That the Grand Old Party is hostile to environmental regulation is no grand revelation. But the most recent assault on the EPA is, even for Republicans and Tea Party enthusiasts, an unusually reckless and irresponsible attack on reasonable attempts to clean our air. We are talking coal ash. Nothing like taking in some lead, cadmium and mercury with each breath and every sip of water to brighten one's day. That is just the price we must pay to reduce government interference into our private affairs.
But coal is particularly nasty. Yes, the attraction to coal is powerful and obvious because the United States sits on a reserve of nearly 250 billion tons of coal, 112 billion of which are high-quality bituminous and anthracite coals; the remainder mainly being lower-energy and dirtier lignite. With such abundance the siren song of energy independence is difficult to resist. However, burning even the highest quality anthracite is dirty business. One 500 MW power plant generates about 3 million tons of carbon dioxide every year. Other toxic byproducts include fine-grain particulates, heavy metals like mercury, lead, chromium and nickel, trace elements such as arsenic and selenium, and various organics like dichloroethane, benzene, carbon tetrachloride, chloroform, and trichloroethylene. Oxides of nitrogen and sulfur are common pollutants from coal, and are found at higher levels in anthracite than in bituminous coal. The known health consequences of this toxic brew of air and water pollution are many, and include nervous system problems in infants and children, asthma, chronic bronchitis, lung cancer, a suite of cardiovascular problems and kidney disease. The environmental impacts are well documented, and not pretty.
But all of those inconvenient truths are just part of a liberal conspiracy if you believe the GOP. Republicans in the House of Representatives have voted 169 times to weaken environmental laws on the notion that such regulations slow economic growth. The argument is that regulatory compliance is too costly to industry. What is forgotten in that logic is that exposing our children to toxic chemicals in our water and air cost the United States $76.6 billion in health expenses in 2008 (the number is certainly bigger now). And that figure does not include economic losses resulting from workers taking sick leave due to illnesses caused directly from exposure to pollutants. Nor do these figures take into account the positive impact on job creation when investing in clean water and air. Even without those adjustments, by any measure the economic impact of pollution greatly exceeds the total estimate annual cost of complying with environmental regulations: about $25 billion. To put these numbers in perspective, Exxon earned a profit of $10.7 billion in the second quarter of this year. The Clean Air Act Amendments (1990) are estimated to create $2 trillion (with a "t") in economic benefits in the 30 years following passage; compared to the total cost of complying with those amendments over that same period coming in around $65 billion. That is a cost/benefit ratio of 1:30. Any good businessman would look at that balance sheet and draw the obvious conclusion.
The GOP's assault on the EPA is an ideological attack with no foundation in fact, a political temper tantrum. Take away the theatrics, and the idea that growth suffers under environmental regulation is dangerously misguided in the short term and tragic when seen decades out. The idea is wrong because history has shown clearly enough that environmental regulations do not cost a net loss of jobs; and that the lack of such regulations leads to unrecoverable losses, costly clean ups and irreversible health consequences. We can look at both more closely.
Short Term Myopia
The ideological mistake made by the GOP is to sacrifice long-term security for quick but unsustainable gains. This feels good now but our children are going to be angry when they realize what we've done. The very Republicans who advocate for fiscal responsibility are borrowing from our environmental future to pay for immediate gratification, no different than a family accumulating debt on a wild charging spree.
To regain some perspective on a more balanced approach to the environment, I suggest we take a quick flight over Hispaniola. Hispaniola is the Caribbean island home to Haiti, where the impoverished nation's barren, brown eroded hills butt up starkly against the lush green growth of the Dominican Republic forests to define a border of intense contrast visible from space. The Dominican Republic chose to protect its forests; Haiti did not, which Republicans would applaud because they claim all forms of environmental regulation cost jobs. In the short-term the claim is often correct; in this case such regulation would have cost some forestry jobs. But the cost of inaction was much higher. Haiti's population grew from 3 million in 1940 to 9 million at the turn of the century. Forests were cleared for cropland to feed the growing number of mouths. Downed trees were used as fuel for cooking, or sold as charcoal for cash to supplement farm income. Unfortunately the trees eventually ran out, and with 98 percent of all trees gone, so too went all of their ecosystem functions. Flooding became more frequent and more severe because trees were not there to slow down and absorb the water. Crop yields dwindled in the face of flooding and erosion. With no trees, rains now wash almost 40 million tons of precious dirt into rivers every year. The rapid buildup of sediment in waterways killed off vital fisheries, leading to food shortages. With little water being sopped up by trees, aquifers were not replenished, leading to severe shortages of drinking water. With no trees, with diminished resilience, every storm brings another cycle of destruction. All because nobody thought to stop chopping down trees until there were no more.
In the case of Haiti, poverty was the underlying cause of destruction. But here in the United States, the philosophy and consequences of eliminating environmental regulations is fully consistent with what happened in Haiti, even if driven by other forces. According to Republican philosophy, this is just an example of the free market working its wonders, unencumbered by pesky government regulations.
A Republican would say that no government regulations should be put in place to save the forest because after all doing so would endanger forestry jobs. Of course once the forest was denuded, all forestry jobs would be lost permanently, the very jobs that the absence of regulation was supposed to save. We can see that in fact regulations in this case would save rather than eliminate jobs.
So Haitians must now survive in a world with no trees. At some point long before the forest was irreversibly destroyed Haitians knew that people would have to come up with a means of survival once the forest was completely cleared. When surviving without trees became an inevitability, ideally society (through government regulations) would have transitioned to a post-tree economy before the forests were actually gone. Continuing to cut trees at that stage did nothing to prevent the inescapable transition, only made a post-tree economy that much more miserable with erosion, choked waterways and scarce drinking water. Blind disdain for environmental regulations might feel good, but leads to the very consequences advocates mean to avoid.
Modern western societies are now repeating the mistake of the Haitians with our fossil fuels.
Unlike with the trees of Haiti, we are not in danger of running out of oil any time soon. Oil is in fact relatively abundant still, just more difficult to reach. As mentioned, coal is abundant and easy to mine. But we are running out of time nonetheless. As oil supplies become more difficult and expensive to secure, we can easily see a future in which oil is inevitably no longer our primary fuel. As the impacts of coal settle in, we know that at some point in the future our economy must be based on renewable energy sources. Yet we continue to deplete our resources and pollute the air we breathe and water we drink without any serious effort to transition to a post-fossil fuel world. Our children will look back and with great regret say about us: "At some point long before oil was depleted Americans knew that people would have to come up with a means of survival once the wells ran dry. When surviving without oil became an inevitability, ideally society (through government regulation) would have transitioned to a post-oil economy before the fossil fuels were actually gone. Continuing to pump oil at that stage did nothing to prevent the inescapable transition, only made a post-oil economy that much more painful and miserable."
We know for a fact that left to our own devices humans will deplete or destroy a resource even knowing the dire consequences that will ensue. Appropriately designed and properly implemented public policies of regulation, taxation, incentives, and legislation can help prevent this tragic outcome. Such policies, highly specific to each country's and region's particular circumstances, would create an environment in which individuals acting in their own personal best interest at the same time contribute to society's long-term needs. Some confidence in a sustainable future goes a long way. Government has a critical role here, in spite of conservative objections, at least in removing perverse incentives and counterproductive subsidies.
Jobs, Environmental Regulations and Green Growth
Ignoring the most obvious argument that environmental problems are too costly not to address, let us look at the false choice offered by the right: economic growth or environmental protection.
The next few centuries belong to the country smart enough to be the first to master green technologies and renewable energy. The false dichotomy between growth and the environment is an anachronism born from the failures of conservative thought. Conservatives believe that growth is only possible at the expense of the environment, and that any and all efforts to protect our resources impede growth. That philosophy is wrong on every count. Way back in the prehistoric times of 1988 as the Chief Environmental Officer at the Agency for International Developed I funded an effort to explore the economic incentives for conserving biological diversity. The results were published in a book authored by Jeff McNeely, who provided case study after case study that showed unambiguously that environmental protection was not only conducive to economic growth, but essential to it. We've known this now for 20 years, but the right keeps insisting on hiding from the facts.
Environmentalism is not the ideology of left-wing socialists, but instead the true engine of all future economic growth. Just as the United States rose to greatness on the engine of industrialization, the world's next great superpower will come to dominate by advancing green technologies.
The false choice offered by the right is dangerous not only to the environment but to our national security. The next superpower will be the country that moves quickly to solar, wind and (sane) biofuel power, and finally to hydrogen. You have doubts? Consider the national security implications of moving successfully to a hydrogen economy free from the tyranny of foreign oil. The Middle East will become nothing but another spot on the map, contributing no more than Tanzania or Lichtenstein to world affairs. Consider the benefits of clean energy from sun and wind giving life to factory and farms with local sources of power invulnerable to attacks on a national grid. Imagine a transportation sector that pollutes nothing but a few drops of water from each tailpipe. Imagine this as you contemplate the price of oil climbing back up to $140/barrel or more.
Opportunities abound. Yes, as we transition to an economy less and less dependent on oil, some jobs will be lost. But that will be more than offset by those that are gained as the United States again takes the lead in creating a new global industrial revolution. Let us not forget those forestry jobs in Haiti, which are no more. According to Worldwatch Institute, a conservative estimate is that 2.3 million people now work worldwide directly in the renewable energy industry. The wind power industry employs about 300,000 people, the solar photovoltaics sector another 170,000 jobs, and the solar thermal industry, at least 624,000. More than 1 million jobs are found in the biomass and biofuels sector. The U.S. wind energy industry in 2008 installed about 42 percent of all the new electric generating capacity added, and created 35,000 jobs. Clearly these sectors and the number of jobs would expand exponentially as we wean ourselves from fossil fuels.
The future belongs to those seeking to integrate green and growth. This is how our national interests will be secured. This is where jobs will be created. The United States should rightfully lead this charge, but only will if the faithful right-wing skeptics get over their allergic reaction to all environmental regulation. Until we get past the GOP's knee-jerk hatred of all things government, outside of the military, we will continue to auction our species' future on eBay for pennies on the dollar.
Remember once lushly forested but now barren Haiti. That is the vision of our future in the hands of the GOP in the House. Republicans are dismantling our future as they seek to dismantle the EPA. It makes no sense.
Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist, former White House senior policy analyst and author of Calorie Wars (July 2011) and A New Moral Code (2010). Learn more about Jeff at http://jeffschweitzer.com.