Bringing democracy back to environmental politics

Science alone can’t make the tough environmental policy choices our societies face, only citizens can. How can we get them back to the table?

Christopher Moore
17 November 2015
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People's climate march 2014 NYC. South Bend Voice/Flickr. Some rights reserved.20 million Americans turned out on 22 April 1970 for what would be the largest demonstration in American history. While critics warned of an unpatriotic distraction from the Vietnam war, the first Earth Day was the culmination of a growing wave of scientific and public awareness of the adverse effects of cars, pesticides, and industrialised society more generally on human health and the natural world.

The subsequent wave of popular legislation, which included the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Clean Air Act, heralded the modern environmental movement’s new central role on the American political stage. This role would soon be emulated across the Atlantic and throughout the world.

Democracy and the modern environmental movement are inextricably linked. Environmental issues, for example, played a central role in bringing down Lenin’s undemocratic legacy. The environmental movement in the GDR was a central pillar of opposition and the arrest of activists at the Environmental Library in Berlin in 1987 by State Security set off popular protests. Protests that would draw on and amplify the growing waves of resistance that would ultimately bring down the Berlin Wall.

Why, with environmental challenges threatening citizens’ health, livelihoods, and natural heritage as never before, have we not seen an equally vigorous responses from today’s citizens and their democratically elected governments?

To understand we need a more recent history, one not often told, but one that should be known by any citizen concerned about the environment, as well as other things. It is best understood through the lens of U.S. national politics where what was once a mass movement often finds itself on the defensive against demagoguing politicians. And it is best understood through the lens of an outsider, in this case that of an environmental philosopher who found himself bewildered among the lawyers, engineers, ecologists, and economists who are responsible for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (US EPA’s) daily operations.

“You can’t get there from here”

There are many myths about how the US EPA ended up housed in a bizarre composition of poorly connected towers in a dangerous quarter of Washington, DC. Rumours still circulate that Nixon’s corrupt Vice President, Spiro Agnew, held an interest in the odd towers that constitute Waterside Mall and thus, while unfit for safe or productive work, they secured him a nice profit before the bribery charges caught up with him.

When Dr. Bryan G. Norton, one of the world’s top environmental philosophers, arrived there, he was impressed that senior level management would come down to meet him at the reception. He soon learned however, that this practice stemmed not from a warm culture of hospitality, but rather from more practical concerns, the unescorted guest would become quickly and irretrievably lost in the “Kafkaesque” and “disconnected towers of Babel”. “You can’t get there from here,” was often the refrain when one queried how to navigate the buildings.

These bizarre structures were not, however, the outgrowths of some unholy real estate deal. Rather, they’d been built for, and grown with, the EPA itself. With time, Dr. Norton began to see the towers as a metaphor for US EPA as a whole, and the problems of US EPA as endemic to all democratic systems trying to formulate and implement environmental policies.

We have basic problems communicating when it comes to moving from the specifics of a scientific study to formulating broad policies based on social values. The resulting gap between what science can say and the social values we so care about in policy debates is usually filled by vested political interests who present the scientific research in line with their favoured agenda. The average citizen, unlikely to have the time or resources to follow the specifics of any given debate, is forced to choose between ideology and apathy.

Nature: raw materials and ecosystem services or spiritual fount?

It isn’t surprising that environmental policy, with its mix of technical information and closeness to concerns of extreme import, should prove challenging for democratic debate. Science strives to establish objective truths, independent of our feelings or social values. Fundamental disagreements about how nature should be valued go back to the beginning of modern environmental thinking.

In general, when it comes to questions of nature, the arguments come predominantly from two schools of thought: those who view nature as made up of natural resources that we should manage in order to maximise our own health and wealth; and those who see nature as heritage and a source of spiritual transformation able to teach and transform us - something for which we should make sacrifice since such sacrifice ennoble us.

Most people fall somewhere in between these extremes – thus lacking a pre-existing opinion, their opinions are subject to manipulation by those with clear pre-existing agendas. Environmental groups build conservation campaigns around “charismatic mega-fauna”, such as polar bears and pandas, because they know people naturally identify with them and are therefore more likely to support policies to save them. On the other side, industry groups regularly talk about the jobs and livelihoods destroyed by protections for some bizarre and insignificant fish or insect in order to convince the public of the irrationality of environmentalists and environmental laws.

Even government agencies get in the game of “framing” issues to the public. The US EPA traditionally framed questions around regulation as to “safe” levels of a given chemical in the air and water and similarly based regulatory decisions on the “precautionary principle”. The precautionary principle dictates that when one is unsure about the effects of some chemical or other substance on human health or the environment, one should take action against it.

Unsurprisingly the public gets worried when the name of a scary sounding chemical is announced in connection with an investigation into its safety and is then relieved to learn that, while the science is uncertain, its government officials are taking precautionary action.

Under the leadership of William Ruckelshaus, the newly formed US EPA quintupled the number of enforcement actions against polluters in comparison to its precursors. The White House was caught by surprise as Administrator Ruckelshaus built, overnight, a powerful constituency among the national environmental groups. President Nixon was forced to forestall his plan to shift the agency under the umbrella of a broad natural resources management department. Such a department would have led to better integration of environmental policy with other interests, but would have brought the risk that economic interests would dominate environmental policy.

Ruckelshaus’ actions enshrined the US EPA as a single-minded force for protecting the environment. Yes, science informed how it acted, but its independence and the precautionary principle weighted the scales in favour of regulation. It was with good reason, therefore, that environmental groups loved the creation of this new, muscular and aggressive agency and the many legal powers it acquired in the early 1970s.

There were other consequences too. The environmental engineers and scientists hired to implement the new legislations had little taste or aptitude for popular politics. The environmental groups by and large decamped to Washington, DC and the courts to leverage the newly beneficial political and legal landscape. Once choking clouds were no longer billowing from smokestacks and burning rivers were no longer on the front page of the morning paper, the connections between environmental politics and the immediate concerns of the average citizen naturally decayed with time.

The gaps between science and social values

Most people are willing to give up something for the environment, the question is how much and for what? We’re likely to give up a few dollars and sign a petition to save a panda, less likely to sacrifice our livelihood to save an obscure insect.

Risks are even harder to deal with. Life itself is a risky affair; if a chemical that is incredibly useful and has no ready substitute will give one in a 100,000 people who are exposed to it cancer, do we ban it? What if it will give one in a million cancer? Does it matter who is exposed and where? How does one weigh between trained professionals in a workplace, and children in a home?

The answers to these questions are not easy or clear. While policy decisions on such matters should be made with the best scientific information available, such information will not necessarily clear things up for us. Contradictions between studies and uncertainty in results may mean multiple interpretations are possible. Furthermore, scientists intentionally try to avoid using the value laden language we use to reason about social values in their research, which means there is often a wide gap between what we can reasonably say scientifically and what we actually care about.

Dr. Norton provides us a nice example of the gap between scientific research and the value-laden language of everyday life from US policy on wetlands. Wetlands are extremely ecologically productive areas, important as habitat and in the lifecycle of a host of birds, amphibians and fish. At the same time many communities abut water bodies, and many roads must cross them, therefore developing the space occupied by wetlands may be desirable from economic or social standpoints. It is permitted under a 1989 law to fill a wetland for economic development provided that there is “no net loss” of wetlands. For each acre of wetland filled, another acre of wetland is restored.

This sounds like a rational policy in principle, but in practice one acre of wetland is not necessarily equivalent to another. Some host thriving rich and diverse ecosystems, others may be more or less lifeless swampy areas. What we really want is to ensure that for each healthy acre of wetlands lost to development, another acre of the same or better health is created or restored.

The problem is, when we look for some kind of assistance with defining healthy, the wetlands ecologists won’t help us. While they may have their personal opinions on the matter, the science concerns itself with value free descriptions of the various physical and ecological systems of wetlands. Drawing the connections between these value free descriptions and an understanding of what is healthy requires interpretation, and this interpretation has political ramifications. Wetlands ecologists, as scientists, want to stay out of politics. So local and state politicians, often with close connections to the development industry, are more than happy to provide their interpretations to fill the gaps. Unsurprisingly, the result is not a favourable one for creatures that enjoy wetland habitats.

The election of Ronald Reagan moved US environmental politics into a trajectory that was less beneficial for the environment, but to focus only on Reagan would be to miss the woods for the trees. Some of the original aims of the early 1970s wave of legislation proved unworkable and new environmental problems cropped up. It was therefore inevitable that non-environmental concerns and priorities would impinge on environmental decision making.

In 1993 President Clinton signed Executive Order 12866 which required the EPA, among other agencies, to justify regulation with “significant economic impacts” (over $100 million) in terms of market failures and conduct a quantified cost benefit analysis (CBA) if possible. The agency’s assessment was to be reviewed by the generally anti-regulatory Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. While, in theory, the agency could choose to regulate no matter what the numbers said, the decision to regulate is ultimately a political decision made by the thin layer of political management at the top of the agency. A thin layer that was appointed by and reports to the White House. A detrimental CBA is sure to increase the political costs of regulating.

Far from leading to a rational basis for decision making, CBA reweighted the political playing field based around assumptions and methods from the neoclassical sub-discipline of environmental economics. This somewhat bizarre field tries to generate monetary values for goods for which there is no market. (“How much would you pay to watch a deer walk by right now?”) Air regulations that affect human health are quite easy to justify under this new rubric (each human death avoided is a benefit of around $7 million), while regulations improving water quality can almost never find benefits higher than costs.

Environmental groups have responded by trying to help the embattled agency with their own studies showing the high benefits of regulatory action. Industry groups have responded by issuing their own cost benefit analyses, naturally showing how regulation will destroy jobs and the economy with little benefit to man or beast. In public and court both bicker and try to undermine the other.

The EPA has gamely responded by supporting research on “ecosystem services”. The ecosystem services paradigm treats the natural world as if it were another industrial sector, providing its human and animal customers with goods and services. These services can include food, clean water, air and even cultural and spiritual values - of course cultural and spiritual values as expressed in terms of dollars and cents to be weighed up against the costs of saving them.

As one can imagine, it’s a long way from an enchanting mountain lake to a dollar valuation. And once we have our mountain lake in dollar terms, what do we have? A well-done CBA only tells us only about the economic efficiency of a proposed action, in this case the economic efficiency of saving our lake. Even if economic efficiency is all that you care about, just comparing the cost number and the benefit number won’t tell you everything.

If you really want to understand what precisely is being said by a particular CBA you need to understand the assumptions and the techniques that went into it. A Master’s in economics and a good acquaintance with the specific matter under study are likely prerequisites. The result is that the barriers for citizens to become informed on these issues are higher than ever. Fortunately, there is a better way.

Accountability and genuine public participation in environmental decision making

For a start, Dr. Norton argues, we can ask our elected and appointed leaders to be accountable for how they frame environmental regulatory decisions. As demonstrated above, how you frame a decision biases you towards a certain outcome.

Environmental regulators are usually committed to their mission, and thus found the days in which they could use the precautionary principle far preferable to the current reign of CBA. Still the CBA serves a certain bureaucratic and political logic: at the end of the day you can still do a CBA and check the box. Even if it means your regulatory action was unsuccessful, you’ve avoided putting your own reputation on the line and exposing yourself to political fire. The National Research Council explicitly warned against this bureaucracy-friendly dynamic in 1996 but since then the prevalence of CBA has only spread in US regulatory decision making and the European Commission is stepping up its use of CBA as well.

The alternative is to make our leaders explicitly choose and justify publicly whether a given decision will be made based on the precautionary principle, CBA, or - as a middle ground - a cost effectiveness analysis. For an example of how this would work, let’s look at the issue of climate change. A leader could justify choosing to use the precautionary principle when considering whether to regulate carbon emissions and base this on the fact that, while we are not certain what will occur, or what disasters will be suffered by whom, altering the earth’s climate is an irreversible act with far reaching and catastrophic effects. Thus it is better to play it “safe”.

At the same time if leaders frame the issue of climate change in terms of economic efficiency, i.e. he or she would base the decision to regulate on a CBA, they are also making a revealing decision that they should be held accountable for. If they consider short term economic impacts as more important than avoiding potential of catastrophic events that may kill millions and disrupt life as we know it, but will be borne primarily by future generations, they must take responsibility. In either case, the leader has made a political stand, one we can understand, debate and hold him or her accountable for in electoral settings.

More exciting, however, is the prospect of directly involving citizens and the valuable opinions and information they have in the process of developing and evaluating policy options. While scientists are good at developing models of ecosystems, watersheds, or economies, these models are very rarely related to each other or to the actual management decisions that must be made. To inform a given management decision, academic disciplines such as ecology, hydrology and economics supply certain helpful models. For a model to be useful, however, it has to synthesise this information and also to contain important local and community features that citizens and political leaders are concerned about.

In short, a group of academics, no matter how smart, cannot simply show up and tell a community what to do and expect their recommendations to work in practice. A common understanding has to be reached between the academics and the citizenry if an effective solution is to be found.

Here the practice has caught up with and surpassed Dr. Norton’s philosophical work. In balancing conservation and development goals in land use decisions and in finding integrated ways to manage water resources, there is a growing body of work around what is known as participatory modelling. The modelling process is a facilitated one that emphasises social learning between academics, officials, businesses and citizens and makes use of new methods such as serious games and agent based models. Of course it is not an easy or fool-proof process, but here there is room for dialogue between the value neutral work of science and the rich language of political dialogue. Here people can speak and debate as citizens and come to a common understanding as a citizenry.

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