Environmental Public policy Issues

The Environment as an Important Public Policy Issue

By Glen Sussman

It is not until the well runs dry that we know the worth of water.
– Benjamin Franklin

During his last year in office, President John F. Kennedy embarked on a five-day journey across the United States to talk about the conservation of natural resources. In a speech at the University of North Dakota on Sept. 25, 1963, he stated: “So we come on this trip to remind the American people of what they have, and to remind the people of what they must do to maintain it.” Kennedy’s message was prescient since it reflected the emerging “paradigm shift” between two competing worldviews – namely, the Dominant Social Paradigm (DSP) and the New Environmental Paradigm (NEP). The DSP reflects the view of the industrial era where economic and population growth and continued exploitation of natural resources can continue without damage to the environment. The NEP that emerged in the mid-to-late 20th century challenged this perspective and offered instead the view that more emphasis must be placed on environmental protection and the development of a systematic way to address the increasing depletion of natural resources.

In short, where the DSP emphasized development and production, the NEP has promoted conservation and sustainable development. Moreover, along with this paradigm shift have come changes in the character and diversity of environmental problems. The environment as an important public policy concern has evolved over the years from public land issues to more complex and controversial matters. Debates involving conserving or using our abundant natural resources wisely now include contemporary issues ranging from air and water quality to hazardous waste sites to acid rain, biodiversity, global warming and stratospheric ozone depletion.

Environmental Policy and Politics
The environment became a legitimate policy issue in American politics during the 1960s and 1970s. As it emerged on the public agenda, the environment became subject to the actions of politicians and others within the American political system. The American president, Congress, interest groups, citizens and each state all play a role in shaping environmental policy. For instance, where some presidents have pushed conservation, others have promoted a pro-development approach that reduces regulations on business and industry. Members of Congress exhibited bipartisanship during the 1960s and 1970s in addressing environmental problems. Since the 1990s, however, partisanship has sharply divided Congressional Democrats and Republicans over environmental initiatives. Moreover, organized interests have been very active in the halls of government.

The environmental movement is represented by a variety of groups that differ in size, tactics and strategies. Business and industry has substantial resources to support its attempts to shape environmental policy. Property rights groups that maintain a strong anti-federal government orientation prefer that state and local governments make environmental policy. American citizens have demanded clean air and clean water, and public opinion polls indicate that Americans are generally “green.” However, other issues have superseded the environment, including the economy, jobs, and foreign and defense policy.

Finally, our federal system of government has influenced environmental policy. Prior to the Nixon administration, with a few exceptions, environmental policy was addressed primarily at the state and local level. Over the last three decades, the federal government has become integrally involved in the environmental domain, although implementation of policy is still the primary responsibility of the states. Moreover, when state officials believe that the federal government is not doing enough, the states have stepped forward as “laboratories of democracy” and instituted new policies to address environmental problems, as several have done regarding global warming.

Science and Politics
The science and politics “problem” is also an integral part of the environmental policy process. On the one hand, scientists collect data, employ the scientific method and replicate their studies. Politicians, on the other hand, are guided by factors including electoral considerations, pressure from interest groups and uncertainty. Where scientists are guided by objectivity, politicians may view environmental issues through the prism of ideology or partisanship. Where scientists may need more time to experiment, politicians might need an answer prior to the next election. In short, science might be integrated effectively into public policy or it might be ignored or politicized to meet the needs of those in public office.

Let us use the presidency and global warming as an example. Global warming was known to scientists as early as the late 19th century when Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish chemist, noted that an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere due to industrialization would have a warming effect on global climate. By the late 1950s, on the basis of their research, scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography suggested that “mankind is now engaged in a great experiment.” Thirty years later, scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research argued that global warming “could well cause climate change over the next two generations as large or larger than civilization has experienced.” These concerns have been supported more recently by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of the world’s scientists sponsored by the United Nations.

Yet public officials at the highest level of the U.S. government have been divided in their approach to the issue. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush attended the Rio Earth Summit and supported the Global Climate Change Convention only after it had been revised to reflect voluntary rather than mandatory efforts to reduce greenhouse gases. His position reflected what he considered to be “uncertainty” among the scientific community, possible harmful effects on the economy and political pressure from business and industry.

Five years later, in 1997, President Bill Clinton signed the Kyoto Protocol, which called for mandatory guidelines and timetables in an effort to reduce greenhouse gases. Nonetheless, the treaty was never submitted to the U.S. Senate for ratification because Clinton knew that the Senate would not endorse it. In March 2001, in one of his first actions as president, George W. Bush questioned the science and renounced the Kyoto Protocol, stating that it would be harmful to the U.S. economy and that developing countries, especially China and India, were not bound by the agreement. By 2005, a sufficient number of countries (including the European Union, Japan and Russia) had ratified the Kyoto Protocol, thus putting it into effect. However, without the participation of the United States, which releases 25 percent of the harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, progress on this issue will be less than hoped for.

Environmental Progress
Over the last three decades, a considerable amount of progress has been made in the environmental domain. The 1969 National Environmental Policy Act set the foundation for federal involvement in environmental policy. President Nixon proclaimed the 1970s as the decade of the environment, the Environmental Protection Agency was established in 1970 and more environmental legislation than before — or since — was passed over the next few years. From the 1970 Clean Air and 1972 Clean Water acts to the 1973 Endangered Species Act to the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act to the 1980 Superfund Act, great strides were made in improving the quality of the...

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