American Environmental Policy 1990–2006: Beyond Gridlock by Christopher McGrory Klyza and David Sousa. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008, 408 pp.
The past decade and a half have been marked by bitter battles over environmental policy, forged in large part by fundamental disagreements about how to balance environmental and economic concerns. The result has been gridlock, with Congress having passed only three marginally important reforms since the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.
In American Environmental Policy 1990–2006: Beyond Gridlock, political scientists Christopher McGrory Klyza and David Sousa weave together two dozen detailed stories of these political battles. It’s a feast of inside baseball, of the facts and stories that really matter.
The stories include a variety of attempts to move beyond gridlock by adopting so-called next-generation environmental policies. Yet the authors are not optimistic that these new approaches will lead to a breakthrough in the current policy stalemate anytime soon. There are good reasons to believe that they are wrong.
The bitter ideological battles of recent years have taken place mainly outside the legislative process: in executive branch interpretations of the law, in riders to congressional appropriations bills, and above all in court decisions. Yet as the authors point out, a “win” for one side often results in another decision that nullifies it.
Klyza and Sousa relate how a few words in an appropriations bill about salvage logging opened millions of acres to logging. But then a new regulation about roadless areas shut off access to other lands. The Department of the Interior slowed sprawl in Tucson by approving a habitat management plan for the endangered pygmy owl. But then the courts decided that the owl does not qualify as an endangered species. When the Clinton administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) energetically enforced 15-year-old air quality regulations, coal-fired electrical power plants and major industrial plants resisted but lost in court. And then the Bush administration’s EPA proposed to weaken these regulations, only to back down in the face of yet more court decisions.
Interestingly, the authors see the stalemate that has resulted from all these battles as a good thing, largely because despite the rightward move in national politics, environmentalists still win more often than they lose. The laws enacted during the environmental policy golden age of the 1970s are still in force and enjoy enough public support to endure. Oil companies have still not received permission to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, coal-fired electricity plants are to some degree cleaning up, and Tucson has protected thousands of acres of desert.
The authors believe that this “green drift” (a gradual movement toward somewhat better environmental outcomes and performance) will continue. But they also predict (unfortunately without much analysis) that the turmoil of recent years will go on unabated as well.
This may be too narrow a view. One should hope so. Turmoil and drift are no way to avert climate change or transform how our economy obtains and uses energy.
The authors do a particularly inadequate job of analyzing next-generation policy approaches, saying only that they sought to make environmental policy more “collaborative, cooperative, pragmatic, rational.” But at least the authors do a good job of describing how specific proposals have worked out in practice.
Reformers criticized the environmental statutes of the 1970s as command-and-control regulation: commands to reduce emissions and controls that set forth detailed instructions about how to do it. The first next-generation proposal was to use economic incentives rather than command and control in some cases. The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 established a cap-and-trade program to reduce acid rain.
Soon after, an Aspen Institute panel of business leaders and environmentalists called for a next step: Leave the commands in place, but allow polluters to design their own technologies and procedures as long as pollution is reduced. The EPA embraced this idea in the XL (Excellence in Leadership) program, which was a central feature of Vice President Al Gore’s efforts to “reinvent” environmental policy. William Ruckelshaus, the EPA’s first and most admired administrator, pushed a multistakeholder Enterprise for the Environment initiative to endorse legislative changes that would authorize programs such as XL and move the system “beyond compliance.”
Klyza and Sousa write that the results have been disappointing. There is little solid evidence that the EPA offered much regulatory flexibility or that businesses saved much money. Recent evaluations of the EPA’s “performance track” programs are slightly more promising, finding commitments to environmental stewardship from participating firms but little evidence of “beyond compliance” performance.
The next-generation movement also sought to give state environmental regulators more flexibility. In three reports commissioned by Congress in the 1990s, the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) said that the EPA was “broken” because it lacked authority to give states and local communities (and businesses) the incentives and tools needed to address complex problems such as nonpoint pollution, ecosystem restoration, and climate change. NAPA proposed reorganizing the EPA to set agency-wide priorities and measurable goals and then managing for results. NAPA also encouraged wider use of economic incentives and regulatory flexibility like XL.
But flexibility for states has been just as disappointing as flexibility for companies. The EPA’s National Environmental Performance Partnership System (NEPPS) promised to allow states to use federal funds more flexibly if they could demonstrate that this would deliver better environmental results. After some initial successes, NEPPS lost momentum as it became clear that it was difficult to measure improved performance and that the EPA was reluctant to back off its oversight. When the Bush administration and Congress cut the EPA’s budget, grants to the states dropped, and EPA-state relationships worsened.
Local collaborative approaches to environmental problems—sometimes called civic environmentalism—were another next-generation idea. Klyza and Sousa tell two local stories. In northern California, the Quincy Library Group brought together local elected officials, environmentalists, and the timber industry and designed a plan to balance continued logging with environmental protection. In New Mexico, the Quivara Coalition of ranchers and environmentalists shared information about how cattle ranching might be less environmentally damaging but did not seek regulatory changes.
The Quivara Coalition has had some influence on ranchers, but the other efforts all foundered on the same rock: the detailed, inflexible requirements of current federal law. The EPA never asked for statutory authority for XL or NEPPS. The Quincy Library Group did persuade Congress to direct the Forest Service to implement the local plan, but the agency refused on the grounds that the local plan was inconsistent with other statutes and planning processes.
Klyza and Sousa conclude that next-generation ideas will need explicit statutory authority to have any shot at succeeding. Most proponents of next-generation ideas would wholeheartedly agree, having argued in the 1990s for statutory reform that would allow the new-generation ideas to take a place alongside traditional regulatory approaches.
There were moments during the 1990s when the dawn of a next-generation approach seemed to be occurring. When a Republican-controlled Congress proposed changes that would have weakened environmental statutes, public opposition forced a retreat. In 1996, there was bipartisan agreement to make drinking water and food quality laws more flexible without weakening them. In 2001, President Bush’s first EPA administrator was initially interested in next-generation approaches to climate change and watershed management. But the ideological battling that Klyza and Sousa describe overwhelmed reform efforts.
Looking ahead, there are two reasons to believe that drift and turmoil will not continue and that next-generation ideas may gain political traction.
The closing pages of American Environmental Policy, 1990–2006 offer one reason. Increasingly, corporations, nongovernmental organizations, and consumers are experimenting with the central idea of the next-generation movement: a focus on measurable environmental results rather than on legal requirements and processes. Many corporations now publish annual sustainability reports and disclose how their performance measures up to the environmental and social standards set by Ceres’ Facility Reporting Project and the Global Reporting Initiative developed by the Tellus Institute. Some investment banks are now demanding that companies demonstrate good environmental performance. Consumers are paying more attention to labels and asking whether products are environmentally responsible. Wal-Mart is trying to go green. Yet the book’s cursory summary of next-generation ideas leaves the reader unaware that these actions embody next-generation approaches.
Climate change is the second reason. The robust federal climate/energy legislation that Congress seems likely to write in the near future will be founded on central ideas of the next generation: setting measurable goals, focusing on results, and using economic incentives and innovative, flexible approaches to drive reductions of greenhouse gas emissions. An auction of permits to emit greenhouse gases could raise more than $100 billion per year, which could be used to support R&D on new technologies and help businesses and communities adjust to new environmental requirements. This would be XL on steroids.
The politics leading up to this new federal legislation have been the kind that the next-generation movement hoped to see: states leading the way as laboratories of democracy, and local communities and governments finding practical ways to manage the transition to sustainability. Klyza and Sousa argue that states and communities have been leaders on climate change precisely because Congress has been gridlocked on the issue. Perhaps Congress will attempt to preempt some future state climate policies. Or perhaps states and local communities, having taken the lead on climate, will retain central roles in a transformed world of national environmental-energy-economic policy.
DeWitt John (firstname.lastname@example.org) is director of the Environmental Studies Program at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. During the 1990s, he wrote several reports on next-generation environmental policies for the National Academy of Public Administration.