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Global Warming: It’s 1970 All Over Again

Once upon a time, it was easy to be an environmentalist. A visible pall of smog hung over many large cities, bringing tears to the eyes of residents on a bad day. Rivers were dirty, some to a point where they could burst into flames. Toxic garbage was dumped in ill-suited places with little thought about the future. And all that, it seemed, was the result of a single cause: the recklessness of industry. What seemed more appropriate, then, than to chastise industry until it faced up to its corporate responsibility? That was the mood of the time, and with anger running rampant, those who expressed it in the most extreme terms usually won the first prize. “What our industrial leaders deserve is a jail sentence for the crime they are committing against society,” an ABC-owned Chicago radio station declared.1 That was 1970.

Environmentalists are still fond of recalling the outburst of environmental activism in 1970, epitomized in the 20 million Americans who joined the first Earth Day celebration on April 22. But over time, the supposed victory of 1970 came to look more and more ambiguous. Since the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, environmental regulation has come to be known as an exceedingly complex field of policy. Favoring command-and-control regulation over economic incentives and other modes of enforcement, an enormous amount of red tape and inflexible rules and regulations have plagued industrialists and regulators alike. Countless conflicts arose over standards and implementation schemes, and a lot of these conflicts ended up in court. Since the 19th century, court cases on pollution issues won a reputation for their extreme length and complexity, and litigation during the environmental era has done little to overturn that reputation.

Of course, it would be foolish to pinpoint the blame solely on the decisions of 1970. But in hindsight, it is surprising that the issue of regulatory strategies was mostly absent from discussions around Earth Day. Few people discussed the merits of different modes of regulation, and fewer still reviewed previous approaches to pollution control for their problems and merits. Instead of framing a coherent political vision, the early environmentalists focused on “raising awareness.” People should become aware of the true extent of environmental degradation, should recognize the toll that pollution is taking from humans and nature alike, and realize that it is the work of the corporate crooks. And once people had reached that advanced stage of awareness, environmentalists assumed that a proper solution would fall into place.

Three and a half decades later, the naïveté of this approach is plainly apparent. Awareness may be important, if not crucial, for an effective solution, but it is only a first step in the long way from perception to solution. Calls for “taking the problem serious,” for “setting strict standards,” and “tough timetables” may mirror a noble sentiment, but they constitute an exceedingly vague guide when it comes to writing environmental legislation. In fact, anger may even be counterproductive from a regulatory standpoint: Confronted with talk of jail sentences, a businessman may do what you ask him to do, but he will never cooperate with you again. Market-based incentives may be an effective remedy for some problems, but they are no viable option if angry people perceive them merely as “licenses to pollute.”

Fortunately, a more balanced approach grew over time. Environmentalists found that it was more rewarding in the long term to talk with businessmen than to yell at them. Industrialists found that it could be good business to claim environmental credentials; regulators increasingly sought a “middle ground” in standing conflicts, and a number of cooperative projects yielded promising results. In fact, when historians finally looked more closely at the attitude of industry in the late 1960s, they found that businessmen had by no means been lacking “awareness” about pollution issues, as the environmentalists of 1970 asserted. Air and water pollution had long been recognized as problems, with many cities and states possessing control systems of various sorts. To be sure, their quality was deficient in many cases and open to improvement, but in retrospect, doubts were growing that environmentalists were asking the right question in 1970: The key issue was probably not whether there was a problem but, rather, what to do about it.

With all this experience, one would expect a much more refined debate on the issue of greenhouse gases, perhaps the most worrisome air pollution problem of the early 21st century. But surprisingly, the opposite seems to be true: The lessons that environmentalists have learned about the pitfalls of environmental regulation are notably absent from the ongoing debate about global warming. Instead, the debate is strongly reminiscent of the discursive patterns of 1970: The main theme is, once more, “raising awareness.” But with the popular debate dating back to the 1980s, “awareness” does not seem to be in short supply. Quite the contrary, with the plethora of media reports, and even movies like The Day After Tomorrow and An Inconvenient Truth, it seems that “awareness” has probably come to everyone who wants to be aware. (Of course, some people do not want to become aware, and unfortunately some of them are in power, but I will not go into this issue here.) A more pertinent question is what we should do with all that awareness – but as it stands, the issue of regulatory strategies has rarely moved beyond discussions among a small circle of experts attending international conferences. Usually, the bottom line is simply that the Kyoto Protocol points us in the right direction and that it is high time for the United States to sign it. The myriad complicated details of climate control regulation get swept facilely under the rug.

All this would be worrisome even if we had a promising regulatory system at hand. Unfortunately, we have anything but that. The Kyoto Protocol is the outgrowth of a series of conferences, and every one of them has increased the degree of complexity. Kyoto goes back to a convention of 1992, the decision on the general structure was taken in 1997, the contract went into force in 2005 and it does not contain provisions beyond 2012 – certainly not what one could call an energetic approach. It is little exaggeration to say that only a few insiders have a full grasp of the agreement’s details nowadays, and the lack of clarity is increasingly becoming a problem for regulators and environmentalists alike. Even more, the regulatory systems seem to be highly susceptible to corruption, as opaque regulatory systems usually are, and the discovery of a huge scam under current climate control rules seems merely a question of “when” rather than “if.” In short, if Kyoto really works, it will prove just about everything we have learned about environmental regulation since 1970 wrong.

Even more, the ongoing debate attributes to nation-states a willingness to heed international environmental agreements that is easily belied by history. It has long been shown that governments have grossly faked environmental data. For instance, when sulfur dioxide became an issue of European environmental policy in the 1980s, the GDR exaggerated its annual output so that it could claim a greater reduction later on. But one does not have to go to such extremes to demonstrate the fragility of international environmental agreements. Suffice it to check the most recent implementation report on the European Union’s Nitrates Directive of 1991, which cheerily notes that “there appears to be a growing awareness amongst farmers of the relevance of measures to prevent water pollution”2 – a statement made, to be sure, some ten years after the directive was issued, and from an institution that is arguably the strongest and most enduring alliance of nation-states that the world as ever seen. Thus, the speed of the Kyoto Protocol (or lack thereof) is not much of a surprise to students of international conservation. In fact, the history of international environmental policy is a sobering reminder for everyone putting all hopes on “Kyoto”: it is full of noble intentions and conspicuously devoid of effective treaties.

Many environmentalists nowadays agree that dismissing economic incentives as a sellout to industry in 1970 was a serious mistake. However, few people know how quickly the early environmentalists were changing their mind. Only months after environmentalists celebrated the passage of the Clean Air Act, a Coalition to Tax Pollution began to lobby for a sulfur tax, a measure that would have required another revision of the law. With members from the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth to the Wilderness Society, the Coalition clearly mirrored a growing awareness of the complexity of environmental regulation. While environmentalists had been “fearful that shifting the focus to these factors tends to move the discussion into an arena which is basically more favorable to the pleas of polluters,” as the Sierra Club’s Executive Director put it,3 environmentalists were now embracing a more sober, and probably more sophisticated, view. But the Coalition ultimately realized that it had come too late.  Although chances for a sulfur tax may have been good in 1970, that moment of opportunity had passed, and market-based incentives would have to wait in the regulation of sulfur emissions until the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.

Thus, it does not take much to see history repeating itself. Momentum is clearly building for some kind of solution for the carbon dioxide problem, and the idea that the United States may sign some kind of international agreement – say, a watered-down Kyoto – no longer sounds so unrealistic. Environmentalists will undoubtedly be jubilant, but it is unclear how long their cheers will last. If history provides any lesson, the discussion will shift focus, as it did in 1971: Now that awareness has begat an agreement, let us see how it works.    

Unfortunately, there will be plenty of fodder nourishing a debate about the deficits of Kyoto, and environmentalists will likely recognize the deficits with a growing sense of horror. Soon a feeling will spread that we are dealing with a highly complicated, corruption-prone system which produces nothing more than a slight reduction (!) in the growth rate (!!!) of the problem. In all likelihood, a feeling of remorse will become dominant, just as it did in the post-1970 years. Could it really have been that people favored an agreement merely on the grounds that George W. Bush opposed it?

The mistake of 1970 was to base a regulatory approach on anger – rather than a clear idea of the goals and means. Therefore, this realization should get environmentalists thinking that the current climate debate is fuelled by worries and fears – and not by knowledge about a feasible strategy. Wasn’t it Marx who once said, in one of his more judicious moments, that history always repeats itself twice: the first time as a tragedy, the second time as a farce?

1       Chicago Historical Society, Leon Mathis Despres Papers Box 88 Folder 5, WLS Viewpoint, Clean Air is a Right, Not a Privilege.

2       European Commission, Directorate-General for Environment, Implementation of Council Directive 91/676/EEC concerning the protection of waters against pollution caused by nitrates from agricultural sources. Synthesis from year 2000 Member States reports, Luxemburg 2002, p. 27.

3       Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles, Collection 1199 Box 85 Folder 4, Statement of Michael McCloskey on Economic Incentives to Control Environmental Pollution before the Subcommittee on Priorities and Economy in Government of the Joint Economic Committee, July 12, 1971, p. 1.