Forging a New, Bipartisan Environmental Movement
Although our passion for the living Earth dates to our joyful youth spent outdoors, in Pennsylvania and California respectively, our intellectual commitment to the environment as a political and social issue can be traced to the first Earth Day, an event we witnessed as graduate students. We were enthusiastic participants in many Earth Days during the 1970s and 1980s. As college professors, we mentored undergraduates on the subjects we knew best in environmental studies, public policy, biodiversity, and behavior, and we introduced them to field conservation in ecosystems under siege, including the Okefenokee Swamp and wilderness areas in East Africa. We have seen firsthand the effects of systematic deforestation and the catastrophic loss of habitat and biodiversity. A recent assessment by the World Conservation Union identified more than 16,000 species currently under threat of extinction. Our book, A Contract with the Earth (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), aims to rally Americans to address these and other environmental problems, set priorities, and develop solutions to renew the Earth for the sake of our children and grandchildren. Renewal requires a long-term commitment by every citizen and a massive mobilization of the nation’s resources, talent, and technology. We must activate a sustainable, renewable culture that mobilizes people, organizations, industries, and governments to protect the natural world on a daily basis. Such commitments must begin with civil dialogue about issues that have been contentious and divisive.
It is time to forge a new, bipartisan environmental movement and create pathways for every American, indeed every nation, to cooperate and collaborate on achievable solutions to restore, revitalize, and renew the Earth. To accomplish this, we have proposed a new conversation among the diverse constituencies that must be recruited to action. No single political party owns the environmental issue; we need everyone’s help in achieving the goal of a sustainable natural world. A vital, fully functional Earth composed of abundant communities of diverse wildlife; healthy streams, lakes, and oceans; and clean air requires a strong commitment to better environmental practices in homes, communities, and workplaces.
We are gratified by the leadership of multinational corporations that have been recruited to the task by creative, tenacious nongovernmental organizations such as Conservation International and the Nature Conservancy. These organizations teach us that it is in everyone’s best interest to generate principles and policies that contribute to a better and more livable environment. Public/private partnerships have led the way in achieving these aspiring standards, because governments alone cannot solve the complex array of environmental challenges that we must conquer.
We also believe that people work best when they confront problems close at hand, so acting locally, through the structure of metropolitan, regional, and state governments, avoids the entanglements of larger, slower bureaucracies. The states of California and Florida and the city of Portland, Oregon, among others, demonstrate what can be done with strong leadership exercised close to the source of environmental problems and the people affected by them. We admire the dynamic environmental leadership of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Florida Governor Charlie Crist, who have championed alternative energy development in their states—action that must be widely emulated throughout the nation.
Strong positive leadership needed
The most important priority of our contract with the Earth is decisive environmental leadership. Currently, the federal government is stalemated and reticent to lead. Consequently, we have no national unity or direction at a time when there is an urgent need for action. Rather than succumb to the disabling ramifications of doomsday prophecy, we believe that our nation responds best when we are led by individuals who vigorously pursue workable solutions with optimism and confidence. Our concerns are underscored by recent research in the United Kingdom in which behavioral scientists demonstrated that positive, informative strategies that help people set specific health and environmental goals are far more effective in changing behavior than are negative messages based on fear, guilt, or regret. Strong positive leadership on the environment will help to stimulate market forces to deliver innovative environmental technology and clean renewable energy to power the economy.
We believe that many if not all environmental challenges can be resolved by developing new and better technology and by generating best practices in environmental stewardship. By leading the world in the production of innovative environmental tools, the United States will produce the renewable technology that will eventually provide clean energy to the rest of the world. Developing nations, especially China and India, need U.S. expertise to help solve their escalating emissions problems. With the Olympic Games approaching, the Chinese government is frantic to deliver clean air to the world’s best athletes and the masses of visiting spectators. It is likely that China’s struggle to control ambient environmental quality will dominate the daily news as the Olympic competition unfolds. Likewise, the United States’ reputation as a global leader depends on decisive leadership on many pressing environmental fronts, including the pursuit of new international agreements that are more realistic and effective than the Kyoto Accords.
The federal government can encourage innovation by issuing financial incentives such as the federal tax credit aimed at encouraging consumers to purchase hybrid gas/electric cars. Toyota has been highly successful in selling hybrids to U.S. consumers, but federal law eliminates the credit after a company has sold 60,000 vehicles. Clearly, Toyota has been penalized for winning in the marketplace. Less successful producers of hybrid cars, Ford, General Motors, Honda, and Nissan, are still able to qualify buyers for tax credits, but they will also eventually lose the incentive when they hit the ceiling.
This program demonstrates the limitations of modest incentives. More powerful and lasting incentives would dramatically stimulate sales of hybrids and other alternative-energy high-efficiency vehicles. Congressional leadership is needed to establish stronger incentives right now. If rebates and tax credits can induce consumers to buy hybrid cars, these products will be built in greater numbers, and the pace of conversion from petroleum to alternative fuels will be quickened.
Other incentives are needed as well, including incentives for manufacturing innovations to extend vehicle fuel consumption to 50 or even 100 miles per gallon. Such incentives work better and faster than punitive corporate average fuel economy standards. In addition, tax credits to help consumers to build new homes or modify existing homes to be more energy-efficient are still too low and uncommon. In western states such as Arizona, New Mexico, and California, there are some strong incentives for using solar and wind energy, but the rest of the nation lags far behind.
Historically, prizes have been used to stimulate breakthrough technology. Prizes are particularly effective motivators of entrepreneurs, who use investment capital to test their ideas and generally invest four times the value of a prize to win the competition. The X-Prize Foundation was recently established to manage such prizes as the $10 million Ansari X Prize for Suborbital Spaceflight, the $10 million Archon X-Prize for Genomics, and the $20 million Google X-Prize to land and successfully operate an unmanned rover vehicle on the Moon. Such prizes must be big, even huge, to produce meaningful discoveries on a grand scale. Perhaps a prize of $1 billion could be the impetus for a 500-miles-per-gallon car. Robust incentives and prizes might produce a hydrogen-based economy much faster than would conventional R&D.
In addition, those who award established prizes should focus more frequently on significant environmental issues. In 2004 and 2007, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to environmental activists for their efforts, to combat deforestation and climate change, respectively. It may be time to create a Nobel Prize specifically to honor effective environmental problem-solving. For example, the important work in biodiversity conservation planning performed by Conservation International is certainly worthy of Nobel-level recognition.
Presidential leadership applied in the spirit of President Kennedy’s bold goal of a lunar landing in less than a decade is the direction we need to take at this critical moment in the nation’s history. Although current estimates suggest that it will take 50 years to refine and disseminate hydrogen technology, we believe we could do it in 20 years if we elevate the goal to a national priority. We need to combine the entrepreneurial engines of the economy, strategic environmental philanthropy, and the powerful economic incentives of the federal government to achieve this goal. If we can mobilize the nation’s financial and human resources and prioritize clean hydrogen technology, we can lead the world to a profound and fundamental renewal.
Dominated by spin, hyperbole, and belligerent infighting, U.S. politics has reached a point where civil debate is no longer the norm. No wonder so few of us are willing to enter the political domain. We can reverse this trend by aspiring to loftier goals. We need two political parties equally committed to solving difficult environmental problems; two parties willing to engage in a constructive civil debate to reach consensus and implement action. Targeted philanthropic and business investment will activate greater cooperation and serious engagement on these issues. Democrats and Republicans should start by issuing strong environmental planks in their party platforms. The nation needs a mandate for bipartisan team-building on the environment, but we also need a public policy menu so we can make choices among rational alternative environmental strategies. By promulgating and sharing an extensive catalog of effective environmental solutions, the United States will once again be recognized for its global leadership, its unmatched ingenuity, and its commitment to environmental protection.
We anticipate an extraordinary pace of scientific change in the first 25 years of this new century. For example, a revolutionary device developed by Georgia Tech engineers burns fuel in a wide array of devices with nearly zero emissions of nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide. The Stagnation Point Reverse Flow Combustor, as it is known, was originally designed for NASA, but the design can be adapted to power a large gas turbine or a small home water heater. Innovations such as this occur every day on college campuses and in industrial laboratories.
Innovation will continue if we invest in the development of our best and brightest scholars. To keep the nation among the world’s leaders in science and technology, we need a national commitment to strengthen math, science, and engineering training and a national plan to achieve wider scientific literacy so that a growing number of our citizens will be able to fully comprehend the complex environmental issues that we must face together. Other nations, such as Germany, have recognized a need to upgrade their financial commitment to higher education, suggesting that we will face stronger economic and technical competitors in the years ahead.
By combining innovations in science and technology with the power of markets to shift resources to better outcomes and more choices of higher quality at lower cost, our growing list of new solutions will surely lead to significant and widespread prosperity. This is the essence of American entrepreneurial environmentalism, an approach that we believe is superior to bureaucratic, litigious, and unrestrained regulation. In A Contract with the Earth, we have drawn the strong conclusion that enterprise is not the enemy of the environment; instead, it is the engine that will drive new technologies that will help to solve our most challenging environmental problems, including global climate change. Further, we ought to acknowledge that we have already achieved many significant advances in environmental protection, and these achievements should build confidence in a nation that is too often unfairly portrayed as an environmental pariah. Indeed, humanity is depending on the United States to lead the change to a better and more sustainable natural world.