- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 25, 2003

WASHINGTON, Jan. 25 (UPI) — Over the last several decades, environmental policymaking in the United States has evolved into a battle between corporate America and environmentalists, leaving little room for reasoned and objective action, according to think tank analysts who follow the issue.

"The problem that I see is that there is a lot of support in the country for moderate policies to protect the environment, but the policy debate tends to get polarized into a debate over having to address the problem right now at all costs," Peter J. Wilcoxen, a nonresident senior fellow in economic studies at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution, told UPI.

"Over the years it has become the good guys — the green environmentalists — against the bad guys — the polluters," he said.

In an article in the winter issue of the Independent Review, a policy journal published by the Oakland, Calif.-bed Independent Institute, Craig Marxsen writes that a catastrophic ideal underlies the environmental movement in the United States and places it at odds with sound environmental policy decisions.

Marxsen, an associate professor of economics at the University of Nebraska, Kearny, says that the American propensity for enacting environmental policies with harsh punishments, even for minor offenses, comes from the mistaken conviction that all environmental problems are catastrophic in nature. He traces this ideal to the influential and controversial 1972 book "The Limits of Growth" and similar environmentalist manifestos of the period.

"It ('The Limits to Growth') suggested that there are some truly catastrophic culminations that environmental pollution could come to in the 21st Century," said Marxsen. "That seemed plausible to us graduate students at the time and it seemed widespread in the minds of Americans."

The book examined what Donella Meadow and his co-authors believed were the fundamental limits to the growth rates at that time in agriculture, global population, resource use, industrial development and pollution. They concluded that the world could not support the levels of economic and population growth at that time for more than a few additional decades.

Marxsen said that the book's predictions clearly have not come to fruition, and therefore should not be a driving force in environmental policymaking.

Analysis, by Yale economist William Nordhouse and others, of the computer model used to develop the catastrophe theory upon which "Limits to Growth " is based has shown that a global collapse resulting from human over-consumption and pollution is an implausible scenario. Critics of the book, including Marxsen, often cite this analysis to indict its hypothesis.

Yet despite the controversy surrounding "Limits to Growth," it remains an important keystone in the development of environmental policy goals, according to Wilcoxen.

Like Marxsen, Wilcoxen believes that "The Limits to Growth" and other writings of the period have had a very bad long-term effect on the way environmental policy is discussed in the United States, because they emphasize potential calamity as the reason why tough policies are needed.

"It was very widely read, and it pretty much integrated into the minds of a whole generation that we are in danger of creating this catastrophic event that just wasn't true," said Wilcoxen. "I think it is a pretty serious problem."

He said that the debate over climate change — global warming — is a perfect example of how environmental debates become dysfunctional because of this influence: Much of corporate America and many conservatives take a hard position that the science supporting global warming in inconclusive (and therefore no action is needed), while environmental lobbyists traditionally argue that drastic action much be taken immediately. As a result, he said, there is little room for a reasoned approach.

"We are not doing the prudent thing," he said. "Neither of the approaches is prudent."

He said the proper policy response to such problems is analogous to the prudent response to driving in heavy rain. Since it is not reasonable to stop on the side of the road because the weather might increase the likelihood of an accident, you reduce your speed instead to reduce the chances of an accident.

Steven Hayward, the F.K. Weyerhaeuser fellow in environmental policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, also feels that the debate over environmental policy is too combative. However, he said that environmentalists clearly enjoy the moral high ground on the issues and that environmentalism has slowly become a fundamental American middle-class value over the last several decades.

He also said that government regulations resulting from this debate are often not very efficient, nor do they embody the best possible approaches, given their wide economic and environmental impact.

"I think one of the worst things about environmental policies today is how overly polarized the debate is," he said. "It is hard to find the middle ground."

Paul R. Portney, an economist and president of Resources for the Future, an environmental policy think tank, said that environmentalists often exaggerate the potential impact of an issue because the best response from policymakers comes only when they, and the public, perceive a crisis.

"They (environmentalists) do this because the way to get attention and regulatory action is to exaggerate the seriousness of regulatory problems," said Portney, noting that there is substantial historical evidence to support this.

For example, he said that no one really took ozone depletion seriously until a hole in the ozone layer was discovered over the Antarctic.

Other examples of this phenomenon are the dramatic pollution problems that plagued major American cities in the 1960s and 1970s, and which are credited with driving the major environmental policy efforts of the day. One such event was the large fire on Cleveland's Cuyahoga River in 1969 — the river actually burned — that was fed by chemical pollution. The event is often cited as one of the reasons public awareness of clean water issues increased, leading to passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972.

Portney added that he believes no significant policy incentives will develop on climate change until truly dramatic physical evidence can be produced, which demonstrates the effects of the phenomenon.

Jan Mazurek, director of the Center for Innovation and Environment at the Progressive Policy Institute, which is affiliated with the Democratic Leadership Council, said that it often takes the impact of a major environmental event to raise public support for changes in environmental policy.

Currently, many environmentalists accuse President George W. Bush of being too closely tied to business and manufacturing interests, which they say is reflected in his environmental policy choices.

But there are also some free market-oriented analysts who support drastic changes in environmental policy, and who also do not approve of the job that the administration is doing on these issues.

The Political Economy Research Center, a free-market environmental think tank in Bozeman, Mont., released a report on Tuesday in which Bush barely received a "gentleman's C" for his application of the free-market principles of individual property rights, market trading and decentralization to environmental policy.

In the center's "Mid-Term Report Card on President Bush's Environmental Policy," the administration receives some of the toughest criticism for its decisions regarding air quality and lead release regulation. The report argues that the White House has based major decisions on inadequate science. His overall rating was a C-.

"The overall grade shows that President Bush's administration is moving away from the principles of free market environmentalism, when we thought he would be moving toward it," said Bruce Yandle, a senior associate at PERC and director of the project.

But according to Mazurek, the Bush administration is undoing much of the progress made during the administrations of President Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush toward bridging the polarized interests in the environmental debate by bringing both sides to the table to find equitable solutions.

She said that the efforts to modernize and improve the environmental policies of the 1970s that began in the first Bush administration — such as the implementation of tradable carbon dioxide emission credits for industry — are under attack by the current White House.

"The unfortunate result is that industry and environmentalists are more polarized than they have ever been before," she said. "I think it will take a long time to rebuild trust between the environmental community and industry."

She cited the climate change debate as an example of a situation where industry and environmentalists should be working together to find solutions.

"Embedded in that (debate) is this notion that there could potentially be catastrophe, but there also is enormous potential for new technologies that can address the problem efficiently," said Mazurek. "There doesn't necessarily have to be this drastic tradeoff between economics and environmentalism."

Wilcoxen said that the White House's handling of the Kyoto climate treaty is a prime example of where the current administration has failed to take the environmental debate in the right direction. Rather than appealing to moderate Republicans on the issue, the Bush administration simply opted out of the treaty instead of offering any alternatives to what it saw as a flawed proposal, he said

Wilcoxen noted that by doing this the administration lost the chance to gain the moral high ground on the issue of climate change.

"This is an example of the administration not seizing the opportunity to pursue moderate, prudent and reasonable policies," said Wilcoxen. "Instead I guess they just wanted to score some points with people in the business community who were opposed to the treaty."

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