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How Environmental Policy Is Made--Part 6, Problems and Hurdles

written by: •edited by: Niki Fears•updated: 8/15/2009

Now that we have a good understanding of how policy is made the last thing to do is to identify hurdles and problems that make it difficult to create sustainable policies. This will help us understand why environmental actions are always so difficult to achieve.

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    It's Politics...

    Political issues are complicated. Despite many attempts by congressman, pundits, and the media to simplify issues, charactizing them in a few elements and factions, politics contain a complicated and diverse set of interests, problems, possibilities, uncertainties, and factions. Environmental politics are no different. However, unlike other political arenas that are largely based on opinions, environmental politics is centered around measurable effects and backed by scientific discovery, prediction, and theory. One might think that this would make it less debatable.This is not the case, however. This merely moves the discussion further into the heat of debate since the various sides purport to have the support of science.

    For people who desire to help protect this world, the politics involved may seem frustrating and confusing. Hopefully this series has done something to help appease this confusion and help identify ways you can make a difference. This last article will cover a few more relevant hurdles involved in environmental politics. These are things to view with an eye towards change; coming to understand them as hurdles is the first step towards this kind of change.

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    Power of Committees

    In Part 4, I mentioned the importance of committees and subcommittees in the process of developing policy. These committees have incredible influence in deciding the details of a bill (since they are the ones writing it). Because of the limited time in Congress, it is inevitable that much will slip through the cracks, both in changes that will help and hurt environmental conservation efforts. This is the nature of pork-barrel motions--the committee members have the power to insert small modifications into a larger bill that they know will be approved. For environmental politics this means that a few relevant politicians are entrusted with a significant portion of the conversation effort. If there are significant supporters or opposers in the committees responsible for writing and submitting environmentally relevant policy it can change the whole outcome. This must be awknowledged as we fight to protect the environment. While the ultimate vote is up to the whole of Congress, it is the committee members who have the most power.

    Most importantly, since bills cannot come to vote until they have been approved by the committee, the committe has the power to destroy opposed legislation by simply ignoring bills they want nothing to do with. This is called being "killed in committee" and it happens quite often. A bill can be forced out of committee through a discharge petition but this rarely occurs because most politicians want to preserve this power.

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    Iron Triangles

    This power of the committee can lead to a phenomenon known as Iron Triangles. An Iron Triangle is a stranglehold on policy related to a field due to a common interest and position of the relevant committee(s), the executive branch agency responsible for enforcement, and the producer interest group.

    For instance, in the 60s and 70s, there was an Iron Triangle around Nuclear power between the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy, the Atomic Energy Commission (executive branch), and the large utility companies. For over two decades these groups kept nuclear energy moving forward until it was broken up in the mid 70s.

    Today the most notable Iron Triangle is around Agricultural policies. This exists between the Agricultural Committees, the Department of Agriculture, and the large food companies (most noted (and most targeted) being Monsanto).

    These three bodies gather support from each other through mutual relationships, much like a collusive relationship between business. This is illustrated by the diagram below (courtesy of the Wikipedia article)


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    High Costs, Unclear Benefits

    Even if an Iron Triangle does not exist and a committee is supportive, there are still many problems in characterizing environmental policy. Many people are very passionate about environmental policies, some strongly desiring to protect the world, others highly opposed to the invasive and limiting regulation it requires.

    Environmental conservation efforts will always have one huge hurdle to overcome: its policies always appear to have high costs with unclear or uncertain benefits. For example, a cap and trade system creates a whole bureaucratic system that corporations have to handle, limiting their production capabilities, and creating extra costs. Meanwhile, the benefits of such a limitation are abstract and hard to quantify. This is the reason such a bill has taken such a long time to receive major consideration. It is easier for businesses, lobbyist, and many politicians to see the high costs of such a system instead of seeing the benefits, which they see as unclear. In order for environmental policies to move forward propents need to spend a lot of time rallying evidence and providing clear explanations of the benefits involved. But even then it will take time for people to see and identify these clear benefits.

    In many cases the best mitigating strategy for this is to find things that the relevant parties hold of value. For instance, in recent years many people have joined in the efforts for alternative energy not necessarily for conservation but because of the reliance of foreign oil.

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    As we rally evidence to highlight the dangers of our current course of action and to demonstrate the benefits of our proposed changes, the uncertainty of science will always make it more difficult to justify regulation. Opposition will always highlight the uncertainty in the evidence, citing opposing studies and alternate opinions.

    In such a situation it is the temptation for many interest groups to pretend like the evidence is stronger than it is. This is not a good idea, however, because this undermines the group's credibility. The best option is to seek more evidence that will provide a better and more convincing argument for the proposed policy changes.

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    Manufacturing of Uncertainty

    In many cases where the evidence begins to mount for a specific regulation relevant opposing groups may attempt to manufacture uncertainty. The best case of this is in the tobacco industry; during the 1990s tobacco companies funded and published numerous studies that appeared to be authentic scientific work demonstrating that smoking does not have such negative health effects. The same thing occurs within environmental politics. Most noteably this has been attempted in regard to global warming. Many groups who oppose the intensive regulation the threat of global warming may bring have provided or over-highlighted opposing studies in an attempt to demonstrate that there is much more disagreement in the scientific community about global warming, when in reality almost all scientists readily acknowledge global warming is occurring.

    The key to overcoming this manufacturing of uncertainty is paying attention to the evidence. You have to be aware of when smaller studies are being touted as strong evidence against a host of opposing ones. Also, funding sources for studies ought to be checked to see if the paying body has political predispositions.

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    Advocating Masquerading as Science

    In relation to this you will have scientists who appear to be delivering honest scientific evidence but who are actually out to achieve political ends. This is the stealth advocate mentioned in part 5. These supporters are dangerous because they undermine the credibility of scientific evidence and the professional opinions of scientists. If the politicians and public cannot trust scientific evidence to be based in good, peer-reviewed (meaning other scientists have approved it), and valid procedure then scientific evidence will cease to count as a marshalling influence. If this becomes the case then environmental politics will become all politics and it will be impossible to push environmental policies forward.

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    In summary: Rhetoric and Science

    In the end, the rhetoric that is formed around science is a very delicate endeavor that we must watch over carefully. Environmental politics requires science to be sound and credible. If the politicians manipulate scientific evidence in their rhetoric and over politicize the issue then nothing will get done at all. This is the desire for some politicians who see regulation as threatening and unnecessary. As advocates of environmental preservation we need to make sure we keep our political dispositions separate from the science--if the need is great enough, the evidence will be there. If we fall to the temptation to meet over politicizing with our own strong rhetoric, as many environmental groups do (think PETA), we will lose credibility (who trusts studies put out by PETA?) and our ability to make significant changes will be greatly diminished.

    Hopefully this series has provided you with some good insights into the workings of environmental politics. With care it is my hope that we can contineu to work to a more sustainable world. Good luck!

How Environmental Policy is Made

Politics are messy but environmental danger is real. How does such an important topic get addressed without our complex and monolithic system of government? This series provides a look into the history, players, process, and problems involved in trying to enact and modify environmental policy.
  1. How Environmental Policy is Made: Introduction
  2. How Environmental Policy is Made--Part 2, History of Environmental and Science Policy
  3. How Environmental Policy is Made--Part 3, Key Players
  4. How Environmental Policy is Made--Part 4, Process
  5. How Environmental Policy Is Made--Part 5, Role Of Science
  6. How Environmental Policy Is Made--Part 6, Problems and Hurdles