By Todd Myers
Across the country, environmental concerns have spawned massive government spending proposals. Cost estimates of Build Back Better and the Green New Deal ran into the tens of trillions. These piles of cash have attracted the attention of politicians and special interest groups, who seek to siphon off money to fund their own agendas, undermining worthwhile environmental efforts.
It is true that some environmental programs are of dubious merit. However, there are many that are worth supporting. Undermining them with politics creates cynicism, making it more difficult to support worthy environmental efforts.
The evidence that environmental programs are being sidelined by other political agendas is ample.
The Biden administration’s Build Back Better proposal offered an incentive of half a cent per kilowatt-hour (kWh) for renewable energy production. Those who install renewable energy sources could also receive a “bonus” of 2.5 cents per kWh if they complied with union wage and apprenticeship demands. Satisfying a political ally was worth five times as much as fighting what President Joe Biden called an “existential threat to human existence”.
Increasingly, government environmental policy serves two purposes. Dramatic rhetoric and radical proposals signal righteousness. The bigger the spending package, the stronger the signal politicians send about their purported seriousness in “saving” the planet. Climate spending has also become a handy slush fund for other priorities, like garnering union support.
This is not to say that politicians are entirely cynical. They are tempted, however, to believe that climate policies can be both a floor wax and a dessert topping – addressing an “existential threat” while rewarding political allies. As a result, government environmental policies are increasingly ineffective.
In Portland, Oregon, voters created the Clean Energy Fund, which promised to “fund clean renewable energy” with the goal of creating a “climate-friendly Portland.” The actual operation has been very different.
Most of the first round of grants for community groups went to “planning,” not actual projects. The program spends $750 for every metric ton of CO2 avoided. The Biden administration estimates each MT of CO2 creates about $55 of environmental and economic damage. Using their inflated number, the Fund spends nearly $14 for every $1 in environmental benefit.
Faced with criticism, program supporters claim it promotes “environmental justice.” The leader of one grant recipient wrote in the Portland Oregonian that the program is “working exactly as intended.” The goal of the Clean Energy Fund isn’t, she argued, to deliver clean energy but to give resources to “communities of color.”
I have seen a similar dodge in Washington state, where the HEAL Act instructed state environmental agencies to consider vaguely defined “environmental justice” when funding environmental restoration projects selected based on scientific criteria. Grants to restore salmon habitat are often located in rural areas where funding can deliver the greatest improvement. Discounting scientific guidance in favor of political criteria would send funding to heavily urbanized areas where salmon runs have little chance of recovery.
As long as politicians are intermediaries between taxpayers and the environment, they will shift money to other purposes. Climate targets will be missed. Salmon runs will continue to struggle. Environmental restoration will be undermined. Political interests may benefit, but the environment will suffer.
There is no perfect solution to this problem, but there are many ways we can reduce the role of political middlemen.
When people are connected to the costs of natural resources, they are use them more carefully. As Andrew McAfee outlines in “More From Less,” free markets have driven a huge reduction in the use of material inputs as the economy has grown dramatically.
Transparent prices provide information people can use to conserve energy. New technologies allow people to see exactly how much electricity they are using and find ways to conserve and save money.
Transitioning away from politically centered environmental policy will take time. Politicians and activists will continue to argue only they can address the “climate crisis” and other environmental problems. The result will be good for politicians and special interests. Real environmental concerns will be increasingly marginalized.
This Earth Day, however, there is more hope than ever that we can save the environment from politics and empower individuals to leave our planet better for our children.
Todd Myers is the director of the Center for the Environment at Washington Policy Center.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of Citizens Journal
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