My summer intern, Ryan, visited Capitol Hill this week with a group of interns working for Gerry Connolly.
They stopped by to meet the Congressman in his office. When Ryan returned that evening, he was pleased with his experience overall, but disappointed to learn that climate change legislation will not be considered this year. As an astute political observer, Ryan knows passing such legislation will not be any easier for the next Congress.
Ryan does not think of himself as an environmentalist. He’s not a camper or a back-packer. He’s not particularly sentimental about nature or wildlife, per se. He’s not picky about whether his food is “organic”, and he’s happy to have a good steak occasionally. But, despite these personal preferences, Ryan is very clear that his future quality of life-over the next 70 years or so–is under increasingly severe jeopardy from global climate change. Ryan knows that this future is uncertain, but he’s painfully aware of the risks.
My daughter Caroline is a couple of years older than Ryan. This summer she is doing research on the effectiveness of the U.S. Department of Agricultural conservation and sustainable farming programs. Last year she was an intern at the Environment America offices in the District. Caroline is an active and passionate environmentalist. To Caroline-and, as she sees it, to the large majority her generation in College—environmentalism is the only practical response to the failures of economic and political systems worldwide to preserve resources for future generations. To Caroline, reducing long term environmental risk is a moral issue, as well as an economic and social issue.
Typically, the belt-tightening economic realities of this summer of 2010 would drive environmental concerns to the bottom of the agenda. Environmental legislation (supposedly) “increases costs” and “threatens” jobs. But, this summer the tragic circumstances surrounding the gulf oil spill have forcefully driven home the point that those “saved” regulatory costs (saved by the government through reduced regulatory staff and by BP and Transocean through reduced maintenance costs) are not really saved at all. They’ve been imposed–increased a thousand-fold-on citizens and businesses of the gulf coast. BP will pay out their $20 billion or so, and many will adjust, but many lives will be irreparably damaged, as well. We simply do not know how bad the damage is or how long it will persist.
The gulf oil spill should serve as a “teachable moment” for current and future political classes. The first lesson is that risk imposes costs that will be incurred one way or another: either up front, when the costs are manageable, or after bad consequences have been realized, when they may be immeasurably greater. The second lesson is: don’t allow the party who has to cover the cost of prevention-in this case the oil and drilling companies-to estimate the risk.
Whatever the cause, climate change presents enormous long term risk. On a smaller scale, so does off-shore drilling along the Virginia Coast. On an even smaller scale, so does Virginia’s effluent run-off into our rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. In each of these cases, the public has a right to demand that economic risks of these activities be estimated objectively by disinterested experts and that the costs of prevention be incurred by those responsible, sooner rather than later, to ensure that they are manageable.
Is this what is currently happening? I am afraid not. Again, in each of these cases, the industries involved are aggressively disputing the science presented by academic experts, doing their best to convert what should be analytical to political questions. In Washington as well as Richmond, good politics seems to enable highly motivated private interests to outweigh the interests of the public as a whole.
Delegate Kory represents the 38th District in the Virginia House of Delegates. She may be emailed at [email protected].