Environmental Reforms in the United States: Policy and Political Implications, and Economic and Scientific Arguments

By Klitgaard, Kent | International Journal of Comparative Sociology, February 2000 | Go to article overview
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Environmental Reforms in the United States: Policy and Political Implications, and Economic and Scientific Arguments

Klitgaard, Kent, International Journal of Comparative Sociology



As we approach the twenty-first century, the measured rise on average global temperature, coupled with the loss of biological diversity indicate that growth of human social and economic activity is reaching the limits imposed by the laws of nature. Scientific understanding calls for precaution and a reduction in growth. However, the political and economic processes of U.S. capitalism are predicated upon continued growth. An understanding of reform needs to be grounded in the contradictions between the laws of motion of the capitalist system and the laws of science, even though such reforms are not high on the current political agenda. The article ends with a series of structural reforms that enunciate and seek to heighten these contradictions.

Introduction: Issues, Objectives, and Main Arguments

THE VOTERS IN the presidential election of 2000, the last of the twentieth century, will choose the first leader of the United States for the twenty-first century. Environmental issues are very likely to be higher on the agenda than at any time since the "Conservation Era" (early 1900s), associated with the Theodore Roosevelt administration. Early rhetorical volleys of today's potential battle were fired when Republican National Committee (RNC) Chair, Jim Nicholson denounced Vice President (and probable Democratic presidential candidate), Al Gore for his role in brokering and signing the Kyoto Protocol (better known as the global warming treaty) in November 1998. Nicholson termed Gore a dangerous environmentalist who was "pandering to far-left extremists in an effort to jumpstart his presidential campaign" (RNC 1998:1-2).

The conservative Business Roundtable called the treaty -- which would require the United States to reduce its emissions of carbon dioxide and five other "greenhouse gasses" to a level that is 7 percent below the 1990 levels in the time period from 2008 to 2010 -- "hasty" and based upon inconclusive science. Their prime ideological concerns range from inadequate provisions for "market-like" methods and potential increases in regulations to furor that developing nations are exempt from the binding nature of the treaty. Practically, conservatives worry about a loss of competitive advantage vis-[acute{a}]-vis the European Union. Equally, vitriolic rhetoric was aimed at the earlier Convention on Biodiversity. This treaty was negotiated at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, but never signed by the Bush administration. Bill Clinton did sign the treaty in 1993, and in doing so, joined some 150 other nations. However, the ratification languished in the Senate as Jesse Helms assumed the chair of the Committee on Foreign Relations. Business and conservative opposition focused mainly around the provisions for establishing property rights over the raw materials and uses of biotechnology, which is a potentially lucrative market in the upcoming century (Fletcher 1995).

The maligning of Al Gore as a representative of environmental issues is not new. He raised issue of the loss of biodiversity and the potential for human (or anthropogenic) caused climate change, among other environmental problems, in his 1992 book, Earth in the Balance. Gore argued for a set of policy prescriptions that would transcend the confines of free-market ideology and establish a climate of increased intervention in the production process to meet pressing long-term goals. As he stated: "Simply put, the way we think about waste is leading to the production of so much of it that no method for handling it can escape being completely overwhelmed. There is only one way out: we have to change our production processes [emphasis added] and dramatically reduce the amount of waste we create in the first place.. ." (Gore 1992:146). Whether the analysis of (then) Senator Gore can withstand the campaign without substantial compromise remains to be seen. However, the differences in policies are clear.

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Environmental Reforms in the United States: Policy and Political Implications, and Economic and Scientific Arguments


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