Are we willing to pay for environmental protection?

Posted on February 16, 2011 by Kenneth F. Gray

I am sure that the many supporters of greenhouse gas regulation are depressed at the apparent failure of a comprehensive climate change law at the federal level, and guess that many of them blame corporate America and “misguided” conservatives, based on my read of the popular press. Climate change legislation has carried a substantial price tag.

“If the American people only knew how bad it was and is likely to get, the public would be willing to pay a lot,” climate change advocates might object. “And they ‘got it’ in California, and rejected the proposed suspension of the 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act until the unemployment rate fell.”

But is it the state of the national economy – a temporary phenomenon -- or is it a reflection of lack of national consensus that the costs of a climate change law are currently perceived as unbearable under most circumstances? How much are we willing to pay for environmental protection anyway?

Putting aside the very important questions of whether we have accurate information on risks and costs, we typically make personal decisions based on perceived risk -- and guess at costs. And we are able to do so as a society when we have consensus on those perceived risks and general cost estimates.

My view is that Americans decide to pay for environmental protection only when we are pretty confident it won’t adversely affect us economically and even then only when it is an apparent crisis. It is pretty clear there is no consensus we are in crisis over climate change, but there is a broader question on whether Americans are willing to pay costs for environmental protection even when the risks are generally acknowledged as real.

The major national environmental laws were passed when there was a national consensus that action was absolutely necessary. The Clean Air Act was adopted when air was visibly dirty and pollution inversions were not uncommon, the Clean Water Act when significant rivers were polluted or catching fire, and TSCA when PCBs were deemed an actionable threat. Costs were significant but bearable overall in the robust national economy, and there were large gains in pollution control obtainable even though the cost significantly impacted some businesses and industries. Climate change legislation has seemingly threatened significant cost increases for most consumers – you can even find blogs on it. Consumers happen to be voters, and (outside of California) until convinced there is a real problem and a solution they can afford, my guess is that national climate change legislation won’t get popular support. (The author hales from California, and therefore feels free to acknowledge that the state has only a passing similarity to, and relationship with, the other 49 states.)

What about requiring vehicle emissions testing and certifications of efficiency? Some states have such programs as required under the CAA, consistent with the fact that cost-effective air emission reductions are achieved, compared to the hammering local industry further to lower pollution. A number of states do not have vehicle emissions testing, and three states (including Florida and Minnesota) have discontinued testing. Maine tried a program years ago, but quickly abandoned it when consumers protested that they had to wait in lines, pay for testing, and in some cases got inconsistent results. No such legislation has been reproposed in the Pine Tree State. Ironically, many Mainers are proud of their (otherwise) stringent environmental laws.

Indoor radon gas has been widely recognized as a serious health issue by environmental professionals where it exists, but there is no comprehensive radon testing requirement, much less a remediation requirement. The risks are real, but how do you perceive a threat from an invisible, odorless gas?

Lead paint exposures have long been perceived as posing local but material risks for anyone living in housing stock of a certain age, given the historic use of lead paint and depending upon its condition. Most states don’t require testing or remediation or encapsulation of lead paint. Just a guess: it will cost some real money.

Watch the national environmental debate, and see if Americans are making decisions based on the condition of the family budget.