing competitiveness. Ignorance of environmental risk is seen as management incompetence since it may be the cause of financial loss. As the Norfolk Southern railroad is now learning the hard way, releasing toxics into the environment can result in massive, unplanned expenditures.

These lessons are being integrated into our culture and are finding their way into organizational life. Government must provide rules to define and limit pollution, but the actual reduction of pollution will largely take place in our private sector. Regulation sets the rules of the road, but the private sector does most of the driving. And what is so important and so poorly understood in our politics is that the consensus behind a clean environment is leading to massive changes in business decision-making. The costs of protecting the environment remain a part of the decision-making process, but the inclusion of environmental protection in that process is the foundation for the massive changes now underway.

Building on the environmental consensus, the transition to a renewable resource-based economy has begun. This is one of the main themes in my new book: Environmentally Sustainable Growth: A Pragmatic Approach. I conclude the book by summarizing the steps that government is taking to promote renewable energy and electric vehicles and highlighting three companies that have integrated environmental sustainability into their business models: Etsy, Apple, and Walmart. In addition to these high-profile enterprises, nearly all the top 500 companies in Standard and Poor’s corporate ranking are now producing annual ESG reports. While some of this is greenwashing and public relations, much of it reflects changes in our society and in organizational culture promoting the essential value of a clean environment.

My new book also urges environmental advocates to end business and consumer shaming. People running private corporations and people who drive SUVs or hunt for food or recreation are not evil. Our politics today monetizes difference. An internet appeal for funds is more effective if it is based on the threat posed by supposed evildoers. The goal of building a broad consensus seems to be lost in today’s political world. Nevertheless, the transition to an environmentally sustainable environment is underway and will largely take place in the private sector because it will make companies more profitable. Renewable energy is less expensive than fossil fuels and will only get cheaper over time. Waste reduction and waste mining will ultimately save money and increase profitability. The profits made by sustainability management enable companies to ignore accusations by conservatives that they are “woke” and by environmentalists that they are evil. Government can—as seen in the case of the Biden Administration—accelerate the transition to environmental sustainability by providing cash and tax incentives to invest in the green economy.

The great environmental breakthroughs of the 1970s and early 1980s were built on a broad American consensus: The Clean Air Act of 1970, The Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976, The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, and Superfund’s toxic waste clean-up law in 1980 were all landmark pieces of environmental legislation. Rules based on these laws are contested and battled over, but, in the end, the legal structure of American environmental protection persists. No American congress would ever repeal those laws. They endure because environmental protection has been added to the fundamental and irreducible function of government: to protect people from harm. And the public knows that environmental degradation causes harm. That broad consensus is based on fact, built on the public’s support for wellness, and embedded in our culture as a fundamental value.

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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Wondimu Abicho
Wondimu Abicho
1 year ago

Interested to fight global warming