Guess how many new environmental laws have come about as a result of Al Gore’s earth-shattering movie, An Inconvenient Truth? Zero. In fact, Congress hasn’t passed a major environmental law since 1973’s Endangered Species Act. Middlebury College prof Christopher Klyza explores why in a new, wonkishly titled book, American Environmental Policy, 1990-2006: Beyond Gridlock.
Klyza and his co-author David Sousa argue that environmental policymaking isn’t in worse shape than it was in the late 1980s, as some contend. They say it’s just taking shape while traversing five “alternative pathways”: presidential rulemaking, state policymaking, congressional “appropriations,” and collaboration between business and environmental interests.
Similarly, while many environmentalists bemoan President Bush’s “Clear Skies” Act and his policies on logging and wilderness areas as signs of environmental regression, Klyza and Sousa argue that congressional “gridlock” on policymaking has actually prevented Bush from wreaking as much havoc on the environment as he might have.
Earlier this week, Klyza discussed his book with Seven Days by phone from his Middlebury College office.
SEVEN DAYS: Americans hear a lot of talk about “red” and “blue” states. Your book refers to a “green state.” What’s that?
CHRISTOPHER KLYZA: Over time, the U.S. has passed a lot of laws and created a lot of agencies and institutions. Related to that are expectations that people have [regarding] the environment. When we talk about environmental policy today, some of that policy is based on laws that were passed 10 years ago, and some is based on laws that were passed 100 years ago. In some sense, the “green state” represents that combination of laws and institutions. Sometimes, you have contradictions that are just built into the laws and agencies themselves.
SD: Your book refers to past environmental policies as the “lords of yesterday” and the “lords of a little while ago.” How do the “lords” affect policymaking today?
CK: The best examples: Folks in Vermont might not realize that an 1872 mining law still governs hard-rock mining in the U.S, [or that] our main system for irrigation in the western states was a law passed in 1902. These laws are still on the books and are hugely important when you start thinking, ‘Gee, why would we have a new mine right outside Yellowstone? That doesn’t make any sense.’ It’s because of this old law. It’s not that easy to change some of this stuff, because some of these laws had a different goal than some of the laws we’ve passed since the ’70s.
SD: You write that most of our landmark federal environmental laws — the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species acts — were passed with bipartisan support between 1964 and 1980, but that Congress subsequently hit a legislative logjam on environmental policy. What happened?
CK: One of the big reasons is that the parties have become much more polarized on the environment and conservation than they were in the ’60s and ’70s. Part of what explains that is the Republican Party has become more conservative, and the Democratic party has become more liberal . . . Interest groups have really exploded since the ’60s — we know about the environmental groups, but industry and business groups are more sophisticated at playing the game. And so those two things make it hard to get anything new accomplished.
[But the logjam] also prevents a backsliding on the environment. We have this idea of “green drift”: Even though we haven’t done anything of significance on climate change, we haven’t gutted the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act or other such laws.
SD: You write that a “spring freshet” of political activity is now directing the “next generation” of environmental policymakers. What do you mean?
CK: Whether it’s business groups or environmental groups or the public, there’s pressure for new policy. And if nothing’s going to happen in Congress, they’ll figure out other ways to do it. We talk about five main ways that’s been happening. Even though we haven’t passed many laws since 1990, there’s been a lot of action on the policy front.
SD: Your book cautions that, in the end, innovative policymaking isn’t a permanent substitute for the lawmaking process.
CK: You could sit here and think, How are we going to deal with climate change if Congress doesn’t pass a law? ‘Well, we’ll file a lawsuit under the Clean Air Act here, we’ll do something in California there, we’ll see if the next president writes a rule.’ But all of that is not nearly as good as having Congress pass a good law. The challenge becomes, can you break through that gridlock? . . . I think the Senate is going to need a president extremely engaged on the issue to push [good climate legislation] through.
SD: How might an Obama presidency affect the present legislative impasse on climate change?
CK: Part of it is how many Democrats are in the Senate — you need 60 to overcome a filibuster. The big question — and this is true of McCain — is how engaged either one is going to be on climate change. Let’s say it’s Obama: Is he going to put significant amounts of his political capital into a climate-change bill? I don’t think he will. What I think might happen is that an overall clean-energy package might be part of his economic package.
SD: Your book chronicles the period stretching from 1990 to 2006. Since 2006, we seem to have witnessed a steady growth in public interest around global warming, thanks largely to Al Gore.
CK: While the salience of climate change has risen, some of the polling data I’ve seen lately has suggested that you’re now starting to see the public split growing between Democrats and Republicans [on climate change]. Pat Leahy (D-VT) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA)? Those people are on board — the fact that more people in Vermont care about [climate change] doesn’t matter. The question becomes, what’s going on in North Carolina or Georgia, places where maybe the politicians voted no on [climate legislation]: Are they going to start to rethink how it might work for them?