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Understanding Environmental Policy

Understanding Environmental Policy

by Steven Cohen

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The first edition of this pragmatic course text emphasized the policy value of a "big picture" approach to the ethical, political, technological, scientific, economic, and management aspects of environmental issues. The text then applied this approach to real-world case examples involving leaks in underground storage tanks, toxic waste cleanup, and the effects of


The first edition of this pragmatic course text emphasized the policy value of a "big picture" approach to the ethical, political, technological, scientific, economic, and management aspects of environmental issues. The text then applied this approach to real-world case examples involving leaks in underground storage tanks, toxic waste cleanup, and the effects of global climate change.

This second edition demonstrates the ongoing effectiveness of the book's framework in generating meaningful action and policy solutions to current environmental issues. The text adds case examples concerning congestion taxes, e-waste, hydrofracking, and recent developments in global climate change, updating references and other materials throughout and incorporating the political and policy changes of the Obama administration's first term and developments in national and global environmental issues.

Editorial Reviews

Midwest Book Review
A scholarly, detailed analysis... invaluable.

Tanya Heikkila
The beauty of this book is that it offers a holistic, yet straightforward and logical approach, for analyzing the complexity of environmental issues and it is easy to digest and apply in a semester.

This new edition... contains updated case studies and three excellent new ones on fracking, electronic waste, and congestion pricing. Each is well described, engaging, and memorable, making them especially valuable as teaching tools, not just thoughtful, timely analyses

Public Administration Review
A well-written succinct account of the causes and effects of contemporary environmental problems, addressing the interdisciplinary issues surrounding the environmental policy arena.

Environmental Ethics - Steve Vanderheiden
Those working within the field may benefit from its big picture approach to diagnosing several environmental ills...consistent emphasis upon the role of environmental values in policy analysis and development should be commended.

Cohen proposes a conceptual framework for policy analysis that explicitly looks at values, political concerns, science and technology aspects, policy design and economic issues, and operational management...It would be a good choice for a (multidisciplinary) graduate seminar.

Product Details

Columbia University Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
second edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.40(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt


By Steven Cohen

Columbia University Press

Copyright © 2006

Columbia University Press

All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-231-13536-X

Chapter One

From the chapter "Have We Made the Planet Warmer, and If We Have,
How Can We Stop?"

Global Climate Change as an Issue of Values

One cause of climate change, as we saw in all the environmental
problems discussed so far, is our lifestyle choices, which are
determined by our values. Behaviors based on these values have
resulted in population growth and extensive use of fossil fuels. The
philosophy of living for the moment that pervades our culture limits
our interest as a society in addressing climate change. The true
dangers of global warming will occur in the future. Because the
effects cannot be predicted precisely, they are removed from current
reality. The public responds far more quickly to environmental
problems that immediately affect their personal lives. Air and water
pollution and the hazard of toxic substances provoke a faster and
more active response than climate change because the impacts of the
former are immediate.

The effects of global climate change are complex and difficult to
see. Many of them will not become apparent for several decades.
Social learning is required if climate change is to achieve status
on the systemic and institutional policy agenda. We need to imagine
that we ourselves are living in the futureand experiencing the
negative impact of global warming. Analysts who examine the solvency
of the social security system face the same challenge, for most of
the people who will be harmed if the system goes broke have more
immediate financial worries to focus on and so the system's solvency
does not get on the policy agenda.

Another value dimension to the issue stems from the question of
equity. Do people in the developed world have an unlimited right to
burn fossil fuels to maintain their lifestyles while denying that
same right to people in developing countries who are aspiring to a
more consumptive lifestyle? A second equity concern is the greater
vulnerability of poor people to the effects of climate change. Very
often a wealthy nation can defend its settlements and food supplies
against the negative impact of an extreme climate event. For
example, the effects of droughts can be mitigated by irrigation, and
the damage from floods can be fixed if massive amounts of capital
are available to pay the costs of reconstruction. Poorer nations, on
the other hand, lack the resources required for these kinds of
responses. In his book American Heat: Ethical Problems with the
United States' Response to Global Warming
, Donald A. Brown (2002)
takes the position that, because global warming has had and will
continue to have a disproportionately large negative impact on
poorer countries, reductions in emissions are a moral imperative. To
Brown, the question that remains is how much reduction is needed,
and, in his view, "no matter which ethical rule is followed on
deciding on an atmospheric stabilization goal, the status quo on
global warming emissions is ethically reprehensible" (232).

I do not agree that the ethical dimensions of climate change are as
stark as Brown believes, but that ethics is one facet of the problem
is clear. Because the science of climate change is uncertain, and
because much of the impact will occur only in the future, I find the
ethical dimension of the issue somewhat ambiguous. The key moral
issue posed is that poor nations and poor people will probably be
disproportionately affected by the climate change. Such change is
also likely to worsen the environmental, social, and economic
problems that lead to extreme poverty in the first place. Greenhouse
emissions are clearly harmful, and we have an ethical obligation to
reduce the threat of global warming for the most vulnerable among
us, as well as for future generations. The political potency of this
issue is rooted in its ethical dimensions.

Global Climate Change as a Political Issue

The industries that stand to lose the most from having limits set on
greenhouse gas emissions are those that produce oil and energy (Levy
and Newell 2004, 194). The Bush administration has evinced extremely
close ties to both, particularly the oil industry. A powerful force
motivating the administration to question the science of global
climate change was the financial and political power of the American
oil industry. It was not surprising, of course, that President Bush,
the former governor of a major oil state with a large base of
campaign contributors in the oil industry, was on the side of the
oil industry with regard to reducing greenhouse emissions despite
campaign promises to the contrary in 2000. The fundamental logic of
this position is that reducing greenhouse emissions will cost money
that could otherwise be spent by consumers on goods or services or
by the government on services or infrastructure, which would earn
elected leaders political credit from constituents. The other side
of the political equation is that enforcing emission reduction
policies would gain elected leaders credit from environmentalists.

Climate change is more a science and technology issue than a
political one. No one is in favor of global warming, but those
opposed to strong measures to reduce C[O.sub.2] emissions tend not to
believe that the cost of such measures outweighs the benefits.
Although certain businesses will be disadvantaged by the costs,
overall it appears that higher environmental standards have
indirectly advanced the modernization of American industry, creating
wealth by creating cleaner environments. The operation of sewage
treatment plants, for example, has not only resulted in clean rivers
but has also contributed to the development and value of waterfront
property. Policies that reduce greenhouse emissions may make certain
cities more livable in the summer and might therefore encourage
factories to invest in overall plant modernization. These
investments, in turn, could increase competition, an economic plus.
Thus, if the cost of mitigating climate change turned out to be a
good investment, elected leaders supporting such policies would
benefit politically. However, if these policies caused companies to
close down plants in the United States or move to developing
countries with less stringent greenhouse gas regulations, political
supporters could suffer at the polls.

An elected leader's stance on the issue of global warming is
symbolic of his or her attitude toward environmentalism. A large
environmentalist constituency, and an energetic interest group
community, is actively engaged in national and international
environmental issues. But global warming did not (and, again, excuse
the pun) generate much political heat in the United States until
2001, when President Bush came out against the Kyoto Protocol. The
paradox is that Bush's opposition may have taken a relatively
low-intensity international issue and given it domestic political
currency in the United States. He may have had the same inadvertent
impact on the issue's standing in the international community.
During the 2004 presidential campaign, Bush's position on climate
change was part of a set of issues that environmentalists cited as
evidence of his anti-environmental stance. Senators John McCain and
Joe Lieberman seized this issue as a way to delineate their own
brand of moderate, mainstream environmentalism, and also, perhaps,
to tweak a president whom neither was very fond of. The energy
industry and other businesses opposed to emission limits lobbied
against the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act, and the Senate
defeated the bill in late 2003 by a 55 to 43 vote. Opposition from
the political Right was also intense. Writing about McCain-Lieberman
in the conservative National Review on October 29, 2003, Marlo Lewis
Jr. observed that,

[The bill would] impose a cap on C[O.sub.2] emissions. Carbon dioxide is
the inescapable byproduct of the carbon-based fuels-coal, oil, and
natural gas-that supply 86 percent of all the energy Americans use.
U.S. energy consumption is expected to increase by 34 percent
between 2001 and 2020, and carbon-based fuels are expected to supply
about 90 percent of the increase. Enacting any variant of
[McCain-Lieberman] ... would be tantamount to issuing a
congressional declaration of war on the fuels that power the U.S.
economy. Worse, it would establish the institutional framework for a
succession of legislative, regulatory, and litigation assaults on
carbon-based energy. (Lewis 2003)

Despite strong language on both sides of the issue, climate policy
lacks the kind of grass-roots support generated by environmental
issues with sustained and visible local effects. Climate change
politics is primarily inside the Beltway engaged in by elites, and a
factor in the rarefied world of international diplomacy. Its lack of
a geographic focus, unlike the geographical significance of a toxic
waste site, reduces its salience on the American political agenda.
Although the issue is driven by scientific analysis, it is the
political perspective that influences how the science of climate
change is interpreted. Thus the intersection of science and politics
helps to define the issue.

Politics also defines which emission control and carbon
sequestration technologies will be used to reduce U.S. greenhouse
gas emissions. The political dimension of the issue is partially
derived from one's overall attitude toward the role of government.
Left on its own to engage in unrestricted, profit-maximizing
behavior, industry has no reason to think about long-term effects
and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Those who believe that the
free market alone can best deliver a high quality of life will also
resist regulations imposing greenhouse gas reductions. Free market
advocates might favor the use of the tax code to induce good
behavior, but overall they are not sure about the seriousness of the
problem and worry that global warming is merely an excuse to
revitalize command-and-control regulation (Victor 2004, 31).

The politics of climate change has domestic variants, as we have
seen in the United States, but it is largely an element of political
relations between sovereign nations. International relations is an
elite politics that reflects the economic interests of
nation-states. With globalization, corporations have gained
influence over the behavior of multiple nation-states (Levy and
Newell 2004, 4). Although national sovereignty remains a powerful
force, international regimes (or sets of governing rules and norms)
have grown dramatically in the past half-century. This growth
emerged, in part, to facilitate international economics and the flow
of trade and capital across national borders. Whether the strength
of global corporations will enable them to compete with a strong
nation-state such as the United States, Japan, or China is unclear.
I think that the people who control physical force (armies and
police) will still tend to dominate those who control the cash, but
this conflict is largely symbolic. Generally these two sets of
powerful entities-multinational corporations and nation-states-are
acting in concert. Our governing elites are often well connected
individuals who move between the public and private sectors, or
minimally have strong business and political alliances in addition
to social relations across the public and private spheres. Vice
President Richard Cheney is a good example of such an elite player,
having served as a Cabinet official and also as CEO of Halliburton,
the Texas-based construction and engineering firm that serves as a
contractor for oil companies and for the U.S. government. These
"elites" operate under the assumption that national and corporate
interests are either inherently compatible or can and ought to be
brought into alignment.

The issue of global climate change has gained status on the
international political agenda as the world's political and economic
elite have come to slowly accept that climate change is a real
problem that could affect the business environment. Swiss Re, one of
the world's largest reinsurance companies, for example, has begun to
provide insurance against risks associated with climate change, a
move prompted by the firm's analysis of the financial risks posed by
climate change. In 2003 Swiss Re estimated such financial risks at
more than $40 billion a year and expected it to rise to $150 billion
a year by 2010. Their risk analysis also led Swiss Re to become a
leader in corporate climate policy. Innovations include an internal
climate policy, which states:

Despite advances in research, climate development is and will remain
uncertain. Immediate action must be taken nevertheless, as even
natural climatic variability carries risks far greater than
generally assumed, and man's influence on the climate system will
aggravate these risks even further. (Swiss Re 1998)

Swiss Re also intends to become "greenhouse neutral." In October
2003 the company announced that it would launch a ten-year program:

combining internal emissions reduction measures with an investment
in the World Bank Community Development Carbon Fund. The voluntary
initiative makes Swiss Re the largest global financial services
company to set itself the goal to become greenhouse neutral. All
Swiss Re locations will participate in the initiative. The programme
will utilise the same methodology as Swiss Re offers to clients
through its "Greenhouse Neutral" package in partnership with the
Commonwealth Bank of Australia. (Swiss Re 2003)

The position of the European Union on climate change and the
(slowly) growing recognition of the problem by the U.S. government
illustrates the impact of these financial facts on international and
domestic climate politics. Poor people will not be the only ones to
suffer; the entire global economy could be destabilized. When
comparing the costs of reducing climate change to the potential loss
of economic activity that could result from global warming, the
trade-off seems straightforward.

Global warming is a worldwide political issue with looming potential
effects and has gained a growing consensus among our political and
economic elite that rapid climate change needs to be controlled. The
hope is that the urgency of the problem will reduce political
conflict surrounding the issue and focus attention on technology and
management concerns. The political dimension of this environmental
issue will undoubtedly continue to be intense but, in the end, will
probably result in substantive policy to reduce greenhouse gas

Global Climate Change as an Issue of Science and Technology

The use of carbon-based fuels for electricity, heat, and
transportation has changed most people's way of life. It determines
the work we do, what we eat, how much leisure time we have and what
we do with that time. Our lifestyle is so closely tied to the use of
fossil fuels that it would probably be impossible to phase out their
use. For that reason, some proposals for reducing atmospheric levels
of greenhouse gases focus on removing the gases from emissions and
storing them, the process called sequestration, rather than reducing
the use of emission-producing fuels. According to Klaus Lackner:

Climate change concerns may soon force drastic reductions in C[O.sub.2]
emissions. In response to this challenge, it may prove necessary to
render fossil fuels environmentally acceptable by capturing and
sequestering C[O.sub.2] until other inexpensive, clean, and plentiful
technologies are available.... Storage time and capacity
constraints render many sequestration methods-such as biomass
sequestration and C[O.sub.2] utilization-irrelevant or marginal for
balancing the carbon budget of the 21st century. Even the ocean's
capacity for absorbing carbonic acid is limited relative to fossil
carbon resources. Moreover, with natural ocean turnover times of
centuries, storage times are comparatively short. Generally,
sequestration in environmentally active carbon pools (such as the
oceans) seems ill advised because it may trade one environmental
problem for another.... Underground injection is probably the
easiest route to sequestration. It is a proven technology suitable
for large-scale sequestration. Injecting C[O.sub.2] into reservoirs
in which it displaces and mobilizes oil or gas could create economic
gains that partly offset sequestration costs. (2003, 1677-1678)


by Steven Cohen
Copyright © 2006 by Columbia University Press.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Steven Cohen is the executive director of Columbia University's Earth Institute and a professor in the practice of public affairs at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. He is also director of the Master of Public Administration Program in Environmental Science and Policy at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and the director of the Masters of Science in Sustainability Management at Columbia University's School of Continuing Education. He is a consultant, former policy analyst, and former member of the Advisory Council on Environmental Policy and Technology for the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

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