Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Fresh Air for the Environmental Conversation

Rusty Pritchard


By Rusty Pritchard
September 6, 2013

Climate change is real, but it isn’t the only environmental issue. Although global warming will be a concern for generations to come, the current shouting match about whether, when, and how to deal with it will gradually subside, to be replaced by the grim work of adaptation and mitigation. 

For now, though, the challenges the climate debate presents to the body politic are serious. Just a few years ago, climate was thought to be the locomotive issue that could pull all the other environmental issues in its train. If the nation could just pass an enlightened climate policy, environmentalists figured they would get many of the other things they’d been wanting as side-effects (“co-benefits” was the label used). Clean air, energy efficiency, reforestation, and urban sprawl reduction could be won, all while increasing national security and creating green jobs. Other environmental issues were either aligned with the climate campaign or set aside. Activists wanted the nation to be having a single conversation.

That strategy didn’t work, and in fact, the focus on carbon dioxide used up the oxygen other issues would have needed. By reducing every concern to its impact on the global carbon budget, the environmental community created a tidy bundle of issues that could be dismissed en masse. Political polarization on climate has sharpened, and it has resulted in polarization on a multitude of other environmental issues. Hard-core environmental science skeptics, the ones who fear a “green dragon” that will destroy the American Way of Life, buy into this bundling, as it fits well with a paranoid style of politics.

Against the background of climate information and disinformation campaigns, and in the face of a banking collapse and massive recession, interest in environmental issues began to slide. A GlobeScan poll released this year found that environmental concerns had dropped to their lowest levels in twenty years of tracking them, not just in the United States, but around the world.

Unpacking again the wide range of environmental issues we face could help to rebuild the attention and bipartisan spirit with which Americans tackled first generation environmental problems. Here are some of the issues that would benefit from fresh air and that ought to engage Christians on the left and the right who care about creation and who think deeply about public policy:

  1. Children's environmental health. Children, because of their small size and developing bodies, are more affected by toxins than adults, and because they spend more time exploring their surroundings (rolling in them, tasting them), they experience higher exposures to many chemicals. Protecting them requires better awareness, tougher laws and more research.
  2. Leave no child inside. Chemicals are not the only environmental dangers to children—we are raising a generation of screenagers who get little exposure to daily, unstructured play outdoors or in nature. Diabetes and obesity are not caused by simply eating the wrong things; they’re caused by doing the wrong things.
  3. The built environment. Making cities safe, walkable, bikeable, and healthy means retrofitting suburbia and rehabilitating urbia. Car-centric development kills: the leading cause of death for children between 1 and 21 is car crashes. New urbanism has shed much of the elitism and snobbery it was once accused of, and has become a movement that makes healthy places for everyone.
  4. Animal stewardship. Treating farm animals well and ending animal fighting doesn’t require becoming vegetarians or animal rights activists. It is a part of our Christian heritage. We would do well to learn from the legacy of William Wilberforce, who not only fought to end the slave trade, but to curb animal cruelty as well. 
  5. Farm subsidies. Farmers are the hardest working people in America, but they face an outdated policy environment that stacks the deck in favor of giant agribusinesses and unsustainable practices. A farm bill with common-sense conservation provisions can reward farmers for growing food and for providing wildlife habitat and protecting water systems.
  6. Transparency in resource extraction. The “resource curse” is the paradox that abundant fossil fuel, minerals, and other natural resources often lead to a culture of bribery and corruption, particularly in the developing world. The first step to ensuring that a nation’s citizens benefit from their God-given natural wealth is to have companies report what they pay for access to those resources.
  7. Sanitation and safe water. Great progress has been made in the last two decades, but the UN estimates that poor sanitation, poor hygiene, and lack of clean water still kill 1.5 million children a year, many of them under five. Smart investments will save lives, and must include protecting the hillsides and forests that catch, store, and filter water for downstream streams, springs, and water wells.
  8. Indoor air pollution is the leading cause of respiratory disease in most of the world. Advanced, efficient cook stoves help, as do new efforts that are underway in Congress to bring electricity to 50 million people in sub-Saharan Africa.

That’s a start. Plenty of other issues need our attention. Make no mistake, climate is still the biggest, and thorniest, issue to work on, and ignoring it will undermine progress on many of the other environmental problems. But those problems simply can’t wait until we get our climate act together.

- Rusty Pritchard is a natural resource economist, a former environmental studies professor at Emory University, and the president of Flourish, a ministry that promotes creation care and the common good.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”