Building an American Political Consensus behind Environmental Sustainability
Environmental protection was not something that was often discussed on the political agenda. However, it was supported by a large portion of the American public. The 1970s and 1980s saw no partisan issues in the areas of air, water, and solid pollution. 1972 saw the passage of the Water Act, overgoing Nixon’s veto. The laws were supported by the public at 70%. They were also drafted by a bipartisan coalition made up of committed legislators. What happened?
Part of what led the way to the disaster was the antiregulation ideology of Reagan and the rhetoric of job-killing regulations. However, even President Reagan had the to reverse anti-regulation moves within the EPA. Anne Gorsuch Buford, EPA Administrator, was sent packing along with Rita Lavelle (her Associate Administrator for Hazardous waste), and Bill Ruckelshaus, EPA Administrator, was brought back in order to restore EPA to its politically moderate moorings.
Enforcement of the EPA regulations was serious. Industry was allowed ample time to comply. Environmental rules generally only affected marginal businesses. The increasing role of money in politics, and the intense lobbying by industry began to portray environmental rules as antifreedom and anticapitalist. The fossil fuel industry stepped up its lobbying efforts and launched a propaganda campaign to address the issue with a level of intensity not seen since late 20th-century tobacco propaganda wars. Both industries were aware of the dangers they posed and knew that they were fighting for their survival. The 21st Century saw environmental protection becoming an ideological political issue, especially as the climate issue dominated.
The issue was not a prominent topic in the early days climate politics. It was different from traditional environmental politics. Despite Washington’s machinations, there was widespread grassroots support for a cleaner environment. Because air and water pollution is easily smelt, and causes and effects are local and cannot be ignored, this was why there was such strong grassroots support for a clean environment. Rural people who hunted or fished knew that their natural resources were at risk. We did not see any local climate impacts in the early days. Scientists confirmed that climate change was occurring everywhere and that its effects would only be felt in the future. We had to trust, above all, academic climate modelers, and earth system scientists.
While climate policy was problematic, there were other trends that reinforced the importance and value of environmental policy. People began to place more importance on their health, their diet, exercise and overall well-being, especially when it was about children. Parenting had become a verb, rather than a status. In part, the not in my backyard syndrome (NIMBY), was created to stop further real estate development and preserve local environmental quality. Then, over the past ten years, extreme weather events started to accelerate and intensify. This was in line with what the early climate models predicted. All the effects that early climate models predicted were occurring on our warming planet. Young conservatives have accepted the science of climate change in recent years, but rejected the solutions offered by progressive climate activists.
We live on a planet that is far more crowded today than it was when EPA began in 1970. The global population was approximately four billion back in 1970. Today, it is around eight billion. There is intense political pressure to keep wealth in the developed world while building wealth in the developing countries. Modernizing the economies of the developed world is the best way for this to happen. This will allow us to shift to a circular economy that is based on renewable resources. We must develop and implement new sources for renewable energy, and make the electric grid capable to send and receive energy at higher efficiency. We need to create systems that automatically separate garbage and mine it to find resources that can be recycled. It is also necessary to improve sewage treatment so that sewage waste can be recycled. These high-tech technologies require additional research and development as well massive infrastructure investments.
They promise a more productive economy and lower costs. The rising cost of energy can be reduced with more efficient and lower-priced solar cells and batteries. Electric vehicles have already proven their high-tech appeal. New York City is spending billions to get rid of garbage and have it sent away. What if our garbage could be used to generate revenue? What if these resources were less expensive than the raw materials from the planet’s surface? This is already happening in one industry. Redwood, a company that makes e-car batteries largely from recycled materials, was recently founded by J.B. Straubel. He is also a cofounder of Tesla. Tom Randall said that his company will have to mine raw materials to reach his production targets. Fortune Magazine:
The company’s target of 100GWh in 2025 does not allow it to rely on recycled materials. This can be further delayed by the reuse of packs for secondary applications. Today, electric vehicles account for less that 10% of Redwoods recycling stock. Straubel said that while we want to push the recycled percentage as high as possible it will be dependent on the availability for recycled materials. We can consume as much as 50% of our raw materials from recycled materials. That’s okay. Straubel believes that recycling materials will be used to produce close to 100 percent of the world’s batteries in the coming decades. He stated that recycling is already profitable, and companies that do not integrate production and refining with recycling will soon be unable compete on cost.
In other words: Some raw materials are so valuable that recycling makes economic sense. The idea that Mike Bloomberg, New York City’s Mayor, pioneered the creation of PlaNYC2030, the city’s first sustainability plan, is what is needed to create a broad-based consensus for environmental sustainability politics. The plan linked environmental sustainability and economic development. We are starting to see the same energy in Joe Biden’s infrastructure. Better plans are being made. It is an effort to modernize America’s economy. The non-ideological appeal of a focus on building the economy and increasing employment is broad. Biden’s plan has been popularized despite the bitter partisanship of Washington. This is evident in many communities where politics has become a zero-sum affair. Political opponents are now viewed as evil and bad people. Biden is now seen as a loser politically if he gets something approved, even though it is something everyone likes.
Trumpian extreme right-wing politics delegitimizes both the political center, and any form or consensus. Trumpian extremist ideologues could preside over any congressional Republicans who negotiate compromises. Left-leaning environmentalists are arguing that taxing carbon and living without certain forms of consumption is the only way to stop climate change. Political polarization seems to be increasing.
Although politics seems implausible, reality is still real. The west’s forest fires, tornadoes, floods, and droughts in the Midwest are all reminders that environmental sustainability is a real issue. All of us breathe the same air. We all drink the exact same water. The same system of industrial agriculture produces the food we eat. Our environmental conditions are not based on our beliefs or values. They are based on the actual conditions we all encounter. We also compete with many other nations in a global economy. If we want to be competitive, the argument that we must ensure that our transportation and energy systems are up-to date is strong. Our objective economic and environmental conditions are the best place to find the seeds of agreement. If we can extract them from waste, we don’t require foreign raw materials. Renewable energy can not only prevent climate change but can also be delivered at a lower cost than fossil fuel-sources energy. Electric cars are rapidly becoming fashionable. Modernization of the economy is centered in private sector, but it is subsidized by infrastructure and scientific research from the government. It is as American as apple pie. Economic modernization is the way we can and hopefully will build a consensus in America for environmental sustainability.