Global warming and the problem of policy innovation: lessons from the early environmental movement.

AuthorSchroeder, Christopher H.

In this opening decade of the twenty-first century, our nation and the entire globe faces a daunting array of environmental problems. They present some steep hills to climb, with disruptive climate change looming as the largest. This Essay concentrates on that problem, but we do well to remember that this is far from the only severe environmental problem that we face. For example, the World Health Organization estimates that each day 3000 African children are dying of malaria and other water borne diseases, diseases that the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member countries have conquered but that still hold the less developed countries in a death grip. (1) If you want to gain some sympathy for why the developing economies of the world are reluctant to agree to limits on carbon emissions to help address disruptive climate change, you need look no further than their desire to raise their standard of living so that they can enjoy some of the basic indicators of well being that Americans take for granted.

The OECD countries have their own persistent problems, of course. Just take the United States. Forty years after Congress enacted the Clean Air Act (2) about 130 million Americans live in counties that are not meeting the health-based ambient air quality standards for ozone. (3) Endocrine disruptors remain perplexing; we know that persistent organic pesticides and other varieties of chemical compounds interfere with the human endocrine system, but we are still groping for reliable ways to test for and classify these environmental stressors. (4) Asthma incidents have increased despite the air being generally cleaner due to efforts under the Clean Air Act, and we are not entirely sure why. (5) The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is moving toward lowering the ambient standard for lead by nearly 90% because consensus science ties lead exposure to IQ and other cognitive defects at much lower levels than the current standard. (6) EPA's most recent assessment of the nation's water quality, based on state reported data, lists just under half of the assessed rivers and lakes as "impaired," which is EPA's lowest classification. (7) States only assessed about 19% of their rivers and 37% of their lakes, (8) so we are uncertain whether the problem is much worse than this or not--but it is probably no better.

Adequately addressing each of these problems, as well as others, may stretch beyond the existing environmental legal framework's capabilities. At the same time, however, the prospect of significantly new and innovative measures to cope with this daunting agenda seems to be quite dim. For the past twenty or thirty years the United States has been experiencing a deep partisan divide on environmental matters, (9) making constructive progress difficult to achieve. The practical political obstacles that environmental legislation confronts are often are accompanied by a theoretical explanation. The theory of public choice, very popular within the academy, sketches a view of politics and policy in which pushing environmental legislation through the legislature is practically impossible. (10) Public choice theory views legislation as a good to be sold in the political market to the highest bidder. (11) It is a marketplace skewed in favor of smaller groups of economically powerful interests who stand to lose a great deal--and hence have great reason to oppose legislation--and biased against much larger groups of individuals, each of whom has a comparatively small amount to gain. The smaller group can organize more easily, can assemble the necessary resources to fight legislative battles more easily, can contribute to legislators' campaigns more effectively, and will win all the major legislative battles waged between it and the larger, but more diffuse group. According to the public choice logic, "regulatory policy outcomes that deliver broad benefits to unorganized citizens at the expense of organized interest groups would run contrary to the theory's clear expectations." (12)

This description fits most environmental legislation to a tee. Take air quality legislation as an illustration. Most air quality laws aim at benefiting a great many of us by making the air a little healthier for each of us to breathe. On the other hand, that legislation imposes substantial costs on public utilities, automobile manufacturers, energy companies, steel mills, and the like. Public choice theory posits that these concentrated groups of economically powerful industrial and commercial interests will prevail in a straight up contest with us air-breathing citizens. (13)

Public choice is onto something important; Bismarck warned us that sausage making and legislation making are not pretty sights, and a great deal of what makes the latter seem so distasteful is due to the influence of special interest groups. (14) But public choice also leaves out some important things, too. As an overall account of actual political decision making, it is just wrong.

Evidence of the problems with public choice accounts of environmental policy making can be found in abundance in the massive amount of environmental policy innovation that Congress passed in the early days of the modern environmental era. In a tremendous burst of lawmaking between 1969 and 1980, Congress enacted several dozen significant federal laws to cope with just about all the major environmental problems as they were understood at that time. During this span of just a little over ten years, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, (15) the Clean Air Amendments of 1970, (16) the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972, (17) the Federal Environmental Pesticide Control Act of 1972, (18) the Endangered Species Act of 1973, (19) the Safe Drinking Water Act, (20) the Toxic Substances Control Act, (21) the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976, (22) and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980, (23) among others, all came into existence.

These laws are something of an embarrassment to public choice theory's bleak account of how narrow special interests conquer the general interest. The environmental laws pitted the interests of the general public against the interests of concentrated, economically powerful industries, sometimes arraying just about all of the economically powerful industries in the American economy against citizens who wanted cleaner air, cleaner water, and fewer toxic products--and yet they were enacted. (24)

The environmental laws passed in the early 1970s defy conventional public choice wisdom. And yet, there they are. Public choice is not wrong in thinking that special interests have advantages compared to diffuse interests, but it is wrong in thinking that those advantages are always going to be decisive. Special interests can be defied; the general interests of the public at large can be enacted--but only under certain conditions. When those conditions are present, a policy window opens up in which environmental measures aimed at benefiting the general public and working for the greater good can be enacted.

In the 1970s, such a policy window opened up, but it did not stay open for long. Environmental policy innovation slowed to a crawl around 1976. (25) While the notoriety of Love Canal helped generate enough momentum for the Superfund legislation in 1980, (26) Congress has produced remarkably little innovative environmental legislation since. (27) As a result, we are living with environmental statutes and regulatory structures that are getting old, exhibiting signs of their age, and perhaps are just not up to the tasks lying ahead. Many people fervently hope that we can open a second policy window for innovative approaches to our remaining environmental challenges. What conditions do we need to open that window? We can learn some things by studying the conditions that created the last one.

Major policy initiatives fare better if they exhibit two features. First, the idea behind the initiative and the proposed method for implementing it need a strong basis in sound public policy. Is the policy a good response to a problem sufficiently important to justify government action? Having a good idea is always the best starting point, but it is almost never enough. If you are the President of the United States, there are things that you can accomplish by Executive Order with the stroke of a pen, without having to cope with Congress or even your own sometimes recalcitrant bureaucracy. (28) Presidents can even act in the face of a disapproving public, although they do not go this route too often because it can extract a high price from the President's ability to accomplish other parts of his agenda. In any event, Executive authority can only go so far; much innovating in the area of environmental policy is going to require involvement by Congress, and in the congressional environment, even the very best of ideas is going to need further assistance.

The second feature for successful policy innovation is this further assistance. There needs to be enough active and enduring support to push through the barriers that stand between many good ideas and their enactment into law. Sometimes a relatively small group of very motivated people can be successful in the legislative arena, shepherding a good idea to final passage. (29) When important interest groups oppose policy change because of the costs that it will impose on them, however, and when those groups are themselves highly organized and alert to threats to their well being, it takes something powerful to break the policy monopoly that such groups can enjoy. (30)

When organized interests sense that legislative innovation will cause them losses, one can be confident that they will strongly resist. This, too, is characteristic of environmental legislation; it is nearly impossible to produce major domestic policy...

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