THE BLOG
03/07/2016 08:50 am ET Updated Mar 08, 2017

Slowly Moving to Protect the Environment

Many of us feel a sense of urgency when we think of the steps needed to preserve our planet, but governments attempting to maintain economic well-being and stay in power continue to balance change with stability. I think that more and more people in power understand the need to address climate change, ecosystem protection, and toxics in our production processes. But their political survival and, indeed, our peace and stability depends on a well-functioning economic system. Slow, yet significant, change is underway. We see it in the replacement of the water pipes in Flint, Michigan, where the first few of about 8,000 pipes were replaced last week. One can see it in the U.S. EPA's designation of the Passaic River as a Superfund site and a planned $1.38 billion ten-year cleanup announced recently. We see it in the latest Five-Year Plan for economic development in China. As Brian Spegele reported in the Wall Street Journal recently:

China will cap annual energy consumption at 5 billion metric tons of coal equivalent by 2020, as Beijing pushes to control the use of resources and curb greenhouse-gas emissions. The cap, detailed Saturday in a draft of the government's 13th Five Year Plan economic blueprint, comes as Chinese leaders seek to tackle wasteful resource usage and industrial overcapacity in the world's second-largest economy. It marks the first time a hard energy-consumption cap has been enshrined in a five-year plan...

These are all indicators of a shift in policy direction. In Michigan, everyone knows that Flint's water infrastructure must be restored to safe functioning. In China, everyone who breathes knows that coal consumption must be reduced. In New Jersey, the Passaic River has been a dangerous and disgusting liquid toxic waste dump for over half a century. The process of change first begins with a change in the direction of policy. This follows a process of research, analysis, communication, and, finally, understanding of the problem at hand.

The next step is framing a response that is cost effective and feasible. One principle of environmental protection that I learned at the start of my career in EPA's Superfund program is that government's first responsibility is to ensure that people are moved out of harm's way. In the case of toxic waste, we needed to understand the "pathways of exposure" and ensure that people were removed from those pathways. Once the emergency response is complete, we can then turn to remedial response--to the actions that actually repair the damage and allow people to go on with their lives.

In the case of Flint's water system, the first pipes being ripped up and replaced are those that connect to the homes of children that are already suffering from lead poisoning. Flint's Mayor, Karen Weaver, knows that all of the lead pipes can't be replaced all at once. For one thing, the city estimates that there are 8,000 lead pipes in the city, but they only know the location of about 4,400 of them. Clearly, taking inventory is a critical step that must be started quickly. But while the full dimensions of the problem are being defined, action can still begin. Kris Maher reporting in the Wall Street Journal described the city's cleanup plan:

The mayor's plan will initially target homes in neighborhoods with the highest number of children younger than 6 years old, senior citizens, pregnant women and households where tests found high levels of lead in tap water. Lead pipes will be replaced with copper ones using a method developed by officials in Lansing, the state capital, which has replaced most of its lead pipes in recent years.

In addition, children are being tested for exposure to lead and families are being provided with bottled water for household use. Not a perfect solution, but finally state and local government are moving toward a response to the human-made environmental disaster they created.

While burning coal and ingesting lead are clear dangers to people and the planet, not all environmental threats are fully understood and sometimes a rapid response is unwise and can lead to cures that are worse than the disease. In a recent article on invasive species, New York Times reporter Erica Goode noted that the conventional wisdom on the dangers of invasive species is changing due to scientific debate and that:

...the idea that invasive species should be assumed guilty until proven innocent has begun to wane, the shift prompted in part... by concerns over the use of chemical pesticides and the disruption of landscapes caused by many eradication efforts.

In some cases we do not understand the impact of human actions on the planet and we need to do more observation and analysis to understand those impacts. In other cases we don't really know how to repair the damage once it has been done. All of this argues for a more careful practice of introducing new technologies into the economy and, as I have written elsewhere, greater adoption of the precautionary principle before introducing new products or production processes. The assumption that all new technology is good is dangerous to the point of idiocy. While economic growth is often built on new technology, environmental damage and impaired human health can also be caused by new technology. The cost of environmental damage and human health effects must eventually be paid and so the long-term benefit-cost relationship of the new technology must be considered before new technologies are introduced.

The argument for a slower, more reasoned introduction of new technology and the argument for a slower and more reasoned response to environmental damage is often resisted in our fast-paced, 24/7 global economy. Slow means bureaucratic, old fashioned, and over-regulated. Speed is self-justifying. But not everyone shares the view that faster is better. My Columbia colleague Mark Taylor has written an insightful book, entitled Speed Limits, on the impact of our addiction to speed.

If the people who decided to switch the source of Flint's water had moved a little slower, done a pilot test, and evaluated the result, they might have realized that the money saved by switching would be dwarfed by the money spent to repair the damage. In the case of the Passaic River, not everyone is satisfied with the speed and extent of the cleanup. While the New Jersey Sierra Club advocates more dredging than EPA is planning, most agree that some progress is better than doing nothing. Fortunately, the cleanup process can be modified once it is underway and we learn more about its success and durability.

When addressing environmental damage we need to be sure that the cure is not worse than the disease and we need to approach policy and program design with humility and modesty. It may be scary to think that an understanding of some of the human-induced changes to our planet is beyond our current state of knowledge, but sometimes we really don't know what we are doing. If this sounds like an argument for more research on earth systems science and a greater resource allocation for earth observation, that's exactly what it is.

But I am also arguing for removing some of the ideology, anger, partisanship and emotion from environmental policy. Think of it as if it were medical practice for the planet. Would you want your doctors to have a heated emotional argument about the fact of your illness or the possible treatment? Or would you want a careful reasoned debate including a first, second and possibly even a third opinion? I know what I'd want.

The fact is that over the past half-century or so, the movement to protect our planet has grown and even in the face of important competing needs, momentary setbacks have always been followed by further progress. China built coal-fired power plants at a ferocious rate, but is now moving to transition off of coal. Michigan's government now recognizes that they messed up big time with Flint's water, and they are moving to remedy the situation. Moreover, the visibility of the issue has increased awareness of the issue of toxics in our water, air, homes, and land. As I often say, public policy doesn't solve problems--it makes them less bad. We are slowly addressing problems like climate change and toxics. A half-century ago these problems were barely on the political agenda; today they are taught in our schools, reported by the media and acted on by businesses and government. It could be better, faster and more just, but so could just about everything.