Clean Energy Works is closing up shop. Formed to push climate and energy legislation through Congress, the coalition of 80 environmental, labor, and other progressive groups is sending its members home empty-handed. Disoriented and dejected, Clean Energy Works’ members are awaiting the election results so they can try and “figure out how to redeploy” in the new political landscape.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Green groups were ecstatic after the 2008 elections. They had the largest Democratic congressional majority in years and aggressively pro-regulatory committee chairs. The Obama administration deployed environmentalist advocates in key positions throughout the federal government, and President Obama even named an energy and climate “czar” in the White House. Environmentalists were poised for aggressive legislative and regulatory action.
And then there was the BP oil spill. For weeks on end the nation was transfixed by the Deepwater Horizon blowout. As oil spread through the Gulf, the media were flooded with stories of the potentially disastrous economic and environmental consequences of BP’s negligent rig management. Environmental groups couldn’t have asked for a better example of the nation’s environmental failures — more fuel for the regulatory fire.
In the past, environmental disasters spurred legislative action. The 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill and fabled Cuyahoga River fire helped galvanize the modern environmental movement and spur passage of the Clean Water Act. Images of abandoned barrels oozing hazardous waste and the contamination of homes at Love Canal drove enactment of the federal Superfund statute. The 1989 Exxon Valdez spill prompted adoption of the federal Oil Pollution Act and empowered environmentalist groups to push for more stringent reforms to the Clean Air Act in 1990. And yet the response to the Gulf oil spill has been . . . nothing. Congress may yet eke out a modest energy bill, but no transformative environmental legislation is in the offing.
What happened? Some blame the political power of big polluters, others point to the economy. No doubt the nation’s economic woes played a role, lessening the public’s appetite for expansive governmental initiatives of any sort.
Environmentalists sought unsuccessfully to repackage desired measures as economic stimulants. “Green jobs” were all the rage among political elites, but the public wasn’t sold. The environmental movement had overestimated its political pull and salesmanship skills.
Walter Russell Mead argues that the environmental movement has become a victim of its own success. Environmentalists began as progressive Davids taking on industrial Goliaths. Now, however, the established environmental movement is a Goliath all its own. In Mead’s formulation, Bambi had become Godzilla: “The greens didn’t fail because they were too loyal to their ideals; they failed because they lost touch with the core impetus and values of the environmental movement. Bambi wasn’t crushed by Godzilla; Bambi turned into Godzilla, and the same kind of public skepticism and populism that once fueled environmentalism have turned against it.”
There are elements of truth in Mead’s thesis. Washington’s environmentalist lobby has indeed become “the voice of the establishment.” But the environmental movement’s problems run even deeper than its detachment from its grass-roots origins. All too often, the professional environmental lobby puts left-wing ideology and partisanship ahead of ecological protection.
The Washington-based environmental establishment has tied its fortunes to the left wing of the Democratic party and wholly embraced a doctrinaire progressive ideology. Although it was Republican presidents who signed most major environmental statutes into law, environmental groups have made no real effort to find common ground with conservatives in nearly 20 years. The Bush administration had barely taken office before the direct-mail campaigns began, warning of a “war on the environment.” Admittedly the Bush administration was not particularly interested in environmental initiatives, but Greens had plenty of opportunities to marry environmental gains to conservative principles, such as through the adoption of property-based fishery-management systems and the removal of regulatory barriers to environmentally friendly technologies; environmentalist leaders were uninterested. They elected instead to play the constant opposition, raising money and sounding alarms — forestalling meaningful environmental progress on many fronts for eight years. If Republicans manage to take over Congress, as some expect, there’s no reason not to expect a repeat performance.
The environmental movement’s problems go beyond its partisan orientation. Name any environmental problem, and the answer is always the same: Increase the size of government. Every ecological concern is an excuse for greater governmental control over the nation’s productive capacity. If regulation is insufficient, spend more money. If that doesn’t work, just regulate, tax, and spend some more. Even where government programs or policies are themselves the source of environmental harm, the stock environmentalist answer is to add yet another layer to the regulatory layer cake.
Regulations don’t hamper only big industry, but progressive startups as well. Regulation at all levels of government can stymie the development of alternative energy sources and the adoption of environmentally friendly technologies, but few environmental leaders urge regulatory reform. Wind power may be important to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, but what major environmental group fought to streamline the permitting process so that major projects don’t get held up for years (like Massachusetts’s Cape Wind)?
Some environmentalists sought to sell a cap-and-trade climate bill as a market-oriented approach to pollution control. Yet the actual legislation was a sprawling mess, larded up with special-interest giveaways and massive regulatory initiatives. The House-passed climate legislation would have imposed new regulations throughout the economy, from product design to the energy supplies, and inserted the federal government into building codes and local land-use decisions. Global warming is supposed to be the mother of all environmental problems, yet the House of Representatives produced a bill more about expanding federal regulatory authority and manipulating energy markets than reducing the threat of climate change.
Two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, leading environmental thinkers have yet to learn the lessons of Communism’s fall. The dominant green fantasy remains that ecological central planning can succeed where economic central planning failed. This is madness. If central planners lack the information and ability to manage economic concerns, how could they ever account for ecological concerns? Economic central planning is impossible; ecological central planning is harder still.
The environmentalist love affair with big government leads to counterproductive policies and alienates large portions of the electorate. Americans may support environmental protection, but they don’t support a massive, overweening regulatory state. If the only Green answer to ecological concerns is yet more government control of private economic activity, many Americans will turn away.
This year the environmental movement suffered a tremendous political defeat — some would even call it a reckoning. If, as expected, conservative Republicans make substantial gains in November, Green standing will only get worse. This presents environmental leaders with a decision — whether it is more important to advance environmental protection or remain a handmaiden to the Democratic party and wedded to a statist progressive ideology. Given the reality of environmental problems in the 21st century, more than the fate of a political movement is at stake.
– Contributing editor Jonathan H. Adler is professor of law and director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation at the Case Western Reserve School of Law and author or editor of four books on environmental policy.