Over the last five months, and with increasing frequency, I find myself listening to candidates for office talk about their environmental policies. I’ve looked at the policies of candidates for Minnesota Governor, for US Congress in three different districts, and for Minnesota Senate and House in numerous districts. There is a lot of variation across the candidates. Only one candidate so far has demonstrated a) rich knowledge of the subject, b) well formulated and detailed policy, and c) policy that I find very good and agree with. This is not a post about that candidate, but rather, all the other candidates.
The other candidates have positions that run from “seems kinda OK” to “is maybe mostly OK” but none are good enough. The most common position on a given environmental issue is for the candidate to indicate that they think it is very important. Sadly, when it comes to climate change specifically, the most common position is for the candidate to acknowledge that climate change is real.
Sorry, but you don’t get points for knowing how to write your name on the top of the exam.
We all know the environment is important, and we all know climate change is real. I should mention that I’m talking here entirely about candidates in the Democratic Party. I suppose, sadly, a Republican candidate can get points for acknowledging that climate change is real. But, that is roughly like giving an adult kudos for wiping the mud off their boots before walking in your house. We are not impressed.
No, it isn’t good enough to say that the environment is important, or to claim that you agree with widespread and well established scientific consensus.
I have some preferences in some races for who I’d like to see run in the upcoming elections, from my party. I’m undecided about others. (I’ve only openly endorsed one candidate.) I’m actually trying to remain undecided in several of the races for as long as possible because I find myself often enough working in groups of people where our working together is more important than our possible differences on candidates. That will all end eventually and we will all get behind the Democrats we endorse or select in primaries, and work very hard to get them elected.
In the meantime, I have a few thoughts for candidates and their policy advisers on environmental issues, with something of a focus on climate change. I do work as a policy adviser for candidates. If you are a candidate and want to hire me, do let me know, I’m available. But for now, here is some free advice. This advice does not speak to specific policy. Rather, it speaks to how to focus your efforts on developing good policy. In addition, this advice will help you avoid saying things that will make you look inadequate to those who understand the issues already. And, this is not comprehensive. This is, rather, the rant in my head when I woke up this morning, written down and edited somewhat to be work safe.
It isn’t enough to say that you believe climate change is real, or that you feel it is very important, even existential in nature. It isn’t enough to say that you support doing a lot of research on the problem, or that you are really worried about it.
First, you have to demonstrate that you know why it is important. Climate change affects patterns of weather, which in turn affect everything from agriculture to lifestyle to disease, globally in ways that will negatively influence everyone’s food supply. It directly and indirectly causes upheaval, economic collapse, and social instability, leading to violent uprisings and an ever more severe refugee crisis across the world. It causes local change in any given candidate’s area that range from how global effects damage the interests of local or regional businesses (for example, global agricultural businesses are very concerned about ongoing and future effects of climate change) to more mundane and personal (for example, in Minnesota, the loss of backyard hockey ice and good ice for ice fishing, the collapse of our summer-time clean lake ecology, and much more severe effects such as the unchecked spread of Lyme disease and other health effects).
Think of it this way. Big storms like the hurricanes that hit the US last year are very important and increasing storm frequency and severity are without a doubt real problems that arise from climate change (though the details are not entirely certain). But if you think that is the most significant effect, you are probably wrong. You will find yourself tracking and worrying about storms while the global agricultural system collapses first in areas that become inundated by sea level rise and, overlapping but a bit later in time, in areas that simply become too hot to grow certain key crops in, and eventually, as vast tropical and subtropical regions become uninhabitable by our species because the average high temperature is simply above human body temperature for too many hours a day, too many days a year, and prior regional economic and social collapse (brought on by a collapsing agricultural system) obviate such niceties as air conditioners. That sort of thing. I’ve left out a lot of details and there are potential variations on this scenario.
In the west, we worry today about who gets the contract to bring bottled water to Puerto Rico or Houston after a hurricane, and yes, that is important. But do not forget that in Pakistan, there are people who have the job of contracting laborers to dig hundreds of graves in advance each warm season, for the bodies that will pile up when the annual heat wave arrives.
In the US, every region has some sort of major environment-affecting project ongoing or looming on the horizon. Development in coastal region. Moving water supplies from better watered to more arid regions. Mining. Suburban or exurban development. Pipelines. Many of these projects are associated with an environmental review, which involves having numerous experts examine, measure, and describe a project’s effects on the environment and local economy, and other factors. We often hear candidates say, “Oh, there is a process, and it involves science! We just need to do whatever the process, which involves science, tells us to do in the end, because we believe in science!” Actually, that is not a bad answer. But it is an inadequate answer because there is another level to consider.
The environmental review process involves something else, in addition to science. It involves appeasement. Technically, it is called “mitigation” but it can also involve appeasement. I’ll give you a hypothetical example.
The water supply of a small town, which uses a lot of private wells, is threatened by a project. So, to mitigate the projects effects, some sort of deal is made where local ground water quality is monitored, and when something goes wrong, an appropriate response will be made. The job of monitoring ground water is handed to the appropriate state agency, and the details of the potential response are not worked out, because that is better left for when there is an actual problem.
The Republicans then take over the state, drop funding for the agency because that is what they do, and the monitoring of seemingly clean groundwater is cynically ended. Later, people somehow discover that the groundwater has become contaminated by the project previously “mitigated” so it is now understood that an appropriate response should be made. But, there is no appropriate response on the table because that detail wasn’t really worked out at the time, there is no funding for it because that was not included in the original mitigation plan, and it turns out, the damage to the groundwater is much worse than expected both qualitatively (there is lead, when lead was not expected, perhaps) and quantitatively (a much larger area is affected, at a higher rate than expected).
Stakeholders were appeased at the time of the mitigation plan’s implementation. But, the effects of the project were actually not mitigated against.
A good environmental policy demands not just that the environmental review process be followed strictly and cleanly, honestly and fully, but also, that assurances be in place, in the event that this process is ultimately circumvented by design, chance, or error. Making such assurances part of the process will provide incentive to large corporations that might otherwise merely appease, encouraging them to actually engage honestly and effectively in long term protection, and when they don’t, a good assurance arrangement will forcibly extract what is needed from their corporate hides.
A good political position on the environment demonstrates that a candidate understands the issues, knows what research has already been done and where weak areas in our understanding need to be filled in. A good clue that a candidate really doesn’t have a good environmental position is when they call for funding for intensive research in an area where there has already been a lot of research, and we know a lot.
Another clue to a candidate’s understanding or lack thereof is where the candidate claims the onus of action resides. Is a particular issue mainly federal, state, or local? What are the appropriate regulatory agencies, or major stakeholders, in the overall legal and legislative web? An informed and thoughtful candidate can name the governmental agencies that are involved in a particular aspect of the environment (for example, this might be very different for mining vs. agriculture), and will avoid suggesting that a particular problem be handled by an agency that really has no stake, business, or experience in it.
Candidates will and do differ in the degree to which they expect the free market to fix environmental problems, but there really is only one good position on this policy aspect of environmentalism. Historically, free markets, by their very nature, will always damage the environment, and privilege economic gain. Every now and then free market forces will push forward a technology that is good for the environment, but that technology is not being advanced for the reason that it is friendly to the Earth. It is being advanced because it is friendly, at the moment, to business people and stockholders. If we rely on that, the moment it makes more sense, financially, to throw the environment under the bus to benefit business people and stockholders, that will happen, because that is what the free market is supposed to do.
For this reason, good policy does not look to the free market for solutions. Rather, it looks to harness free market forces to do the bidding of good environmental strategy, wherever that works. A good position does not involve pointing to one or the other good thing happening in the free market (like wind power becoming cheap), saying “there, it is being fixed.” A good position acknowledges the positive effects of the free market, and the negative effects of the free market, and strives to combine thoughtful protection of the environment, people, and natural resources with incentives to nudge business and industry along in the right direction.
Finally, a good position is current. Time and time again I hear politicians say things that are simply out of date. Somewhat more often, I see people ask questions of politicians that are based on out of date information, and the politician seems to not know that, and therefore can’t respond correctly. This is especially true in the area of the energy transition, where the efficacy of various clean energy sources is currently changing dramatically, and the rate at which that change happens changes dramatically (in more than one direction!).
That is all, now please do one of these two things. 1) Be a better politician or b) go find a politician and hold their feet to the fire. Figuratively.