05/27/2014 08:40 am ET Updated Jul 27, 2014

Understanding Environmental Policy


If we are to learn how to develop a renewable and sustainable economy, we also need to learn how to deal with the mistakes we've made while moving from an economy that tolerates environmental damage to one that does not. In addition to the positive steps of developing the new field of sustainability management, we will also need to implement an effective set of rules governing our interaction with our home planet's environment. A key role of government in the emerging field of sustainability management is to develop effective and efficient environmental policies. In my view, such policies can best be built on a deep understanding of the causes of environmental problems and the shape of the policies we have built to respond to those problems. This is work I've been involved in for a number of years.

In about a week, Columbia University Press will release the second edition of my book, Understanding Environmental Policy. Like the first edition, it's a brief essay, trying to explain the causes and effects of contemporary environmental problems. The first edition included cases drawn from my days working with the federal EPA: Superfund and leaking underground storage tanks. I also analyzed New York City's ongoing garbage problem and the issue of climate change. In the second issue, I revise and update my analysis of the climate issue, but then develop three entirely new cases: fracking for natural gas, electronic waste, and congestion pricing in New York City.

The case studies provide basic information about important environmental issues, but the real heart of my work is the development and application of a multi-disciplinary framework for understanding how environmental issues are constructed and defined. The framework must address the fact that environmental problems are inherently cross-disciplinary and each field defines the problem differently. To an engineer, an environmental issue is a problem caused by technology that can best be solved by technology. To an economist, environmental problems are caused by market failures and externalities that can be fixed by modifications in economic and tax policy. To a lawyer, the environment is an issue that requires changed behavior through law and regulation. To a business executive, environmental rules are a nuisance that must be dealt with. To an environmental scientist, the environment is a set of conditions and relationships to understand.

As I set about the work of developing a framework to understand environmental policies and problems, it quickly became clear that all of these perspectives were correct, but incomplete. The root causes of our environmental problems lie in our values and technologies, along with our political, economic and legal systems. Environmental problems are also caused -- and their solutions constrained -- by our ability to develop and manage complex organizations and networks of organizations. When trying to understand an environmental issue I attempt to understand what created the problem, and what contributed to its emergence and "shape" on the political agenda. I also try to understand the rationale behind programs designed to address the problem.

The agenda-setting process that makes a problem a political issue is far from rational. We don't simply identify a problem and work toward a solution. In fact, rather than solve a policy problem we try to make a problem less bad. People with private economic power struggle to contain the scope of a conflict so they can resolve the conflict privately. In contrast, people with less private economic power work to expand the scope of conflict and bring an issue to the public agenda. The environment involves a set of shared or common resources, like the air we breathe and the water we drink, and it is sometimes in someone's short-term interest to use or degrade the resource. People make money from pollution. These folks quite naturally seek to define their use of natural resources as a private, rather than public, matter. That is how fracking fluid came to be defined by Dick Cheney and his pals as proprietary, a company secret that the public need not know. Efforts to open up the debate on fracking can be characterized as an effort by advocates to expand the scope of conflict and by industry to contain it -- to keep decisions in the hands of a select few.

How an issue reaches the political agenda influences how it is defined as a public policy problem and also defines the boundaries of feasible policy solutions. While some scientists believe we could develop a safe and effective way to extract natural gas using hydraulic fracturing, the dominance of the issue by anti-regulatory and anti-fracking zealots has ensured that the definition of the issue on our political agenda is an on and off switch: Either ban fracking or "drill baby drill." Any effort to carefully develop this resource is likely doomed to the realm of symbolic politics.

In the book I use a number of case studies to attempt to characterize the issue at hand and examine an environmental issue from a variety of perspectives. For example, take the issue of electronic waste. Americans own about three billion electronic products and discard 400 million of them each year. Many of these devices, such as cell phones and laptops, contain toxic substances. We love these devices and are addicted to them. These are values we hold and policies designed to manage these wastes must account for our dependence on them. The science and technology that underlies these electronic devices have only recently started to consider the impact caused by dumping electronics when we no longer want to use them. The economics of the electronics business builds in a product development cycle that make electronics obsolete long before they stop working. These business dynamics must also be understood if we are to develop an effective approach to managing electronic waste.

Many efforts to understand and influence environmental policy are based on partial and parochial views of the issues being considered. I think effective policy requires a more comprehensive and sophisticated perspective. An effort to understand the causes of environmental problems is a prerequisite to realistic policy making.

I am not arguing that simply understanding the current state of environmental problems and policy is sufficient. It is necessary but we also need the courage to make decisions that trade-off short-term costs for long-term gains. In Washington D.C., the game of legislative politics has become so absurd that even a bi-partisan energy efficiency measure could not get through the U.S. Senate. We are approaching a quarter century since Congress was able to enact major new environmental laws. Think of the technological change in our economy since that time. Without initiatives at the state and local level, issues like e-waste, fracking and even climate change would be completely unaddressed. Here's a note to the U.S. Congress: The Articles of Confederation didn't work. We needed a stronger central government and that's why we developed our constitution. It is time to update our environmental laws and bring them into this century.

As a small contribution to this effort, Columbia University's Earth Institute, School of International and Public Affairs, and School of Continuing Education have been fortunate enough to recruit Tom Jorling and Leon Billings to teach a course next year on the origins of environmental law. Jorling and Billings were two of the key staff leaders who helped elected officials as they reached across the aisle in the 1970s to enact landmark legislation to reduce water and air pollution. Jorling was also instrumental in developing the toxic waste Superfund program. We will be videotaping the course and hope to raise the funds to turn it into a full documentary. My hope is that by looking back to our successful past, we can relearn how to face our environmental future. Our goal is to understand and then improve environmental policy.