Under the Republican Congress, All Environmental Politics Will Be Local

With the Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate in January, Oklahoma's Senator James Inhofe is likely to once again serve as chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, a position he held from 2003-2008 during George W. Bush's presidency. Senator Inhofe has called climate science a hoax and is hostile toward the EPA's approach to regulation. While Republican control of the Congress will increase the scrutiny of EPA's work and budget, protection of the environment is hardwired into our political system, and will continue to make slow progress over the next two years. I suspect most of the progress will be local rather than national.

Since there hasn't been any new U.S. federal environmental law in nearly a quarter century, I do not expect the productivity of the new Congress to be any worse than the old one. Our environmental laws and regulations should certainly be updated to reflect new technologies and the emerging global economy. But when basic environmental science is questioned or ignored, it is difficult to imagine that we will see significant progress at the federal level. Instead, as during the George W. Bush years, EPA will struggle to maintain its current capacity to develop and modernize environmental rules. States, environmental groups and citizens will need to be vigilant to ensure that the courts enforce environmental law.

A set of rules that prevents the poisoning of the air, water and land is an essential component of a sustainable, renewable resource-based economy. But in addition to rules on environmental quality, we need federal investment in infrastructure, like smart grids and coastal resiliency. We also need the federal government to fund the basic and applied science of renewable energy and earth observation. While we need an active federal government, it is unlikely we will get one.

I'm afraid we are in for more of the rhetoric about "job-killing regulation" and the symbolic politics of the Keystone Pipeline. I consider the pipeline discussion symbolic because as long as we continue to be addicted to fossil fuels, fighting over the delivery mechanism may not be the best use of our time. I understand the argument over the type of oil being pumped, and issues related to damage caused by pipeline construction, but defeating the pipeline does not reduce the use of fossil fuels. Until we develop a cheap and convenient alternative to fossil fuels, we will burn more and more of them. Our focus should be on developing alternatives that drive fossil fuels from the market place, saving hydrocarbons for plastics and other longer-term uses.

As for job-killing regulation, the truth is actually the opposite. Regulation often has the effect of modernizing business operations and spurring innovation and job creation. Environmental regulation reduces society's costs that result from environmental damage. When people are exposed to air pollution and toxic chemicals they can get sick. Reduced exposure to toxics reduces health care costs. In the case of water pollution control, sewage treatment has increased the value of land adjoining formerly polluted waterways. It has increased recreational use of some waterways, and helped protect drinking water.

Some of the positive impacts of regulation are indirect but long lasting. Energy efficiency standards in appliances have reduced the costs of operating refrigerators and air conditioners. Auto safety regulations such as seat belts and air bags were once bitterly opposed by auto manufacturers. Today, when a family buys a car they often shop for safety and are willing to pay more for a safer car. The jobs created to manufacture and maintain that safety equipment would not exist without federal auto safety regulation.

While federal environmental policy will be a holding action at best over the next several years, we will continue to see progress made at the local level. In fact, when public policy leaves the unreal ideological atmosphere of our nation's capital and contends with the reality of local needs addressed by local government, traditional American pragmatism tends to dominate. Senator Inhofe is a case in point. While the Senator has been in DC a long time, from 1978 to 1984 he served as the Mayor of Tulsa, Oklahoma. This past June, the newspaper Tulsa World's Sunday Editor Debbie Jackson wrote a wonderful piece recalling her "top 10 favorite Jim Inhofe stories."

It turns out that in addition to supporting solar and wind power and terming solar "inevitable", Inhofe supported the construction of a monorail, and reluctantly favored a local sales tax increase. According to Jackson:

A May 15, 1979, World story reported that Inhofe, who was Tulsa's mayor at the time, said that increasing the city sales tax from 2 cents to 3 cents was the only realistic way for Tulsa to raise revenue for needed projects and prevent the city from deteriorating. He said it was awkward for him, with his reputation as Mr. Fiscal Conservative as a state legislator, to come out for the tax increase. "I'd much prefer, and it would be a lot easier to be against it. But we can't sit here and let Tulsa rot from the inside," Inhofe said. The third-penny sales tax failed the first time but was approved in 1980 and was projected to raise $150 million over five years for city improvements. It has been renewed repeatedly since then.

Inhofe's questioning of environmental science is deep, but I imagine that he would have an easier time supporting local efforts to make urban infrastructure more resilient to impacts from damaging storms. While there is little question that climate change is already making storms more frequent and intense, we don't need to agree on the causes of flooding to address its impacts.

We see that here in New York City. Last week, New York Times reporter Matt Flegenheimer wrote about a green infrastructure a program began by Cas Hollaway when he served as Mike Bloomberg's Environmental Protection Commissioner. Flegenheimer reported that:

New York City has, with little fanfare, embarked on a roughly 20-year, $2.4 billion project intended to protect local waterways, relying in large measure on "curbside gardens" that capture and retain storm-water runoff. Begun as a pilot program under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg -- about 250 of the gardens are already in the ground -- the initiative is set for a major expansion that will bring thousands of gardens to neighborhoods across the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens in the coming months. The goal, according to the city's Department of Environmental Protection, is to soften the "impervious urban landscape" of asphalt and concrete and absorb rainfall that might otherwise funnel into the combined sewer system. (During heavy rain, storm water can exceed the capacity of the city treatment plants. Overflows are discharged into local waterways to avoid flooding the plants, which can harm water quality.)

These green infrastructure projects beautify neighborhoods and are much less expensive than traditional "gray infrastructure" flood control projects like pipes and holding tanks. A similar effort in New York is a partnership between the City and the Trust for Public Land to "build up to 40 new school playgrounds that will include green infrastructure to capture stormwater when it rains, thereby easing pressure on the City's sewer system and improving the health of local waterways." New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd have continued and expanded the green infrastructure programs begun under their predecessors. If Senator Inhofe were still Mayor Inhofe, I would expect he would be supporting projects just like these.

Environmental protection is least controversial when it is focused on impacts that are too obvious to miss. While climate change is a critical environmental problem, it does not mean that that the only way to address it is head on. Fossil fuel use causes many other problems: air pollution, ecological damage during extraction, political risk to assure constant supplies from unstable parts of the world, and the economic costs of rising and/or unstable prices.

The new political reality in Washington is not going to go away, but neither will the challenges of transitioning to a sustainable renewable economy. While we desperately need federal sustainability policy, in the final analysis the environmental quality that people experience in their home communities will have the highest degree of political salience. A successful strategy to protect our environment will need to focus on local impacts. Once again, the late Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill is proven correct: "all environmental politics is local".