The national environmental lobby has never been stronger. The federal government, led by President Obama and an army of bureaucrats at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is radically transforming how Americans use and consume energy. Meanwhile, well-funded environmental groups have convinced a clear majority of the country that the environment is only in fair or poor condition. As a result, Americans are increasingly willing to accept government regulations, subsidies, and mandates that make energy more expensive and diminish their quality of life.
Here’s the catch: The national environmental lobby’s doom-and-gloom narrative is false.
The environment isn’t getting worse—it’s rapidly improving, even as our economy grows and our energy use increases. The EPA recently released new data on air quality showing that total emissions of the six major air pollutants have dropped by 68 percent since 1970. This is all the more impressive considering that during this same period, America’s population has grown by 54 percent, we’re using 44 percent more energy, we’re driving 168 percent more miles in our cars, and our economy has grown by 238 percent.
It goes from impressive to astounding when you consider that natural gas, coal, and oil have driven this growth. Technological innovations have made obtaining these energy sources smarter, safer, and more efficient than ever before.
In other words, we don’t have to wreck our economy to save the planet—an important realization which casts the green lobby’s preferred policies in a new light. There’s also the very real possibility that such policies would provide very little environmental benefit and even harm the environment.
Environmentalists Hurt the Planet
Several of President Obama’s climate policies will do exactly that. The most important example is the EPA’s sweeping new regulations for power plants. These regulations attempt to reduce carbon dioxide by 30 percent by the year 2030, which could shutter enough power plants to provide electricity to 80 million Americans while raising electricity rates.
By curtailing energy production and use in the United States, along with the jobs they support, the administration’s policies will merely move this industry to countries with weaker environmental standards, including China and India. Less stringent standards in these countries are already causing pollution from China to cross the Pacific Ocean, negatively affecting the West Coast. The administration’s environmental agenda would worsen these problems.
Sadly, the EPA pending regulations aren’t the only examples of government pursuing policies in the name of environmental protection that actually hinder environmental progress.
President Obama’s failure to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline is another. It means that more oil will be transported by rail and barge, both of which have higher spill rates and produce more greenhouse gas emissions than pipelines. Ethanol mandates at the federal and state level actually increase smog and greenhouse-gas emissions. Despite its name, the Endangered Species Act has failed to save many species—in fact, environmental activists who sue the federal government in the name of protecting endangered species actually divert resources away from species recovery.
Even the cash for clunkers program hurt the environment. Among its numerous unintended consequences, it focused on shredding the cars instead of recycling them, wasting resources that could have been used for other purposes.
This points to a simple conclusion: Across the board, the federal government has proven to be an inept and even counterproductive environmental steward.
How People Are Saving the Planet
So where should we look to for good environmental stewardship? Perhaps outside of Washington is a good place to start. Individuals and entrepreneurs, through private-sector innovation, have proven effective at improving the environment—and our lives.
We can see this all around us. Commercial drone developers are working to equip farmers with drones that can fly over fields to better spot diseases and pests. That could soon allow farmers to target and treat smaller areas of land, resulting in less insecticide use while saving farmers money.
Private-sector innovation has also made accessing natural gas and oil more environmentally friendly. For example, directional drilling allows companies to drill multiple wells from a single well pad, minimizing overall surface disturbance while extracting more energy.
Businesses aren’t the only ones innovating. Individuals are also a driving force, making us more energy efficient than ever. Products like the Nest thermostat allow us to adjust the heating and cooling of our homes from our mobile phones. Apps like FuelGood calculate the potential savings of more efficient fuel usage, claiming that users can save up to two months’ worth of fuel per year. The Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) in Montana has started an Enviropreneur Institute to highlight individuals who are using innovation and market principles to save businesses money and improve environmental outcomes.
These examples only scratch the surface of the innovation boom that’s facilitating America’s environmental progress. And consumers and businesses are embracing these tools and tactics without government mandates.
Free-market advocates must do a better job telling this story. Despite government failures at environmental stewardship, the environment is still better than it has been in generations. That trend will continue: American businesses and families are leading the charge to address environmental challenges, and innovators across the country are devising new and ingenious ways for individuals and entrepreneurs to use energy more efficiently. For the sake of the environment, it’s time for free-market advocates to retake the moral high ground from the national environmental lobby.