The Environmental Agenda

Article excerpt

Taking a cue from President Clinton's pledge to revise the way government does business--plus, his informal campaign motto, "It's the economy, stupid"--Washington's environmental lobby has gone back to the drawing board and radically retooled its basic long-term policy agenda.

"The world is too complex for environmental regulations to be simple, but there is a board consensus that these regulations have become needlessly complicated, fragmented and sometimes contradictory," admits Robert Repetto, of the World Resources Institute, a Washington environmental think tank. Today's approach to environmental protection relies on a system of regulations that focuses on cleaning up pollution only after it has been created, while promoting adversary relations among industry, regulators and environmentalists. This approach has accomplished a great deal--but it also has peaked in effectiveness, inhibiting innovations and least-cost solutions.

"For that reason, a new paradigm is needed for environmental governance in the United States. What's needed is an approach that reflects a basic shift in emphasis from restrictions to incentives, and from reacting after the fact to anticipating future needs," claims Repetto. Other environmental activists agree.

"Now, more than ever, environmental and economic priorities must be reconciled. The need to protect the nation's air, water, forests and soil is urgent--but so is strengthening the national economy," notes environmental activist Robin Jenkins. However, the economic recession, the persistent budget deficit and longer-term competitive problems have raised questions about whether the two are compatible?'

This new thinking also reflects a realization among environmentalists that the current regulatory system has simply become too cumbersome and combative. It takes as much as 10 years from the time a major law is proposed until its meaning is finally defined by the courts. "From the first day of congressional hearings to the last day of the final legal appeal, the current adversary process forces businesses and environmentalists to assume the worst about each other,' notes environmental policy expert Jessica Matthews. "Environmentalists push unrelentingly for progress. Businesses are dragged ahead unwillingly, resisting each step out of fear of what might come next. Each side's behavior confirms the worst expectations of the other."

Environmental groups are also concerned that the estimated $120 billion a year it costs government and industry to administer and implement today's environmental regulations--a cost that is only going to increase dramatically as the bill for cleaning up toxic waste dumps and complying with the new clean air rules pushes to come in--has become just too expensive. In turn, setting the stage for a possible anti-green backlash if voters perceive they are being forced to choose between next week's paycheck and meeting seemingly vague or far off environmental goals.

As a World Resources Institute report put it: "In recent months, economic concerns have undermined the government's willingness to protect endangered species and old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest, to implement stricter dean air standards, or to join other nations in preventing potentially irreversible changes in the global climate. In each case, the choice has been cast as one between environmental protection and jobs or income."

Green Fees

Some of the new ideas being promoted by environmental groups include government incentives for pollution prevention programs in industry; institution of regular certified environmental audits similar to financial audits required of publicly traded companies; and separate regulatory tracks for companies experimenting with innovative pollution control programs.

Perhaps the most controversial part of this new paradigm is the call for the creation of so-called green fees or taxes on individual consumers, motorists and firms designed to make polluters pay for the total cost to society of their activities upfront. …