What Environment? War and Economic Insecurity Dominate the Presidential Campaign

G. Tracy Mehan, III
Authored by: G. Tracy Mehan, III. Principal, The Cadmus Group, Inc.

March 2008

It is understandable, but nevertheless disappointing, that environmental and natural resources issues have not received much attention during the presidential campaign to date.

Two wars, illegal immigration, loss of manufacturing jobs, health care, a housing bubble, and a cratering stock market rivet the attention of the candidates and the voters both of whom are groping for a path forward amidst great uncertainty at home and abroad.

Thus, the environment is hardly a “top-of-the mind” issue, commanding only little attention on the campaign trail. There is some discussion of climate change, usually paired with energy independence or security; but, for the most part, it not drawn much interest this election cycle. Basically, the election is about war and economic insecurity.

There are other reasons why climate change is not getting much play in the political arena. Ironically, these have to do with an unusual degree of consensus on the campaign trail and an emerging one in Congress. All three of the major presidential candidate left standing share the same basic policy orientation in favor of some kind of cap-and-trade program to reduce carbon emissions, the paramount Greenhouse Gas. Second, legislation authorizing such a program has been moving on Capitol Hill, eclipsing every economist’s preferred option, a “revenue-neutral” carbon tax with offsetting tax cuts, say, for corporate or personal income taxes.

This latter option could be justified on supply-side, i.e., pro-growth, and national security grounds, while allowing for total agnosticism as to both the cause and extent of climate change. But in any tax restructuring there are winners and losers, and losers fight more tenaciously than winners in the political scrum. Moreover, most voters will only hear the word “tax” without hearing or comprehending “revenue-neutrality.” And no one wants to give up their SUVs.

On the other hand, the carbon cap-and-trade option camouflages its higher transaction costs. Hence, its political palatability renders its complexity tolerable.

Climate change is an all-encompassing issue which has consequences for forestry, water management, marine biology, wildlife, and just about everything else. That said, it has sucked all the oxygen out of the room in terms of the public dialogue on a broader range of environmental issues. If it’s not climate, it’s not worth talking about.

What are those other issues which are competing, largely unsuccessfully, with global climate change for prime time? Each of us will have his or her preferred list of issues to be given their 15 minutes of fame. Here are a few possibilities:

  • The nation’s waters are suffering from nutrient over-enrichment from unregulated, polluted runoff from agriculture (nonpoint source pollution) and from the growth of impervious surfaces (roads, roofs, parking lots, etc.). The “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico and the ailing Chesapeake Bay are two examples of these challenges. What, if anything, should the federal government do to either reduce this pollution or at least not aggravate it? New laws? Curtail subsidies? Target existing Farm Bill conservation dollars?
  • Is ethanol really the best we can do? It is an inefficient energy source and a voracious consumer of water. Increased corn planting will increase agricultural runoff (see above) and using it all for fuel drives up the cost of food worldwide. This is the result of federal subsidies and tariffs on “good” ethanol from Brazil.
  • The nation is facing a severe investment gap in infrastructure generally and in the water and wastewater sectors specifically. What is the proper contribution of local ratepayers versus federal taxpayers if any? Should the federal government fund research on cutting edge technologies (e.g., decentralized, least-cost) and better management practices such as asset management or EMS (environmental management systems)? What about utilizing public-private partnerships and private equity? Or do we go back to large-scale government grants or a trust fund?
  • Should Congress renew the Superfund tax or let it be?
  • Can the National Forest Service (NSF) really manage the nation’s forests effectively anymore? Over half of its budget goes to fire fighting, and the NSF is constantly tied up in court.
  • Will we ever reauthorize and reform any of the major environmental laws? Congress has not been able to do so since it reauthorized the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1996.

Environmental and natural resources policy is a very polarized subject reflecting what has been a polarized Red State/Blue State America. With an election less than a year away, it would be edifying to hear more about these matters from the presidential candidates in the months ahead.