Reflections from My Notebook: Environmental solutions varied, but acceptance of evidence required

David Phillips
Reflections from My Notebook

President Donald Trump recently told reporters he recommends people get vaccinated for measles. It’s a good move since the president’s words do matter and measles, which was declared eradicated in the United States in 2000, is making a comeback with more than 700 cases already this year.

It’s quite a turnaround for Trump, who had previously linked vaccinations to autism, a conspiracy theory scientific studies have shown to be false. Although he hasn’t spread that misinformation since he has been in office, he had also been silent on the need for vaccinations until now.

Trump should be commended for changing his mind on this important scientific issue, but the interesting question is why?

One plausible explanation is that it is easier to dispute science when the threat is an abstract theory or warning. Once the scientific evidence shows up for the world to see, it is more difficult to ignore.

Perhaps that same thinking could be applied to environmentalism, which has become quite partisan today, but wasn’t always that way.

Younger people may be surprised that Earth Day, which we just celebrated, had the support of both Republicans and Democrats when it started in 1970. By the end of that year, Republican President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency and Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater was a co-sponsor of the Clean Air Act of 1970, which passed the Senate 73-0. The 1972 Republican Party platform took an aggressive stance on environmental reform, even highlighting Nixon’s leadership and the failure of Democrats in Congress to move his agenda forward.

Of course the evidence of a damaged environment was quite visible back in the 1960s and 1970s when several rivers, most famously the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, were catching on fire. Smog alerts were a daily occurrence for many cities, such as Los Angeles. Bay Beach in Green Bay on Lake Michigan had already been closed for many years because the water wasn’t safe for humans to swim in. Bald eagles were rarely spotted as their numbers had declined to just slightly over 400 nesting pairs in the United States.

The actions by politicians of both parties changed our trajectory from ecological suicide, reversing all those trends and even improving them, which is why beaches have reopened, rivers don’t burn and we spot eagles routinely today.

That doesn’t mean the environmental problems are solved, though. The threat is still there, but the pollutants just aren’t as visible as before. That out-of-sight, out-of-mind situation makes it easy to rail against environmental regulations, which, admittedly, are costly.

Today, the current administration is rolling back many environmental policies in an effort to reduce regulations, which, in turn, will reduce costs — to industry. However, pollution also has costs to individuals who develop health problems.

For example, the new EPA rolled back the Clean Power Plan, which required the energy sector to cut carbon emissions by 32 percent by 2030. The administration estimated that this measure to undo the “war on coal” will kill up to 1,400 Americans every year and lead to 120,000 new cases of what it describes as “exacerbated asthma,” 48,000 missed school days, 48,000 missed workdays and 300,000 “minor-restricted activity” days by 2030.

Those dire predications likely won’t come to fruition because industry is finding it more economical to invest in other forms of energy. In fact, coal consumption in the United States for 2018 is expected to be the lowest in 39 years. The economic evidence, rather than a push from the government, swayed them to look at other options rather than going back to coal.

Evidence is also changing the perceptions of politically active people, even conservatives.

For example, Kiera O’Brien, president of Harvard University’s Republican Club, told the New York Times “I’m increasingly frustrated by the fact that the science is disputed when there’s clearly evidence of climate change. We need to have a solution for our party, but we also need a solution that’s an alternative between doing nothing or ceding everything to the government.”

That club’s proposal is levying an initial tax of $40 per ton of carbon at the point where fossil fuels enter the economy, such as a mine or port. The money would be returned to taxpayers in a per-person monthly payment with limits based on the size of the family. The Climate Leadership Council estimated a dividend would amount to about $2,000 a year for a family of four.

That carbon tax and dividend proposal hasn’t gained traction with the older members of the party, but it does show an acknowledgement of the science of ecological distress and the realization there is a cost to pollution.

Another conservative, Jerry Taylor, had been a climate denier for many years, but he found it harder and harder to defend, what he calls “there’s nothing to see here, folks’ argument” about the issue. In 2014 he founded the Niskanen Center, a think tank that recently issued an essay on public policy for an age of extremes.

“Although both the timing and magnitude of the negative effects of man-made global warming remain shrouded in uncertainty, our ignorance is no excuse for ignoring the problem,” stated the policy paper, which noted that current best estimates show significant annual losses of 1 to 3 percent of gross domestic product (GPD) await us in the 22nd century, as well as the “nontrivial possibility of truly catastrophic harms to persons and property.”

The center proposes that sound principles of risk management demand prudent actions now to hedge against the range of climate change’s possible downsides. The solutions don’t look like those of the Democrats, although one proposal is a “market-friendly” carbon tax. The center doesn’t support more regulations, but it also finds fault with de-regulation. Instead, the center aims at removing rules that confer something like subsidies, allowing insider domination and blocking would-be competitors.

Environmentalism may be based on science, but it is an emotional issue as well, often based more on support for or opposition to the only apparent solution — government regulations — rather than the evidence in front of us.

The evidence may not be as clear as a measles epidemic, but there is plenty to show the world is distressed if people want to see what is in front of them. The solutions are a bit murkier, though, and that’s why the process needs bipartisan suggestions from people who see the world in different ways.

The first step is getting people to admit there really is something to see here, folks.