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No Return: Reagan-Era Anti-Environmentalism Won’t Work for Business or Government

Monday, February 13, 2017
Cassie Phillips - Director, Private Environmental Governance Initiative

Cassie Phillips

Director, Private Environmental Governance Initiative

The public debate around President Trump’s environmental nominees follows an old script, playing jobs against the environment. But the script’s not just old, it’s obsolete. Being anti-environment hasn’t been a winning political strategy since at least President Reagan’s first term, in which he famously appointed three people who were hostile to the environmental programs they were named to lead: James Watt as Secretary of Interior, the late Ann Gorsuch as EPA Administrator, and Rita Lavelle as head of the Superfund program. In the name of deregulation, the “gang of three” cut staff, budgets, and agency enforcement actions. Whatever success they enjoyed was short-lived, however, as a strong backlash drove all three from office in 1983.

Two recent books tell the Reagan-era story well and provide other valuable insights into U.S. environmental politics: A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism, by Patrick Allitt, a history professor at Emory University, and The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble Over Earth’s Future, by Paul Sabin, an associate professor of history at Yale University. Allitt leans slightly to the right and Sabin to the left, but both are meticulously balanced. And both authors agree on the lessons from the Reagan-era appointees, best stated by Allitt:

Reagan himself had learned a lesson about the emotional power of the environment as a political issue. From then on, he was careful to speak respectfully on all environmental questions and to avoid giving the impression of negligence or indifference. The year 1983 marked the moment at which public denigration of environmentalism became politically impossible.

President Reagan and VP Bush

Businesses were learning the same lesson as politicians: environmental stewardship is a better strategy than “negligence or indifference.” During the same era, as global trade increased, so did questions from environmental and social activists, investors, employees, and ultimately consumers about how companies were managing risks to the environment, human health, and safety as they operated across multiple jurisdictions with varying degrees of regulation and enforcement. Business sectors began to take on a governance role themselves, through voluntary standards and other collective means we call “private environmental governance.” The goal has been largely to level the international playing field and protect a sector’s reputation against poor performers, but in some cases includes a “green premium” from consumers.

In the last decade or so, private environmental governance has grown explosively. Today, voluntary standards address chemical production, clothing and other apparel, electronics, forest products, farming, fisheries, coffee, poultry, palm oil, mining, green building, renewable energy, banking, and no doubt other sectors and services. Accounting and disclosure standards exist for all issues across sectors, and for specific issues, including water use and greenhouse gas emissions. Voluntary standards take many forms, ranging from procedural management-system approaches, to reporting and disclosure frameworks, to point-based rating systems, to substantive, quasi-regulatory formats. Their reach can be as wide as a code of conduct covering an entire global industry or as narrow as a single-attribute proprietary standard used for a single product.

A good reputation for environmental performance is now a business asset, and U.S. businesses are unlikely to want wholesale deregulation from the Trump Administration. Instead, many have shown that what they want is consistent global standards, enough to be willing to impose them on themselves though private governance initiatives. President Trump’s nominees, in turn, will find that regulations are not the only tools in their agencies’ toolkits to meet environmental goals. They can also leverage market-based incentives, by appropriately recognizing and supporting voluntary standards.

These are subjects we intend to explore at ELI through our Program on Private Environmental Governance. The program is under development, but will likely have three main components, with the goal of helping practitioners work in this area. The first is informational, explaining the enormously complex world of voluntary standards and the underlying legal and institutional frameworks in which they operate. The second is evaluative, assessing the effectiveness of different private governance models and identifying best practices applicable to different circumstances. And the third is problem solving, identifying specific issues holding up the growth of effective voluntary standards and applying ELI’s legal and policy expertise to help find solutions. We hope you will stay tuned for further developments, and in the meantime, we welcome input on the program.

All blog posts are the opinion of its author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of ELI the organization or its members.