American Environmental Legislation — Why the Long Drought?
By Taylor Marvin
Here’s a sample list of major American environmental legislation:
- Clean Air Act: passed 1963, significantly amended 1990 (Air quality).
- Federal Water Pollution Control Act: 1972 (Water quality).
- Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act: significantly revised to current form 1972 (Pesticide control).
- Endangered Species Act: 1973 (Species and habitat protection).
- Toxic Substances Control Act: 1976 (Hazardous chemical pollution control).
- Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability (Superfund) Act: 1980 (Polluted site compensation and restoration).
- Montreal Protocol: 1989 (Ozone-destroying CFC regulation).
One thing stands out — all of America’s major environmental legislation happened over two decades ago, with most older than a quarter century. Why has America failed to continue to address environmental problems over the last 30 years, and why were the 1970’s such a fertile time for environmental protection policy? Suggestions:
- Poor economic performance over the last 20 years: It’s well established that progressive causes tend to find less acceptance among voters during periods of stagnating incomes, the pattern of growth the US has seen since the mid 1960’s. After World War Two, American’s average income quickly climbed. However, by the 1970’s this ascent had slowed, with incomes growing at their slowest rate since the Great Depression. Together these changes in the American economic landscape were responsible for a large but mostly unobserved change in American culture — the end of rapidly rising incomes increased average American’s economic uncertainty, endangered jobs, and was accompanied by the global economic realignment that slowly eroded the availability of well-paying, unskilled industrial jobs. While Americans in the 1950’s could confidently say that they and their children would more likely than not earn and consume more in the future by the mid-1970’s this was no longer certain, a hard reality told by both economic forecasts and a slowly impoverishing middle class. This generational shift, of course, had political ramifications: it’s likely that the slow decline in the success of progressive government initiatives in the US compared to the rest of the world is as due to stagnating incomes and rising inequality as America’s distinct political culture. While European and East Asian nations have traditionally placed greater popular ideological value on government than the US, it’s probably true that these countries’ record of adopting liberal governing strategies, including regulation designed to protect the environment, reflects both their socioeconomic circumstances as well as their political philosophy. This is visible on a smaller scale in the US — periods of public pressure to restrict the scope of government authority to enact a liberal social order seem to be closely correlated with periods of stagnating incomes. This holds for environmental legislation. Most areas of environmental policy are fairly trivial for most Americans; people, probably with good reason, only pay attention to environmental causes when they don’t have much else to worry about. During periods of rising inequality and stagnating wages it’s both easier to ignore environmental problems and find the argument that environmental legislation retards economic growth and isn’t worth the cost more credible.
- Regulatory capture: The specter of regulatory capture, the co-opting of government regulatory agencies by the industries they are designed to regulate, wasn’t able to effectively threaten the landmark environmental legislation of the 1970’s and 1980’s because at that time environmental regulation wasn’t a meaningful part of the government at all. For corporations to be able to capture government regulatory agencies they must exist is some kind of organized form — when the Clean Air Act was passed all the legislation’s opponents had available to influence was Congress, instead of permanent dedicated environmental agencies. Today the wide variety of government environmental regulatory agencies created to combat pollution almost all suffer form some degree of control by the industries they nominally police. Some of this is deliberate: many administrations on both sides of the political aisle, especially that of George W. Bush, have made a concerted effort to staff regulatory agencies with administrators straight out of the industries they now supervise. However, some degree of regulatory capture is inevitable in any government. By setting up permanent, organized environmental regulatory agencies the federal government has actually made their capture more likely: it’s both cheaper and more effective to buy influence in a dedicated body than Congress, which is too diverse and chaotic to effectively capture as a whole. This pervasive regulatory capture plays a role in why it is so much harder to pass environmental legislation today than in the days when these agencies didn’t exist — by creating regulatory bodies vulnerable to capture with actual influence the federal government inadvertently erected a formidable barrier to modern environmental legislation.
- An increase in political partisanship: In the last thirty years American federal politics have become increasingly partisan. Though the reasons for this polarization are debated its effect on the success of environmental legislation is clear: in their rush to assign every possible policy position to a specific party American politicians have made environmentalism a clearly Democratic position. This guarantees the death of environmental legislation. If no Republican Congressman can vote for environmental regulation without alienating both his or her party and supporters any new environmental legislation won’t pass in the absence of a Democratic supermajority in the Senate. This is what we’re seeing today — it’s acknowledged as a given that a climate bill won’t pass the Senate without sixty Democratic votes, which is another way of saying almost never. As long as environmentalism is reserved for Democrats and America suffers from a crippling political partisanship environmental legislation will have a very hard time actually getting anywhere.
- Only contentious issues are left: While the environmental legislation of the 1970’s and 1980’s were an impressive achievement, they all were fairly limited in scope. These landmark bills addressed specific problems with short term, highly visible costs and whose remedies weren’t very expensive. The Clean Air Act attracted support because it targeted a very specific issue that voters could see themselves suffering from. In contrast today’s greatest environmental challenges like climate change, habitat loss and mass extinctions are much less visible — it’s much harder to convince voters that climate change’s future abstract threat is as dangerous as the pollution they can see in their own town. Voters, for good reason, prefer to identify with issues easily seen and understood. That’s why explaining why the extinction of obscure species is an urgent issue that needs immediate government attention is so hard. Furthermore, modern environmental issues demand much more complex legislative solutions. Unlike the simple regulations of past environmental bills, a comprehensive government response to climate change will require either complex new cap-and-trade regulatory administration or an unpopular tax on essential consumer goods, all of which would be useless without the delicate diplomacy required to ensure an international effort to cut carbon emissions. Other modern environmental problems demand the same complex responses. It’s easy to see why it’s so much harder to pass modern environmental legislation: all the easy problems have already been solved.