spea magazine

Speaking Out: What Our Experts Say



Revisiting environmental policy challenges...

Four years ago, we asked SPEA faculty to comment on the incoming President's critical environmental policy challenges....Just how has he done?

Matt Auer

matt auerOne step forward, one step back. That characterizes the Bush Administration’s efforts to deal with the problems I outlined in 2004 (". . . GLOBALIZE THE AREA").

In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its fourth assessment report, which declared, “Today, the time for doubt has passed. The IPCC has unequivocally affirmed the warming of our climate system, and linked it directly to human activity.” In addition, companies like GM, Dupont, and Duke Energy called for clear, firm rules to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In the face of these and other pressures, the administration’s passive strategy to manage climate change became increasingly untenable. That strategy included a 2002 voluntary plan to reduce by 18 percent the nation’s “greenhouse gas intensity” – the ratio of greenhouse gas emissions to economic output by 2012 – yet allow for emissions to actually increase during this same period. The president has seldom referred to this plan during his second term. In intergovernmental talks in 2007, the Bush administration agreed to negotiate a new global warming pact by the end of 2009 – a noteworthy change for a White House opposed to timelines on emissions reduction (not to mention targets) of any sort, but also, just a modest step forward to solve one of the greatest challenges of our time.

President Bush signed the Energy Independence and Security Act in 2007 – a genuine accomplishment. Among other important provisions, it calls for strengthening fuel economy standards in new automobiles – the first such change in over 30 years. It also phases out most types of incandescent light bulbs by 2014 and requires steep reductions in energy consumption in new and renovated federal buildings. But hours after the bill became law, the EPA administrator, against the advice of staff, declared that California and other states were forbidden from pressing ahead with their own more stringent rules governing tailpipe emissions. One step forward, one step back.

Climate change and energy issues will continue to loom large for the next president. The key test will be whether and to what extent the new leader connects environmental problems to other critical policy concerns. S/he has a golden opportunity to deal boldly with a basket of social and economic problems that are infused with environmental and public health quandaries. The next president could reform the tax code by taxing pollution instead of employment – for example, taxing carbon emissions instead of income. He/she could emphasize healthier lifestyles by saying no to an irrational farm bill that encourages production of the wrong kinds of food inputs (e.g., industrial-scale corn monocultures for the manufacture of high fructose corn syrup). Correcting bad agricultural policies can promote environmental protection and help rectify a health care system that focuses on treating illness instead of preventing illness.


Matt Auer (PhD, Yale University) is Director of SPEA’s Undergraduate Programs and Professor of Public and Environmental Affairs, specializing in environmental policy and management problems with an international focus: international environmental assistance, comparative industrial environmental policy, international policies governing forests and forestry.


Evan Ringquist

evan ringquistMy advice to the next administration does not advocate elevating one environmental problem over another as a presidential priority. Rather, I would encourage the president, and Congress, to reverse course from the recent pattern of (not so) benign neglect and return environmental protection in general to the national policy agenda. Amazingly, the last meaningful revisions to environmental legislation occurred in 1996 (with the reauthorization of the Safe Drinking Water Act) and 1990 (with revisions to the Clean Air Act). This means that the controlling legislative authority for all other major elements of U.S. environmental policy (e.g., water pollution control, hazardous waste management, the management of national parks, grasslands, and forests) is more than 20 years old. At least two major pieces of environmental legislation – the Endangered Species Act and the federal Superfund law – are more than a dozen years overdue for reauthorization.

While Congress and the president have stood still, environmental problems have not. Federal and state environmental officials have tried their best to cope with new environmental demands, but there are limits to agency discretion in this area. We are witnessing increasing distances legally, technologically, and in the scientific understanding of environmental problems between the actions of agencies and the specifics of the legislation empowering these agencies to act.

The first practical implication of aging environmental legislation is uncertainty on the part of EPA, state environmental agencies, and the targets of environmental regulation. For example, when the Clean Air Act was reauthorized in 1990, addressing climate change was not a high priority, and the legislation contained no clear signal from Congress that the EPA should act to control greenhouse gasses. When in the 21st century the threat of climate change became a virtual certainty, the agency was uncertain whether it had the legal authority to regulate carbon dioxide. Resolving this uncertainty required a long and costly court battle that was resolved last year when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the EPA did in fact have the authority to regulate greenhouse gasses.

A second implication is cost. This implication may seem counter-intuitive, as many observers believe that new legislation must impose greater costs on those subject to environmental regulation. Old legislation, however, often requires the use of older and more costly pollution technologies. Indeed, for years the American Public Works Association has lobbied Congress to update and reauthorize the 1987 Water Pollution Control Act because this act requires regulatory targets to meet outdated (and more costly) standards and use outdated (and more costly) equipment.

A final implication of aging environmental legislation is threats to the legitimacy of environmental policy decisions. As described above, environmental administrators and federal judges are increasingly called upon to define environmental policy within a legislative framework that is ambiguous or silent on many topics. In the minds of citizens, however, there are clear distinctions between policy directions from Congress and policy choices made by “unelected judges” or “out of control bureaucrats.” To the extent that environmental policy is increasingly made by the latter two of these, policy choices may be viewed as less legitimate.

The next president will face a host of important policy challenges, including the war in Iraq, a possible economic recession, the looming crisis in Medicare, and homeland security. For the reasons articulated above, however, this president would be well-advised to work environmental protection on to the domestic policy agenda.


Evan Rinquist is Professor of Public and Environmental Affairs. His specialties are in public policy (environmental, energy, natural resources, and regulation), research methodology, American political institutions. He received the M.A. and PhD in political science and M.S. in environmental studies from the University of Wisconsin.