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Environmentalism: The Triumph of Politics

President Bill Clinton's commitment to an activist environmental agenda was apparent early in his administration. The problem is not that he favors conservation but that he supports political control of the environment. Unfortunately, despite the common assumption that government is the best means of protecting the environment, politics has more often thwarted than advanced sound ecological stewardship.

The real political divide is not between right and left, conservative and liberal, or Republican and Democrat. Rather, it is between market process and central planning, market mechanism and command and control. Most politicians believe in government solutions. They may differ on the specific ways they want the state to intervene, but they like government involvement. Although liberal enthusiasm for state action is best-known, conservatives, too, often want government to arbitrarily rearrange environmental outcomes. There are no more fervent supporters than conservative Republican legislators of irrigation projects that deliver below-cost water to farmers, subsidies to promote logging on public lands, and cut-rate range fees on federal grazing land for ranchers.

A Remarkably Poor Steward

This reliance on politics has infected environmental policy-making and created real ecological problems. Indeed, despite sustained environmentalist support for public programs, the government has proved to be a remarkably poor steward. Consider Uncle Sam's 191 million acres of forestland. The Wilderness Society estimates that losses on federal timberland amounted to $400 million annually during the 1980s, while losses on Alaska's Tsongass rain forest alone hit ninety-nine cents on the dollar. The problem is that the government both undertakes expensive “investments”--for example, road-building in mountainous wilderness terrain--and underprices the timber that is produced. Washington's reason for doing so is to “create” a few jobs. The cost, however, is both needless environmental destruction and squandered taxpayer funds (resulting ultimately in fewer jobs).

Federal water projects and rangeland management have consistently led to similar results. The government has expended billions of dollars to subsidize such influential groups as farmers and ranchers, all the while leaving environmental despoilation in its wake. In fact, the greatest threat to wetlands is not private development but federal efforts like North Dakota's $1.2 billion Garrison Diversion project, which destroyed some 70 thousand acres of wetlands to benefit a few thousand farmers.

Nearly 90 percent of all federal water in the West is sold at heavily subsidized prices to already subsidized farmers. In California's San Joaquin Valley, for instance, irrigation projects typically cost three to five hundred dollars an acre foot, yet the water is marketed to farmers for less than a tenth of that--even when Los Angeles and other parts of the state suffer severe water shortages. Only the government would subsidize production of a water-intensive crop such as rice in a desert.

The federal government similarly mismanages its 307 million acres of rangeland. The Bureau of Land Management has typically charged ranchers half of what it costs to administer the land, and up to one-tenth the rental price for comparable private lands. The blm also spent millions of dollars “chaining” land--ripping out trees to create more rangeland on which it would lose more money. Not surprisingly, federal lands are generally in poor condition--and generate a steady flood of red ink.

It is not just Uncle Sam who is at fault. Many localities have essentially socialized trash collection and disposal, barring any private competition to increase industry efficiency and innovativeness. Further, few cities charge citizens based on how much garbage they generate, providing no incentive to either recycle or change their buying habits. Political restrictions on landfill development and incinerator construction have exacerbated the problem.

But the United States government remains the most culpable party. World Bank loans, underwritten by American taxpayers, have financed the destruction of Brazilian rain forests. Federally-subsidized flood insurance has encouraged uneconomic construction on the environmentally sensitive Barrier Islands. Years of energy price controls inflamed demand and discouraged conservation. And so on.

Apocalyptic Visions: Acid Rain

Unfortunately, this sort of political malfeasance is not the only way government harms the environment. Politicians are also remarkably vulnerable to scaremongering by special-interest groups and activists.

One apocalyptic vision is Acid Rain. In 1980 the Environmental Protection Agency claimed that Sulfur Dioxide emissions caused Acid Rain, which had supposedly increased the average acidity of Northeast lakes one-hundred-fold over the last forty years and was killing fish and trees alike. A year later the National Research Council predicted that the number of acidified lakes would double by 1990. So, naturally, Congress included stringent provisions to cut so2 emissions (already down 50 percent from the 1970s) at a cost of billions of dollars annually when it reauthorized the Clean Air Act.

Yet in 1987, epa research raised doubts about the destructiveness of acid rain. Then came the most complete study of Acid Rain ever conducted, the half billion dollar National Acid Precipitation Assessment Project (napap), which concluded that the allegedly horrific effects of Acid Rain were largely a myth. Among other things, the study found that lakes were, on average, no more acidic than before the industrial era; just 240 of 7000 Northeast lakes, most with little recreational value, were critically acidic, or “dead”; most of the acidic water was in Florida, where the rain is only one-third as acidic; there was only very limited damage to trees, far less than that evident elsewhere in the world where so2 emissions are minimal; half of the Adirondack lakes were acidified due to natural organic acids; and crops remained undamaged at acidic levels ten times present levels. In the end, napap's scientists figured that liming the few lakes that were acidic would solve the problem at a fraction of the cost of the Clean Air Act's Acid Rain provisions.

Apocalyptic Visions: Global Warming

Perhaps the most famous form of the “sky is falling” claim today is global warming--the so-called “Greenhouse Effect.” Last year's Kyoto summit focused on this issue. The fear is that pollution, particularly such “greenhouse gases” as Carbon Dioxide, stay within the atmosphere, eventually leading to a rise in the earth's temperature, which will create deserts, melt the polar icecaps, and flood coastal nations.

In fact, warnings of global warming are not new: The theory was first advanced in the 1890s and reemerged in the 1950s. But soon thereafter a new theory gained sway--that we were entering a new ice age. In 1974 the United States National Science Board stated that “during the last twenty to thirty years, world temperature has fallen, irregularly at first but more sharply over the last decade.” In the same year time magazine opined that “the atmosphere has been growing gradually cooler for the past three decades. The trend shows no indication of reversing.” Similarly, observed Dr. Murray Mitchell of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 1976, “Since about 1940 there has been a distinct drop in average global temperature.”

Five years later Fred Hoyle's Ice: The Ultimate Human Catastrophe appeared, warning that a new ice age was long overdue: “When the ice comes, most of northern America, Britain, and northern Europe will disappear under the glaciers.... The right conditions can arise within a single decade.” He advocated warming the oceans to forestall this “ultimate human catastrophe.” Two years passed and Rolling Stone magazine declared that: “For years now, climatologists have foreseen a trend toward colder weather--long-range, to be sure, but a trend as inevitable as death.... According to [one] theory, all it would take is a single cold summer to plunge the earth into a sudden apocalypse of ice.”

But a decade later we passed into a new crisis. Climatologists like Stephen Schneider, who not too long ago warned of a cooling trend that looked like “one akin to the Little Ice Age,” now berates the media for covering scientists who are skeptical of claims that global warming is occurring. He is, at least, refreshingly honest, admitting that “to avert the risk we need to get some broad-based support, to capture public imagination.... So we have to offer up some scary scenarios, make some simplified dramatic statements and little mention of any doubts one might have.”

He does this precisely because the doubts about global warming are serious, so serious that both the Washington Post and Newsweek have run stories debunking the apocalyptic predictions of everyone from Vice President Gore to Greenpeace. Observed the Post: “Scientists generally agree that it has been getting warmer over the last hundred years, but the average rate of change is no greater than in centuries past, and there is no consensus that human activity is the cause. And while there is no doubt that continued emissions of 'greenhouse gases' tend to aid warming, it is not clear that cutting back on emissions could do much to stop a natural trend, if that is what is happening.” Indeed, a survey by Greenpeace, one of the most radical environmental organizations, found that only 13 percent of scientists involved in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change believed there is a probable future point-of-no-return leading to a runaway Greenhouse Effect. Just 17 percent of climatologists in a broader Gallup poll said they believed that human-induced warming had occurred at all, while 53 percent did not.

The problems with the theory are many. First, there is no reason to assume that any change in temperature is undesirable. In fact, people living in colder climates would benefit from small increases; higher temperatures at night also would likely have a positive impact, such as lengthening growing seasons.

Second, the evidence is less than conclusive on humanity's role in raising temperatures. We have seen slight warming over the last century, but 45 percent of it occurred before 1945, when greenhouse gas emissions started rising dramatically. The models suggest that daytime temperatures should rise in the Northern Hemisphere, but most of the limited warming so far observed has occurred at night in the Southern Hemisphere. The ice caps have been growing, not shrinking. And so on. Even those analysts predicting a much hotter future have had to lower their forecasts over the last decade. In the end, it is obvious both that mankind, which accounts for just a couple percent of total atmospheric co2, has only a limited impact on the earth's climate, and that the globe has an incredible ability to adjust. For instance, increased pollution may help shield the earth from sunlight, counteracting temperature increases. Higher temperatures at the poles actually allow more precipitation. Since sustained, large-scale warming could cause serious damage, there is cause to monitor changes in climate, but not yet to implement the sort of draconian changes demanded by the greenhouse crowd.

Apocalyptic predictions regarding a number of other issues--such as ozone depletion, population growth, toxic wastes, and desertification--have proved to be equally flawed. It is important to emphasize that the point is not that there are no environmental problems and that government has no role in environmental protection but, rather, that environmental issues tend to be quite complex and that one makes costly, long-term policy changes based on short-term trends at great risk.

Market Forces, Private Strategies

Environmental protection is important, and good people can disagree on the best policies to adopt, but today politics has routinely distorted the entire debate, making Americans less free, the economy less efficient, and the environment less clean. Policy makers need to act on facts, not myths, and balance the full range of values and interests, including liberty and cost. Policy should reflect prudence rather than ideology.

The public should be particularly skeptical of government solutions and recognize the many opportunities to use market forces to promote environmental ends. Political agencies have consistently proved to be poor stewards of resources. The government, which can regulate everything within its borders, has far more power to do harm than does any private person, who controls only his or her own property. At the same time, entrepreneurs and businessmen have an economic incentive to preserve the value of their property and to promote environmental amenities, as, for instance, do timber firms that develop wildlife populations in order to offer permit hunting. There do exist serious problems, like air quality in the Los Angeles Basin, which require some state action. But people should reject today's conventional wisdom that government must always act first.

There are many ways to creatively use private strategies to protect the environment. Privatizing federal timber and range land, for instance, would end subsidized development, since no private individual or company would willingly turn a dollar investment into a few cents of revenue. Establishing full private property rights in water would help conserve this precious resource in the western United States. Creating a market for ivory, as done by such nations as Botswana, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, which have enjoyed an increase in their elephant populations, would better preserve elephants than outlawing the ivory trade, the strategy adopted by Kenya and Tanzania, which have suffered a steady decline in their elephant herds.

Where the state must intervene, we need to develop cost-effective means of advancing conservation. Setting overall emission levels and allowing the trading of permits, or imposing pollution taxes based upon emissions, would be more cost-effective in reducing air pollution than are present policies. Taxing cars based on their emissions would be a superior means of reducing auto-generated pollution than imposing more and more restrictions on new vehicles.

Americans need to depoliticize the environment, making the issue one of balancing competing interests rather than imposing ideological or religious dogmas. Doing so would result in not only a cleaner society but also a wealthier and freer one.