Quick Note on the Medium-Term Politics of the Environment

John Broder and Matthew Wald report that the Obama administration appears to be moving ahead on Keystone XL:

Among the first of those is a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, which the administration appears inclined to approve over the vociferous objections of environmental advocates.

Broder and Wald didn’t belabor the issue, but during the election, I had a number of conversations that had roughly the same gist: the president was likely to approve Keystone XL were he to win reelection, yet he and his political advisors wanted to avoid alienating environmentalist allies, and in particular environmentalist donors, before November.

My guess is that if and when the president approves Keystone XL, environmentalist objections will be muted. Just as the anti-war movement largely dissipated after Barack Obama’s 2008 victory, the environmentalist movement gains strength from what sociologists Michael Heaney and Fabio Rojas have called “the partisan dynamics of contention“:

Changes in threats perceived by activists, partisan identification, and coalition brokerage are three mechanisms that help to explain the demobilization of the antiwar movement in the United States from 2007 to 2009. Drawing upon 5,398 surveys of demonstrators at antiwar protests, interviews with movement leaders, and ethnographic observation, this article argues that the antiwar movement demobilized as Democrats, who had been motivated to participate by anti-Republican sentiments, withdrew from antiwar protests when the Democratic Party achieved electoral success, if not policy success in ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The withdrawal of Democratic activists changed the character of the antiwar movement by undermining broad coalitions in the movement and encouraging the formation of smaller, more radical coalitions. While the election of Barack Obama had been heralded as a victory for the antiwar movement, Obama’s election, in fact, thwarted the ability of the movement to achieve critical mass. 

This is not to suggest that all or even most environmentalist voters are motivated primarily by anti-Republican sentiment. Environmental issues tend to be a low priority for voters, and so the voters for whom it is a high priority already constitute a committed minority. But Republicans are not seen as a viable alternative for the relatively small number of voters who believe that the U.S. federal government ought to take urgent action to reduce domestic and global carbon emissions, even if this entails raising the cost of electricity and commuting and carbon-intensive imported goods, etc. And the president understand this very well.

Republicans should, in my view, revise their approach to environmental issues, but primarily with an eye towards identifying “two-fers,” i.e., policy proposals that achieve environmental objectives in the course of meeting other objectives, like improving quality-of-life, increasing disposable income, and making the public sector more cost-effective. Discouraging development in flood-prone regions, a policy initiative that Gov. Chris Christie appears to be taking seriously, is an obvious example, but there is much more to be done in this regard, e.g., devolving authority for surface transportation to state governments might encourage state governments to turn their DOTs into regulated public utilities that will use road pricing to reduce traffic congestion, a step that would have significant environmental benefits. 

This, incidentally, is the strongest critique of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s recent decision to accept significant revenue increases to finance efforts to mitigate traffic congestion in Virginia’s biggest metropolitan areas: McDonnell failed to secure much in the way of structural reform, like creating a road enterprises along the lines University of Minnesota transportation economist David Levinson has described:

The new road enterprises should also be given latitude to make greater use of user fees—as opposed to general revenue—for funding their activities. Such charges are not just more efficient and equitable than traditional funding sources; if properly designed and implemented, they are also better suited to reducing congestion through effective pricing. Vehicle-miles-traveled charges, weight-distance charges and electronic tolling are all options that road enterprises should be free to pursue.

Rather than allow the Commonwealth to hoover up new tax revenues that may or may not be deployed effectively (Virginia is widely considered a very well-managed state, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t legitimate concerns about what will be done with taxpayer money), a new road enterprise would create space for innovative, consumer-friendly approaches. As Levinson puts it, road enterprises shift traffic management from “from day-to-day politics and toward providing value to their users.” There is no guarantee of success, and we’re talking about a regulated public utility and not a truly competitive sector. But if a new northern Virginia road enterprise charged drivers for accessing new capacity that delivers shorter trips, via a network of HOT lines, etc., we might be able to avoid raising sales taxes on all residents of congested regions. The trouble is that it would have been far more difficult to build a coalition around creating new road enterprises for northern Virginia and Hampton Roads than to simply raise taxes, as many are skeptical that road enterprises could do a substantially better job than Virginia’s DOT. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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