Protecting the natural environment should not be seen as a luxury for good economic times. But the political reality is that it is a harder sell in times like these. The key to persuading policymakers is to tie environmental concerns to sustaining the economy and keeping people safe.
A coalition of some 30 environmental groups pitched its agenda to state policymakers recently and wisely focused on just seven priorities. The list of priorities included six bills, which aim to protect rivers and land from pollution, slow climate change, protect people from exposure to dangerous chemicals and assist Mainers in making their homes and businesses more energy-efficient. A seventh priority is not tied to a bill, but rather is a charge to lawmakers: do not weaken any current environmental protections.
It would seem the battle to convince Mainers of the economic importance of our natural and man-made environments, our “quality of place,” has been won. Some evidence of that victory comes each time a Land for Maine’s Future bond wins voter approval by a wide margin. If the LMF program wins fresh funding, its purchases should be linked to properties the public can see (i.e., not thousands of acres landlocked in paper company property) and use recreationally (with access to rivers, lakes, bays and ocean, or with pedestrian trails).
Climate change is a more abstract problem. The tens of thousands of pounds of carbon not pumped into the atmosphere, if emission regulations are tightened, do not bring an immediate, measurable benefit. But climate change does bring health threats. From the proliferation of deer ticks carrying Lyme disease to the rise in asthma rates, climate change has very real costs.
Taking on the threats posed by chemicals is often relegated by states to federal regulators. But the feds have not, in recent years, taken on this effort. The public generally supports laws aimed at keeping toys, food and drinking water free of toxins, but the logistics of enforcement as they relate to products manufactured around the world can be challenging.
Energy efficiency is an issue environmentalists soon may be able to cede to business advocates. No longer are buildings, electrical systems and machinery being modified for the “feel-good” fuel conservation results; it’s done because of proven return on investment.
Finally, the fight to keep current regulations from being rolled back is also critical, especially in a poor economy. Business interests will try to persuade legislators that environmental regulations hamstring entrepreneurs when they can least afford such hurdles. If existing regulations are not tied to the above goals, they may be vulnerable to weakening. But for the most part, environmental rules have been hard won and should not be eased without just cause.
The coalition has had success with its agenda; nine of its 10 priority bills in 2007-2008 were passed by the Legislature in the last session. If environmentalists keep their goals tied to demonstrable economic and public health benefits, they will continue to win.