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

Environmental Policy in the 2012 Presidential Election

Lowell (Rusty) Pritchard


October 19, 2012

By Lowell (Rusty) Pritchard 

Christians acknowledge that the ramifications of human fallibility redound to the rest of the created order. They also acknowledge the continuing force of the stewardship mandate given in the first chapters of Genesis. To what extent do the current presidential candidates exhibit the public justice priorities of biblical Christianity? 

The Republican stance on clean air and water has recently been that they are laudable goals, but they come at a great cost to the economy. The Obama administration's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has created policies that reduce mercury, arsenic and other toxic air pollution from power plants and that seek to reduce soot and smog precursors that travel across state lines. Governor Mitt Romney has pledged to "take a weed whacker" to federal regulations and consistently singles out the EPA as a threat to the economy, promising to reverse a half-dozen major environmental protection and public health laws.

Interestingly, the framing of the political debate is frequently "economy vs. environment" or "economy vs. public health." But attempts to do cost-benefit analysis on the major provisions of the Clean Air Act show that these policies have public economic benefits that far exceed the private economic costs (by a factor of 30 to one), and that in most cases predictions of economic costs were greatly exaggerated. Public justice demands that the lives saved, illnesses and medical expenses avoided, and lost workdays and schooldays avoided by cleaning up toxic pollution should continue to be taken into account to put the costs of environmental protection into perspective.

Romney's official website has an entire page dedicated to his plan to reduce runaway federal regulation, a topic which he addresses frequently on the stump, listing Obama-era regulations he intends to reverse. Notably, however, in the Oct. 3 debate, Romney began to back away from this rhetoric, saying "regulation is can't have a free market without regulation." This position accords well with his record as governor of Massachusetts, where he pursued a range of environmental regulations and policies that positioned him as an environmental progressive. Would Romney govern as a moderate willing to use government to promote sound environmental stewardship (as his track record in Massachusetts seems to indicate), or would he govern as an anti-regulatory champion (as his choice of a running mate and policy advisors seems to indicate)?  

Obama's philosophy of government regulation is more reflective of an activist. His administration has promulgated about the same number of new rules as the George W. Bush administration at this point in its history, but many of Obama's regulations have carried a greater financial cost. However, he also beefed up a system of regulatory review and restraint at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs:  It has intervened to change over 75 percent of new government regulations crossing its desks, using benefit-cost analysis to assess their impact and often consulting with corporations and other regulated parties, with the nearly constant result of weakening them.

Many environmental threats are slow to emerge, and governments should be proactive in addressing them. Climate change, exacerbated by global warming pollution like carbon dioxide, is already having an economic impact on the U.S. and other nations, and it offers a classic case of the urgent need to act before all the facts are known. As governor of Massachusetts, Romney was for a time fully engaged in preparing his state to deal with impending climate changes and to mitigate its contribution to global warming through market-based solutions. His recent statements on the science of climate change have grown more skeptical of the scientific consensus. His campaign site promises to undo all Obama-era carbon mitigation regulations. And his choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate, despite his merits on issues of life, implies some sympathy for climate denialists and conspiracy theorists.

Obama promised in his 2008 campaign to make a priority of addressing climate change, but he has consistently failed to mention the issue in major presidential addresses since 2009. At the start of his presidency, he abandoned responsibility for legislation on climate policy to the Democratic majority in Congress, which crafted a special-interest laden monster of a bill (known to most Americans as Cap & Trade) that failed to get the necessary support. Obama's EPA has claimed authority to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, but that authority has not yet been exercised and is opposed by Republicans. Obama's environmental rhetoric has now shifted to clean energy and energy independence, and it is not clear what his administration's next steps are to make progress on the issue.

Although there are numerous opportunities for cooperation on environmental stewardship with other countries to address environmental problems, at least 10 important environmental treaties have languished un-ratified under the Obama administration. Romney maintains that international treaties must be inclusive and that poor countries must not get a pass that requires them to do nothing while placing onerous burdens on the American economy, a position not far from Obama's own.

Republicans seem to have forgotten their environmental legacy, from Teddy Roosevelt (who created the National Wildlife Refuge System) to Richard Nixon (who created the EPA and signed into law landmark environmental legislation) to Ronald Reagan (who bravely addressed the major climate threat of his day, ozone depletion, by pushing an international treaty, which has largely mitigated the problem). Democrats seem to be unable to communicate the successes and economic benefits of past environmental policies to the American people, perhaps because trumpeting those successes might be seen as minimizing the environmental threats we now face, or because they would need to share past credit with Republicans (while finding few cooperative spirits in the current GOP).

The economic downturn has taken environmental issues off the table and focused attention on jobs and economic recovery. Meanwhile, the current fossil fuel boom in the United States, which combines increased oil drilling and the use of controversial "fracking" for natural gas, has created a difficult environment in which to introduce regulation, since it is one of the few industrial bright spots in the economy. People of faith and those concerned with public justice have a great responsibility to look at the big picture of U.S. energy and environmental policy, particularly those areas where impacts hit the poor and the voiceless (including future generations) and where the future of God's other creatures is at stake.

—Lowell (Rusty) Pritchard is the President of Flourish: Reviving Lives and Landscapes

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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.”