A Price on Pollution

Saving the environment for future generations

California, along with eight other states, sued the Trump administration last month over the EPA’s decision to stop requiring companies to monitor and report air and water pollution during the coronavirus pandemic. 

How did we get here? Why does a republican administration feel it is politically advantageous to halt environmental reporting during a pandemic?  Why has protection of the environment become a wedge issue that divides the left from the right?

Historically, until a few decades ago, that was not the case.  

Abraham Lincoln opened the national parks. Teddy Roosevelt established the national forests. Richard Nixon signed into law the Clean Air and National Environmental Policy Acts and formed the Environmental Protection Agency. President Reagan negotiated the Montreal Protocol, the most successful environmental agreement in history, the one that drove a global solution to ozone depletion.  Democrats may often be first to identify the problems we face, but Republicans are often the first with solutions that work.

One solution that works particularly well is putting a price on pollution. When it’s free to pollute, people and businesses tend to pollute freely. When we charge for pollution, we find ways to stop. I have successfully championed the price-on-pollution idea for more than 30 years. In California, this meant breaking a longstanding deadlock between business and environmental interests and establishing a five-cent deposit on beverage containers.

It is extraordinary how much pollution can be cut with a simple financial incentive. California’s so-called “bottle bill” cut the state’s litter volume by more than half, and built a recycling industry that still achieves recovery rates of 80%—the highest of any state in the nation except Michigan, where the deposit is ten-cents.

But California’s system is unique in another respect: it is the lowest cost law of its kind, anywhere. Its low cost can be traced to the fact that it was designed by a coalition that stretched from the political left to right, and included business, environmental, and social justice leaders—back when we were allowed, at least occasionally, to fraternize.

Bill Coors of Coors Brewing Company—the more environmentally concerned of the “Coors Brothers” who were excoriated by labor democrats in the 1970’s much as the Koch brothers have been recently—came up with a streamlined structure for the law that cut its cost by more than 90%. Chuck Collings, a social and religious conservative who headed the state’s retailers, motivated for-profit companies to take action for the good of the state. Democratic Assemblyman Burt Margolin navigated the measure through the State Assembly, while Republican Senator Becky Morgan steered it through the State Senate. The state’s manufacturing interests lobbied Republicans to vote for it, while local beer distributors brought Democrats aboard. It was signed into law by a conservative Republican governor, George Deukmejian, who administered it through his Department of Conservation. The system paid for its own administration, entirely by self-generated recycling revenues and unredeemed deposits, with no funds from the general fund. 

What dismays me is that cynical political strategists have now turned environmental protection into a wedge issue, using it strategically to divide people and politicians into groups of homogeneous Republicans on one side, and homogeneous Democrats on the other. Wedge issues are used by political strategists as devices to keep voters segregated into separate media echo chambers. Today’s top four wedge issues—abortion, guns, immigration, and climate—will never be resolved until they cease to serve their cynical purpose in political campaigns. They’re simply too valuable as agents to divide people into assigned parties and positions. They keep voters from straying into unfamiliar ideological territories where their hearts and minds might be up for grabs.

As a Republican, it’s risky to express an interest in protecting the environment in unmixed company. It often makes people regard me as a potential traitor to the cause of free markets. On the other hand, for many of my Democratic friends today, it is equally unacceptable to express the idea that climate change requires anything but the mobilization of government on a massive scale to get the job done.

If Republicans and Democrats didn’t join forces to make recycling work in California, the state would probably still have a recycling law by now. But you can bet it would be channeling money straight to vested interests—politically powerful waste haulers, labor unions, and manufacturers who would be recycling a fraction of what the state collects today, for several times the cost. When protecting the earth—or doing anything else worthwhile—is left to only one political party, vested interests hold all the power. The people hold none.

Why? Because it is practically impossible to line up every vote of every Democrat or Republican for anything. Party line votes invariably require generous political payoffs, generally to vested interests inside specific legislative districts, who provide the campaign support the local lawmaker needs to take a risky vote.

That is not acceptable—not for environmental policymaking, or any policymaking. We need to stop it.

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