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Global Warming and the Problem of Policy Innovation

Lessons from the Early Environmental Movement

Environmental Law, January 1, 2009

CREDIT: NASA Goddard (CC).

By Christopher H. Schroeder, Duke Law School

ABSTRACT: When it comes to influencing government decisions, special interests have some built-in advantages over the general public interest. When the individual members of special interest groups have a good deal to gain or lose as a result of government action, special interests can organize more effectively, and generate benefits for elected officials, such as campaign contributions and other forms of political support. They will seek to use those advantages to influence government decisions favorable to them.

The public choice theory of government decision making sometimes comes close to elevating this point into a universal law, suggesting that the general public interest can never prevail over powerful special interests. In the period of the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, Congress enacted numerous significant environmental laws, laws that continue to form the backbone of federal policies toward environmental problems. These laws were truly innovative in their policies and their designs, and they pitted the general public interest in improving environmental quality against powerful, special interests. In each case, the general public interest was able to prevail.

This policy "window" did not stay open for long. It was quickly succeeded by an extended period in which enacting additional innovative statutes has proven nearly impossible, which continues to this day. Yet we need innovative approaches to address continuing and emerging environmental problems more than ever. This is self-evidently true with respect to the problem of global warming and climate change. The questions worth asking are whether we can identify the factors that once made policy innovation possible in the late 1960s and early 1970s and if those factors can be produced once again.

For the public's David to be able to stand up against the special interest Goliaths, a broad base of the public must first be mobilized, and then that mobilization must be sustained, which typically occurs when the public embraces a sense of great urgency. Urgency can be generated when the public appreciates that failure to address a problem threatens them or their loved ones with significant harm. Media attention plays a key role in creating the public's awareness of any urgent problem. These factors can succeed in putting general concerns of the public on the public agenda, at which time acceptable proposals for workable solutions need to be available. When the first window for policy innovation opened up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, each of these favorable factors was present for many of our conventional pollution problems. At the same time, the strength of the special interests was at a low ebb.

This Essay argues that under current circumstances, the conditions for policy innovation are not yet as favorable as they were in this earlier period. Strong presidential leadership may be capable of altering those conditions, but as yet the public's concern about the adverse effects of climate change does not appear to have achieved the same strength or intensity as comparable concerns over conventional pollution problems had earlier.

External Link: Global Warming and the Problem of Policy Innovation: Lessons from the Early Environmental Movement [PDF]

Read More: Democracy, Energy, Environment, Governance, Science, Sustainability, United States, Americas, Global

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