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Steven Cohen

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The Political Power of Environmental Protection

Posted: 05/09/11 09:41 AM ET

I am surprised by the right wing's focus on environmental protection as an example of government overregulation. While corporations as mainstream as Wal-Mart are requiring their suppliers to reduce their use of energy and measure the sustainability of their products, the relentless attack on environmental protection continues. John Broder of the New York Times reported that Congressional Republicans are against studying hydrofracking even if the goal is to make it safer rather than eliminating it. Do they really believe that the American people are willing to risk their water supply in order to extract natural gas from the ground? Why is learning more about an issue an example of "regulatory red tape run amok"? Broder also reported that North Carolina's Republican Senator Richard Burr would like to merge the EPA and the Department of Energy.

I really don't get it. If there is a political benefit in this line of attack, I fail to see it. I wrote last month that the right wing's latest attack on environmental protection would fail because:

"The health, safety and security of our families are at the heart of America's bedrock support for a clean environment. The environment is not an ideological issue. There is no conservative way to breathe air or liberal way to drink water."

There are two dimensions to the environmental issue in 2011 that have evolved dramatically since Richard Nixon created the federal EPA back in 1970:

1. Environmental sustainability is now a goal of the best run and most successful organizations. Environmental stewardship is a management issue. Increasingly, top managers must understand and control their organization's use of natural resources as well as their production of waste and environmental impacts. Energy and water cost money, and waste by definition reduces long-term profitability.

2. The environment has become a local security issue. A toxic environment can harm your family. Just as parents want to shield their children from crime, murder and mayhem, they also want to protect them from environmental poisons.

Most people favor environmental protection. Just as police forces can sometimes use excess force, some environmental regulators can get carried away. But just as people tend to support their local cops, they also support environmental regulators. Protecting the environment is not an example of government run amok

The most fundamental function of government is protecting the health and safety of its people. When Osama bin Laden was killed, there was very little controversy in the United States over the wisdom of our government's action. Just in case there was any chance of anyone forgetting, President Obama visited the site of the World Trade Center to remind the world of the horror of 9/11. The president's visit with children who lost their parents and with the city's first responders was a stark reminder of the importance of protecting the public's safety.

While environmental toxins do not kill their victims as suddenly as a terrorist's attack, they can be just as fatal. The painful fact is that one of the impacts of the destruction of the World Trade Center was a low grade, but deadly environmental catastrophe. The poor health and deaths of many of those who worked in the rubble after 9/11 was a result of the toxins released when the buildings came down.

In a world where we all benefit from the lifestyles made possible by a number of complex, technological production processes, a fundamental function of government is to identify and protect us from the negative impacts of those technologies. This is not Teddy Roosevelt's conservation-based environmentalism, and it is not some spiritual quest to become one with nature. It is protecting the health and well being of our family and loved ones.

While rich people tend to be exposed to fewer environmental risks than poor people, everyone is vulnerable to environmental contaminants. If New York City's water system is contaminated by toxic releases from hydrofracking, the impact will reach multimillion dollar homes as sure as it will hit the city's public housing projects. The toxic dust from the World Trade Center site was an equal opportunity poison.

I first saw the latent political power of environmental protection when I was a graduate student in Buffalo in the late 1970's. In nearby Niagara Falls, at a place called Love Canal, toxic waste was oozing out of a dumpsite into people's homes. Children were ill, parents were scared, and Lois Gibbs, a local parent and a determined political amateur, organized a grassroots movement to clean up America's toxic waste dumps. Gibbs started by getting the government to act in her own neighborhood, and eventually worked to ensure that Congress enacted and implemented the Superfund toxic clean-up program. The power behind the politics of toxic waste was the emotional force of parents trying to protect their children. The Republican right better be careful or they will find themselves on the wrong side of a real issue of family values.

The effort to paint environmental protection as an anti-business government boondoggle bumps up against the reality of environmental degradation. People can see and smell a foul environment. They know when their surroundings are unhealthy, because it assaults their own senses. This is an empirical reality, not a theory or a computer projection. The late House of Representatives Speaker Tip O'Neil was famous for his assertion that all politics is local. The environment that we all perceive is equally local. When local environmental conditions turn bad, the environment will dominate local politics until people feel protected. Elected officials, who ignore this fact of political life, will lose elections.

 

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