Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Orwellian "Clear Skies"

I had an interesting conversation Monday night with a leftist friend of mine. (Yes, I have one or two.) Along with a number of issues that we discussed, such as gun control and school vouchers, she brought up a criticism of the Bush administration that I hadn't heard before. Her claim was that the "Clear Skies Act" was Orwellian in that it actually loosened air quality standards. I tried to argue that this sort of spin occurs in politics all the time but her point was that Bush should have honestly called the bill the "Industrial Relief Act" or some such, rather than try to imply that the law would actually clean up the air. At this point we had to suspend the debate because I am frankly not that informed on environmental issues, but her point has stuck with me and prompted the following research.

First, the Sierra Club's perspective:

In his 2003 State of the Union address, President Bush touted a plan that mandates a 70 percent cut in air pollution from power plants over the next 15 years. But why is the Administration bragging about a plan that will actually result in more pollution than if we simply enforced the existing Clean Air Act? Who stands to benefit from placing communities at risk, particularly children and the elderly who are significantly threatened by air pollution?

Americans don't have to settle for only a 70 percent cut in air pollution when existing laws and existing technology mean that we can do better.

This seems like a reasonable argument, but I note that they are not disputing that the Clear Skies Act will reduce pollution. Their criticism is that current legislation "if enforced" would do better. But in either case, the air would actually become cleaner than it currently is, which seems to me a positive thing. There is a difference between not doing enough and not doing anything, or making matters worse. As in any political issue, there is a tradeoff between the demands of perfection (which I take it is the preference of the Sierra Club and their ilk) and the costs of achieving that perfection. This is the nature of politics. I don't see any evidence here of actual deception, although it is arguable whether the Bush policy is the wisest one. Let's say the charge of Orwellianism is not proven and move on.

Further research turns up these two sites from the EPA: The Clean Air Act (1990) and Clear Skies (2003)
The latter site makes the following point:
There are great uncertainties (regulatory development, litigation, implementation time, etc.) as to how quickly and effectively current regulations would be implemented over the next decade under existing law.
In contrast, the mandatory emissions caps at the heart of Clear Skies are a sure thing and guarantee that reductions will be maintained over time. And, because cap-and-trade programs include economic incentives for early action, Clear Skies would begin improving public health immediately.

This directly contradicts the argument made by the Sierra Club. I do not have the expertise to decide who is correct, but knowing the nature of bureaucracy, I suspect that there is probably some merit to the notion that existing legislation could not be enforced as easily as the Sierra Club claims. In fairness, I doubt the new legislation would be much more effective, mandatory provisions or no. But again, the charge is not proven.

Finally, here is some commentary about the general accuracy of environmental claims from an admittedly conservative source: the National Center for Policy Analysis:
A recent book by a self-described "man of the left" and former member of Greenpeace, Danish professor Bjorn Lomborg, set out to prove what he called "The Litany": our resources are running out, population is growing and leaving us with less to eat, air and water are becoming ever more polluted and the ecosystem is breaking down. But he wound up proving the opposite, and demonstrating economic growth is the friend of the natural world, not its enemy.

Again, this doesn't prove that the Sierra Club is wrong in its criticism. It may very well be correct. But the issue is at least debatable. Even after having read all this material, I do not feel qualified to pronounce on the matter. But I am convinced that the claims of mendacity have not been proven.

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