New Worldwatch report calls for commitment to environmental sustainability in forming American economic policy

Crossposted from the Worldwatch Institute.

Entire sets of assumptions, beliefs, and practices will need to be overturned if the United States is to build a sustainable economy in the decades ahead, according to a new report from the Worldwatch Institute, Creating Sustainable Prosperity in the United States: The Need for Innovation and Leadership. The report assesses the country’s environmental record and calls for a broad range of policy innovations in the areas of renewable and non-renewable resource use, waste and pollution, and population growth that would help boost the sustainability of the U.S. economy while maintaining people’s overall well-being and quality of life.

The report notes that the country has a long tradition of environmental leadership, dating back to President Theodore Roosevelt, who established the U.S. National Park Service in 1916. During the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. became a world leader in environmental policy, establishing a series of progressive laws and institutions, including the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts and the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Yet U.S. leaders have lagged behind many other countries, including in Europe and Asia, in developing a more sustainable economic processes and energy infrastructure, according to the report. Although the technological and policy tools needed to create sustainable economic activity have advanced rapidly around the world, U.S. output continues to be bolstered by unsustainable practices such as closed loop recycling (recycling waste from one product to make another), heavy dependence on fossil fuels, disregard for renewable resources, and resource use that is strongly connected to economic growth.

“The United States once set the world standard in confronting its environmental problems—protecting wild lands, establishing an environmental protection agency, and acting assertively to limit pollution of all types,” noted Robert Engelman, Executive Director of Worldwatch. “Americans benefited economically and in many other ways from these efforts. Yet today the country’s government plays no role in global efforts to create sustainable societies. We need a powerful citizens’ movement to help policymakers see that any efforts to make the United States enduringly prosperous are doomed to fail so long as we forget that we are living on a finite planet and cannot change the laws of physics and biology to suit our ambitions.”

The report outlines a series of cogent and practicable policy measures that can be instituted today to put the United States on a more sustainable path. These include shifting from an income tax to a progressive consumption tax, creating more standard eco-labeling for products, encouraging more producer “take-back” opportunities, and promoting a more feasible renewable energy market. A deceleration of population growth will also make the creation of a sustainable economy far easier, the report notes.

Rising awareness of the environmental challenges facing our planet, as well as the focus on finding ways to bolster the American economy, presents policy makers with the opportunity to make important and far-reaching decisions. The question is whether the United States builds sustainable prosperity through prudent choices now, or declines into sustained impoverishment because it failed to steward its assets when it had the choice.

What do you think is the most important step governments can take to support sustainable economies?

Gary Gardner is a Senior Fellow at the Worldwatch Institute. Jenna Banning is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project of the Worldwatch Institute.

For the press release on the report, visit Worldwatch Institute's Press Room.

For more on the importance of developing a green economy, see “Officials cite sustainable agriculture as key to UN Green Economy Initiative,” “Worldwatch report focuses on China’s green future”  and “Rio+20: Creating Green Economies to Eradicate Poverty.”

President Obama's Decision on Ozone: Bad Policy and Bad Politics

I’ll admit it. I was originally a Hillary Clinton supporter in 2008. I liked then-Senator Obama’s passion but I was comforted by Clinton’s experience in what I felt was a tumultuous time. After Obama became the victor from the primaries, I enthusiastically got on board.

Now, I feel like sucker.

Last Friday, President Obama forced the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set aside a measure to reduce smog. If you breathe, this should be a big deal for you. The new smog rule would have prevented up to 12,000 premature deaths, 5,300 heart attacks and tens of thousands of cases of asthma attacks and other serious respiratory illnesses each year.

This is a decision that was solely in the President’s court. He ignored the EPA and the recommendation of the agency’s outside science advisors to side with polluting industries.

Why is the President now siding with polluters? He has taken strong environmental stands in the past. We saw the President push what was effectively the largest clean energy legislation ever passed as part of the initial stimulus bill. We stood with him as he pushed the climate bill in that first year. More recently, we saw the White House put us a road to reducing carbon pollution by making our cars cleaner.

But a number of recent moves are going in the opposite direction. The White House gave tentative approval to offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean. The Administration continues to move forward on steps to approve the Keystone pipeline. And now it is backing away from smog rules.

Why? The White House claims clean air protections would be too expensive. But this is a farce. Letting the polluters off the hook won’t save lives, won’t create jobs and won’t fuel innovation. It will, however, endanger the health and lives of children and seniors.

In fact, as NRDC’s Frances Beinecke said late last week, “clean air investments yield enormous returns. The smog standards would generate $37 billion in value for a cost of about $20 billion by 2020. Taken together, Clean Air Act standards generated approximately $1.3 trillion in public health and environmental benefits in 2010 alone for a cost of $50 billion. That's a value worth more than 9 percent of GDP for a cost of only .4 percent of GDP. The ratio of benefits to costs is more than 26 to 1.”

Why the White House is running away from this story is beyond me. This shouldn’t be about the economy because these safeguards will create jobs. And this retreat certainly isn’t going to get him any votes. In a June poll of likely voters commissioned by the American Lung Association found that 75 percent supported the EPA's effort to set stronger smog standards and 66 percent believed that EPA scientists-- not Congress -- should establish clean air standards. Is he is hoping to attract a few votes from right? Unlikely if you consider that only 24 percent of moderate Republicans and 7 percent of conservative Republicans think he is doing a good job according to the the most recent Gallup polling.

Color me confused. The only thing that makes sense is that the White House made a political calculation that it couldn’t win the message war against the Tea Party. The Tea Party has made “regulation” a dirty word when in fact regulations help keep us safe.

Environmental and public health regulations are what keep that industrial mill from dumping its toxic chemicals in the lake you fish in each summer. Regulations have been cleaning our air for decades.Regulations on buildings ensure that your home and office be built to withstand foreseeable natural disasters. Long gone are the days when machinery regularly maimed employees thanks to labor regulations. And a lack of regulations can lead to disaster – just look at the Wall Street crash and the part that lax regulations played in that disaster. The word “regulation” is really a synonym for “public safeguard.” When did that become a bad thing?

President Obama should reconsider this misguided move and redouble his efforts to protect clean air. He is going to have many opportunities in the coming days to right this wrong. The House will be voting as early this month to try to overturn the clean air standards the White House has moved forward with. But if we don’t weigh in, the Tea Party will set the agenda of this White House.

Where is the hope and change that we were promised in 2008? I suspect that a lot of people who walked precincts and stood in long lines to cast a vote for the President Obama in the last Presidential election are asking themselves the same question.

 

 

 

Cantor's Plan Won't Create Jobs but Will Endanger Health

As we head into the fall political season, lawmakers and candidates of all stripes will be talking about the public’s primary concern – jobs. But just because some lawmakers will be using the word “jobs” a lot doesn’t mean they actually have a plan for creating them.

Take House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA). On Monday, he sent a memo to his GOP colleagues about what he called his “jobs agenda.” But the memo wasn’t really about jobs, it was a list of regulations the Tea Party types have been targeting all year. Eight of the eleven listed were environmental safeguards.

In Cantor’s alternate universe, it’s not the global financial crisis that is slowing job growth. It is the Environmental Protection Agency. Sure, the agency has been around for 40 years, during which the economy has expanded significantly.

Nonetheless, Cantor still believes the solution for unemployment is to stop asking polluters to clean up their garbage. Why, 40 years after the Clean Air Act was signed into law by President Nixon, have environmental safeguards become the economic bogeyman all of a sudden? For the same reason the Tea Party hammered on about the debt ceiling for months. And for the same reason every GOP candidate expends a lot of hot air denying climate change.

They don’t know how to solve the big problem voters care most about: job creation. They don’t know how to get Americans back to work. It’s much easier to talk about hot-button issues that get the radical parts of the base riled up: Government overreach! Towering deficit! A false climate conspiracy! If the base gets really incensed, they might not realize that the Emperor has no jobs.

I get it. Governing is hard work, and climbing out of a global recession is even harder. But we can’t abide the sideshow tactics when so many Americans are struggling to keep a roof over their heads. And we especially can’t do it when the so-called plan will actually endanger the health of American families.

All this grandstanding rhetoric about “job-destroying” regulations obscures two terribly important truths. First, environmental and public health protections save people’s lives. The updated safeguard for mercury Cantor was complaining about would prevent as many as 17,000 premature deaths, 11,000 heart attacks, and 120,000 asthma attacks among children each year. The smog standard he cited could save up to 4,300 lives and avoid as many as 2,200 heart attacks every year.

Second, cleaning up our air and producing greener energy actually can create jobs. According to a new report from the Brookings Institution, more than 2.7 million Americans work in the clean economy. That includes people who stop raw sewage from going into our beaches, install scrubbers in power plant smokestacks, and generate clean energy.

Those numbers will only grow. Jobs in the wind and solar sectors have grown by 10 to 18 percent every year for the past eight years, even during the recession, according to Brookings.

The lithium battery industry is also expanding like crazy. These batteries power your smart phone, but they also make hybrids and electric cars go farther. According to New York Times article. American companies produced less than 2 percent of the global market for advanced batteries in 2009. By 2015, 40 percent of the world’s supply could be made in America. I went to Michigan during my summer vacation, and I saw what the newspaper described: abandoned factories every five miles. But the lithium battery industry is providing an alternative to Rust Belt blight. It’s putting Americans to work, but it’s also putting our nation on path toward leadership. Whoever figures out how to make cars and electronic be cleaner, more efficient, and cheaper will dominate one of the biggest markets of this century.

This kind of industry growth provides a positive agenda for the future. I challenge the GOP and the Tea Party to come up with something constructive. They keep talking about what they want to tear down—clean air safeguards, taxes, deficit spending. But what do they want to build? Even if they don’t have a job creation plan figured out, I would like to see them offer something affirmative for a change.

Rep. Upton attacks strawmen

Rep. Upton has been heavily criticized for catering to special interests (especially to those donors who have made substantial contributions to his campaign).   It's also been shown that he is using bad information, misleading his constituents, and flip flopping on his previous positions.

Instead of addressing this criticism head on and providing leadership on policies that would help his constituents, he's written an emotional OpEd that accuses environmental groups of being "divisive, shrill, disingenuous and inaccurate".   Notably, he chooses to use unnamed sources ("Some claim….") in his criticism instead of citing credible sources.

Sadly, he also continues to say that the proposed Keystone XL pipeline would bring  "100,000 jobs" even though he's yet to cite his source, and the State Department estimates are dramatically lower. And he also fails to mention that the existing Keystone pipeline has already had 12 spills or leaks in the past year.

In his OpEd, Upton tries to label environmental groups as "special interests" even though these groups are working to protect the health of children against his unprecedented assaults on the Clean Air Act.  Given that the majority of his constituents oppose his efforts, I guess you could say that we're all specially interested in him doing the right thing.

Clean Air Act Attacks Continue and Intensify

A legislative storm is brewing in Washington right now. Three Senators have proposed amendments to the Senate’s SBIR/STTR Reauthorization Act of 2011 bill—commonly referred to as the “Small Business Bill”—that could undermine the Clean Air Act.

If you would like to curb global warming, prevent more asthma attacks, and preserve America’s best tool for making our air safer to breathe, I urge you to tell your lawmakers not to support these amendments. This is a law that touches all Americans. I remember going to elementary school in Kentucky next to an oil refinery. The air was so polluted that children would get sick after running around at recess and the paint on teachers’ cars literally started to peel. Now, when I go back to my hometown, the air in my old neighborhood is safer and less polluted. That’s thanks to the Clean Air Act.

You might have a similar story to tell. Maybe you grew up Los Angeles in the 1970s and remember when the air was deemed unhealthy to breathe more than 200 days a year. By 2004, that number dropped to 28 days. That was thanks to the Clean Air Act too.

This law has achieved amazing successes. It has saved more than 2 million lives and slashed the pollution in our air by 60 percent since it was passed 40 years ago. Now the Environmental Protection Agency is preparing to reduce the most dangerous pollutants of the 21st century: greenhouse gases.

But the amendments introduced this week would handcuff the agency and allow big polluters to keep spewing the emissions that cause climate change and threaten our health. Here is how these senators are trying to help polluters.

The McConnell Amendment: Would permanently repeal the Clean Air Act’s authority to set limits on carbon pollution, threatening the CAA’s health benefits and increasing our dependence on foreign oil.

The Rockefeller Amendment: Would delay implementation of EPA's carbon standards for stationary sources under the Clean Air Act for at least 2 years.  But this proposal is just repeal by another name. As history has shown, legislative delays are nearly impossible to exterminate. Blocking the EPA from updating Clean Air Act safeguards with new standards to reduce emissions of life-threatening pollution from power plants and other major sources– whether initially just one year or two – will be extended again and again.

The Baucus Amendment: Would prevent accurate accounting of emissions from agricultural activities as well as allow large emission sources to be built or modified with no requirement to limit their carbon pollution.

Unfortunately, these three amendments are not the only front of the battle. Congress is also in the midst of negotiating the next resolution to keep the government running.  Just as in the Small Business Bill, the House of Representatives is pressuring the Senate to accept language that could permanently limit the EPA’s authority to address carbon pollution.

Lawmakers need to realize that a vote to block the EPA from reducing air pollution puts millions of Americans at risk for serious health conditions.

Twenty-four million Americans suffer from asthma. Millions more will feel the impacts of climate change—the punishing storms, the extreme heat waves, the exhausted city emergency budgets—if we don’t allow the EPA to do its jobs and limit carbon pollution.

Tell your lawmakers to protect the integrity of the Clean Air Act.

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