Finding common ground on the environment

Since gaining control of the White House, President George W. Bush and his administration have made several major environmental policy decisions. According to James Connaughton, Council of Environmental Quality chairman, those decisions have largely been guided by the administration’s philosophy of “balancing the environmental equation with the natural resource equation, the social equation and the economic equation.” To many critics of Bush’s environmental record, the implementation of this philosophy has been an unmitigated disaster. While Bush’s environmental policy initiatives have reduced and will continue to reduce the overall level of environmental protection, prominent advocacy groups such as the National Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense need to tone down the incessant attacks on Bush’s policies and look for areas of common ground with the White House. By gaining a seat at the policy decision table, environmental advocacy groups might be able to direct Bush administration environmental policy in a more positive direction.

Clearly, in several environmental policy decisions, Bush has sacrificed environmental interests in order to satisfy economic development interests. For example, the Bush administration has crafted a business-friendly interpretation of a 2001 Supreme Court decision regarding the Clean Water Act to draft regulatory language resulting in a 20 percent deduction of federally protected areas. In the realm of public land management, the Bush administration has pushed initiatives to allow for expanded natural resource exploration and drilling, road building and decreased forestry regulations on public lands, endangering the integrity of national parks.

Additionally, the Bush administration has stumbled in its dealings with a very real global climate-change problem. After rejecting the Kyoto protocol and dooming it to worldwide irrelevance, the Bush administration has failed to offer the world a viable and constructive alternative.

Prominent environmental advocacy groups have rightly attacked many of Bush’s environmental policies; the overall Bush administration environmental policy philosophy is inappropriate at a time when this country should wean itself from fossil fuels and prevent the encroachment of urban sprawl on natural areas. The Bush administration’s interest in expanding the use of market-based solutions to solve environmental problems – reflected in the Clear Skies air pollution mitigation proposal – has also drawn the ire of many prominent environmental advocacy groups. However, environmental advocates should work with the Bush administration on this broad policy initiative instead of automatically rejecting it.

Market-based approaches to environmental protection can work by making pollution or environmental protection a marketable commodity. Theoretically, environmental economists have shown under certain situations and environmental problems a market-based approach is the most cost-effective way to meet environmental goals. The Acid Rain Program and the Program of Payments for Ecological Services in Costa Rica are two empirical examples of market-based environmental protection programs that indicate the theories of environmental economists can be implemented – both programs are credited with meeting their environmental goals at costs lower than more traditional environmental protection programs. However, what has been learned from market-based experiments is they will only improve the environment if designed and implemented correctly; the knowledge and passion of environmental advocacy groups could help the Bush administration properly balance environmental goals and design market-based initiatives to environmental protection.

For many environmental advocates, viewing the environment as a commodity is sacrilegious. Many prominent environmental advocacy groups still view the command-and-control approach to environmental management as best for the environment and deviations from this plan are always viewed with suspicion. While many times these suspicions are warranted, environmental advocates need to be prepared to work with the Bush administration on market-based environmental protection proposals that appear workable and promising. Despite the remonstrations of environmental advocates, the Bush administration is going to push for market-based solutions, and environmental advocates need to work with the Bush administration to ensure that these promising environmental protection mechanisms properly balance environmental and development goals.