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Environment, Economy Must Be Able to Coexist

The basic premise that the economy and the environment are in conflict is a throwback to 30 years ago.

October 27, 2002|Dennis J. Aigner

The League of Conservation Voters' National Environmental Scorecard, which reviews the voting records of U.S. representatives and senators on key environmental issues, underscores that political party affiliation and region strongly predict how politicians will vote on environmental issues in Congress.

And Republicans clearly have a poor environmental record. For example, Democratic senators in seven Western states (including Alaska and Hawaii, states whose senators have strong anti-environment voting records) voted in favor of environmental issues 74% of the time during the 106th Congress.

Republican senators from the West scored only 13%, on average. During the 2001 session of the 107th Congress the numbers were 79% for Democrats and 12% for Republicans.

What is it that makes the Republicans much less environmentally oriented? If President Bush is a good indicator, the answer is simple: The economy and the environment are in conflict, and he'll take the economy every time.

This interpretation is completely consistent with Bush's statements on such things as the energy crisis in California (it was the Golden State's decision to have more stringent environmental standards, after all), capping carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel-burning power plants and pulling America out of the Kyoto Protocol (it would be bad for the economy).

It is not reflective, however, of the attitudes of the American people, who continue to think that environmental protection should be a priority even at the risk of curbing economic growth (Gallup Poll) and who oppose Bush's decision not to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants (Los Angeles Times national poll).

On the local level, Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) voted yes on 13 of the 14 environmental bills that the League of Conservation Voters tracked in 2000, for a score of 93%. Over both sessions of the 106th Congress (1999 and 2000), she voted in favor of 83% of the key environmental bills considered by the House. So far in the 107th Congress (2001), her voting record on environmental bills is consistent: all yes.

In contrast, Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) and Ed Royce (R-Fullerton) have strong voting records against environmental legislation. In the 106th Congress, Cox and Rohrabacher voted in favor of environmental bills only 10% of the time; Royce's score was just 13%. In the first session of the 107th Congress, Rohrabacher voted yes on one environmental bill; Royce and Cox voted against all 14 that were considered.

It is presumptuous to think that all environmental bills ought to be passed. Like any other area of policymaking, the environment is not immune from badly drafted legislation and the regrettable preponderance of pork. But the voting patterns are striking and suggest that the vast majority of Republican legislators operate from a mind-set not unlike the president's.

The exceptions are found in the House, where a number of Republican representatives from states like Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and a few others have strong pro-environment voting records.

The basic premise that the economy and the environment are in conflict is a throwback to 30 years ago. A great deal of progress has been made since the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 (during the Nixon administration) and the subsequent enactment of much stricter environmental laws.

The adversarial relationship between American industry and the EPA that continues in large part to this day unfortunately helps support the view that in order to get environmental benefits, one must pay an economic price.

Yet over the past decade there have been numerous examples of companies innovating in response to environmental regulation and, by doing so, either saving money or creating new revenue streams.

Another important trend is "design for the environment," in which product design pays attention to the entire product lifestyle.

Then there's commercial building design and the move to "green" buildings for energy efficiency, buildings that use recycled and recyclable products and, most important, buildings that cost no more than conventional construction.

And finally, there are companies that have decided to lead the charge in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and on other facets of "greening" in spite of the Bush administration's lack of leadership.

Despite the power of the presidency to "spin" the facts, what is really happening is a trend toward embracing the environment and sustainability as central business issues rather than peripheral ones. As the power of industry is brought solidly behind good environmental practice, "environment and economy" becomes the operative phrase.

While such issues as school vouchers and the partial privatization of Social Security represent philosophical departures between Republicans and Democrats, there is no philosophical basis for disagreement about the environment. We are treating the planet as if it were a "business in liquidation," to borrow from the book "Natural Capitalism" by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins. As our natural capital declines, so does our conventional economic capacity. And that's bad for business, whatever one's political persuasion.


Dennis J. Aigner is Dean of the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the UC Santa Barbara and former Dean of the Graduate School of Management at UC Irvine.

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