AuthorCohen, Steven

The environment has evolved as a political issue, and the grassroots demand for environmental protection is a phase of economic development. Technology is driving the world's economy to be more brain-based and less so on manual labor. The changing economy has left industrial and agricultural workers behind, and their resentment has fueled populist, nativist, and anti-globalization politics. Nevertheless, as the new economy takes shape and new employment opportunities become available, post-industrial workers, spending less time and less national GDP on basic necessities, start becoming interested in physical wellness. That includes environmental protection. At that point, community-based grassroots support for environmental protection becomes dominant. In the United States, support for local air, water, and toxic control is well over 70 percent in all public opinion polls. Finally, grassroots support for health and security is more reliable than top-down authority in ensuring a clean environment.

In sum, technological change fosters social change and changes perceptions and values; this, in turn, becomes a dependable source of political support for environmental protection. It is more durable than top-down authoritarian support for environmental protection that is dependent on the views of a single individual or a tiny elite.

The Evolution of the Environment as a Political Issue

Over the past half-century, we have seen the environmental issue evolve from a fringe issue barely clinging to a spot on the American political agenda to the subject of a pope's encyclical. Presidents and prime ministers must now negotiate over climate change and habitat preservation just as they have long held talks on trade, jobs, and national security. Technology has transformed how we live and has made life easier and more intellectually stimulating for many people of the world, but its unmanaged use has damaged the planet and left many people behind in a state of extreme poverty; one that the pope correctly termed a moral issue.

The environment as an issue has evolved. Initially, the environmental movement in the United States focused on conservation of scenic and wild areas. We saw Teddy Roosevelt preserving the West, preventing species extinction, and creating national parks. (1) In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the environment became an issue of public health. People like Barry Commoner and Rachel Carson talked about the spread of toxics through the ecosphere. (2) After the first Earth Day in 1970, the environmental movement was seen as a unifying force that could bring many people together, and much of the nation's landmark environmental legislation was passed with bipartisan cooperation. (3) By the late 1970s, the health aspects of the environment were starting to dominate.

Over the past decade, the fields of economic development and environmental protection seem to have combined; sustainable economic growth requires environmental protection because a toxic-free ecosphere is an important source of our collective wealth. (4) The demand for sustainability is both the cause and effect of a number of facts of modern life, in particular: growing population, increased urbanization, increased use of natural resources, pollution, climate change, the political demand for economic development, inexpensive information and communication, and the growth of a global economic and communications system. These forces pretty much define the 21st century and the economic and political world we now live in.

The health, safety, and security of our families are at the heart of America's bedrock support for a clean environment. For the average American, environmental protection is not an ideological issue. New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia famously maintained that there was no Democratic or Republican way to pick up the garbage. Similarly, there is no conservative way to breathe air or liberal way to drink water. Republicans and Democrats worked together on all of the environmental policies formulated during the first decade of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In the United States, national policies to regulate water, air, toxics, solid waste, and hazardous waste were all enacted in the decade that followed the first Earth Day. Environmental protection becomes a highly salient political issue when government fails to deliver effective programs to protect air, water, and land, but once those programs are in place, the urgency of the issue recedes. If the Trump Administration's attack on EPA through its anti-environmental Administrator Scott Pruitt succeeds in deregulating the environment --and local air, water, and land become more toxic--the political opposition to Pruitt and Trump will be intense as the issue becomes more politically salient.

The issue of global sustainability and the connection of the planet's environmental health to our economic well-being are at or near the top of the modern global political agenda. At the core of that agenda is the need to:

* Protect ecosystems and biodiversity;

* Mitigate and adapt to climate change;

* Protect and enhance water supply and quality;

* Ensure adequate and healthy food;

* Develop sustainable cities built with renewable energy and efficient transportation systems;

* Reduce the impact of human-created waste on natural systems; and

* Develop businesses that minimize environmental impacts and maximize the use of renewable resources.

This awareness, which could be labeled a paradigm shift, is exerting pressure on many of the day-to-day actions routinely undertaken by corporations, government agencies, and nonprofits, along with behaviors seen in communities and households. Individual behavior is changing as well. People think about their water and energy use, where their waste goes, and about the cleanliness of the air, they breathe. They think about their wellness and that of their loved ones. The change in private organizational life can also be striking, as people assert the need to protect the typical corporate objectives such as profit, market share, and return on equity, along with environmental goals. These changes are not simply a temporary fad or a symbolic trend, but a durable element of our changing values.

Climate Change as a Political Issue

Over the years, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has helped build scientific consensus about the nature of the climate problem. Climate change remains a scientific fact, and no amount of ideology or propaganda can change that. Public opinion polls demonstrate significant levels of public concern about global warming. Climate scientists continue to express their alarm at the slow rate of political change and the growing use of fossil fuels in emerging economic powerhouses such as China and India. According to Thomas Bernauer: "Political efforts to deal with the global climate change problem by means of negotiating and implementing a global treaty are progressing at a pace that is far slower than what the large majority of climate scientists deem necessary for avoiding major climatic changes." (5)

Global climate change was always a difficult political issue in the United States. The causes of climate change are everywhere and include ordinary benign acts by average people: driving your car, charging your smartphone, heating your home. The impacts of climate change are invisible, occur on a global scale, and are largely in the future. Our political process is designed to address local issues you can see, smell and touch: raw sewage in a river, orange dust on your windshield, garbage rising from landfills to the skies. Climate adaptation and resilience in response to extreme weather are local responses to local impacts. You do not need to understand climate models to understand that your basement has been flooded and your water...

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