Environmental Policy

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Environmental policy

Strictly, an environmental policy can be defined as a government's chosen course of action or plan to address issues such as pollution , wildlife protection, land use , energy production and use, waste generation, and waste disposal. In reality, the way a particular government handles environmental problems is most often not a result of a conscious choice from a set of alternatives. More broadly, then, a government's environmental policy may be characterized by examining the overall orientation of its responses to environmental challenges as they occur, or by defining its policy as the sum of plans for, and reactions to, environmental issues made by any number of different arms of government.

A society's environmental policy will be shaped by the actions of its leaders in relation to the five following questions:

  • Should government intervene in the regulation of the environment or leave resolution of environmental problems to the legal system or the market?
  • If government intervention is desirable, at what level should that intervention take place? In the United States, for example, how should responsibility for resolution of environmental problems be divided between and among federal, state and local governments and who should have primary responsibility?
  • If government intervenes at some level, how much protection should it give? How safe should the people be and what are the economic trade-offs necessary to ensure that level of safety?
  • Once environmental standards have been set, what are the methods to attain them? How does the system control the sources of environmental destruction so that the environmental goals are met?
  • Finally, how does the system monitor the environment for compliance to standards and how does it punish those who violate them?

Policy in the United States

The United States has no single, overarching environmental policy and its response to environmental issuessubject to conflicting political, corporate and public influence, economic limitation and scientific uncertaintyis rarely monolithic. American environmental policies are an amalgamation of Congressional, state and local laws, regulations and rules formulated by agencies to implement those laws, judicial decisions rendered when those rules are challenged in court, programs undertaken by private businesses and industry, as well as trends in public concerns.

In Congress, many environmental policies were originally formed by what are commonly known as "iron triangles." These involve three groups of actors who form a powerful coalition: the Congressional committee with jurisdiction over the issue; the relevant federal agency handling the problem; and the interest group representing the particular regulated industry. For example, the key actors in forming policy on clear-cutting in the national forests are the House subcommittee on Forests, Family Farms and Energy, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), and the National Forest Products Association, which represents many industries dependent on timber.

For more than a century, conservation and environmental groups worked at the fringes of the traditional "iron triangle." Increasingly, however, these public interest groupswhich derived their financial support and sense of mission from an increasing number of citizen membersbegan gaining more influence. Scientists, whose studies and research today play a pivotal role in decision-making, also began to emerge as major players.

The Watershed years

Catalyzed by vocal, energetic activists and organizations, the emergence of an "environmental movement" in the late 1960s prompted the government to grant environmental protection a greater priority and visibility . 1970, the year of the first celebration of Earth Day , saw the federal government's landmark passage of the Clean Air Act and the National Environmental Policy Act ,as well as Richard Nixon's creation of an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which was given the control of many environmental policies previously administered by other agencies. In addition, some of the most serious problems such as DDT and mercury contamination began to be addressed between 1969 and 1972. Yet, environmental policies in the 1970s developed largely in an adversarial setting pitting environmental groups on one side and the traditional iron triangles on the other.

The first policies that came out of this era were designed to clean up visible pollutionclouds of industrial soot and dust, detergent-filled streams and so forthand employed "end-of-pipe" solutions to target point sources, such as wastewater discharge pipes, smokestacks, and other easily identifiable emitters.

An initial optimism generated by improvements in air and water quality was dashed by a series of frightening environmental episodes at Times Beach , Missouri, Three Mile Island, Love Canal , New York and other locations. Such incidents (as well as memory of the devastation caused by the recently-banned DDT) shifted the focus of public concern to specific toxic agents. By the early 1980s, a fearful public led by environmentalists had steered governmental policy toward tight regulation of individual, invisible toxic substancesdioxin, PCBs and othersby backing measures limiting emissions to within a few parts per million . Without an overall governmental framework for action, the result has been a multitude of regulations and laws that address specific problems in specific regions that sometimes conflict and often fail to protect the environment in a comprehensive manner. "It's been reactionary, and so we've lost the integration of thought and disciplines that is essential in environmental policy making," says Carol Browner , administrator of the U.S. EPA.

One example of policy-making gone awry is the 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), or Superfund toxic waste program. The law grew as much out of the public's perception and fear of toxic waste as it did from crude scientific knowledge of actual health risks. Roughly $2 billion dollars a year has been spent cleaning up a handful of the nation's worst toxic sites to near pristine condition. EPA officials now believe the money could have been better spent cleaning up more sites, although to a somewhat lesser degree.

Current trends in environmental policy

Today, governmental bodies and public interest groups are drawing back from "micro management" of individual chemicals , individual species and individual industries to focus more on the interconnections of environmental systems and problems. This new orientation has been shaped by several (sometimes conflicting) forces, including:

  • industrial and public resistance to tight regulations fostered by fears that such laws impact employment and economic prosperity; (2) financial limitations that prevent government from carrying out tasks related to specific contaminants, such as cleaning up waste sites or closely monitoring toxic discharges; (3) a perception that large-scale, global problems such as the greenhouse effect , ozone layer depletion , habitat destruction and the like should receive priority; (4) the emergence of a "preventative" orientation on the part of citizen groups that attempts to link economic prosperity with environmental goals. This approach emphasizes recycling , efficiency, and environmental technology and stresses the prevention of problems rather than their remediation after they reach a critical stage. This strategy also marks an attempt by some citizen organizations to a more conciliatory stance with industry and government.

This new era of environmental policy is underscored by the election of Bill Clinton and Albert Gore, who made the environment a cornerstone of their campaign. In all likelihood, the Clinton administration will transform the EPA into the cabinet-level position of Department of the Environment, giving the agency more stature and power. The EPA, the USFS and other federal environmental agencies have announced a new "ecosystem" approach to resource management and pollution control . In a bold first move, Congressional Democratic leaders are simultaneously reviewing four major environmental statutes (the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act [RCRA], Clean Water Act [CWA], Endangered Species Act [ESA] and Superfund) in the hopes of integrating the policies into a comprehensive program.

See also Pollution Prevention Act

[Cathryn McCue and Kevin Wolf and Jeffrey Muhr ]



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Schneider, Keith. "What Price Clean Up?" New York Times, March 2126, 1993.

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Browner, Carol. Administrator of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, comments during a press conference in Ann Arbor, MI. March 23, 1993.

Environmental and Energy Study Institute. Special Report. October 14, 1992.

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Environmental Policy

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Environmental Policy