The Political Tug of War Over Environmental Decisions

This week, we explore the nuances of how politicians, regulators and interest groups attempt to influence environmental issues. When an environmental regulator makes a decision to impose stricter controls on air, water, waste or chemical use, there are ripple effects throughout the business community. Environmental issues invariably become a hot battleground, as environmentalists push for the toughest regulations, while those representing the business industry want to ensure the rules aren’t so cumbersome as to hinder profitability. EPA has been targeted as a “job killer,” even though that may not be the case, according to this NPR story. Those on both sides put forth their own science to argue their case. Check out the article on C-Tools about how both Democrats and Republicans have manipulated science to advance their political views throughout the years. Interest groups may skillfully craft press releases that undermine the credibility of their opposition, as The Competitive Enterprise Institute did here. What kinds of questions do you think this release raises? Is it convincing? Hydraulic fracturing has become the latest political football, as outlined in this E360 article. Environmental issues were noticeably absent in the most recent Presidential campaign, as this article and this one highlight. And President Obama has been criticized for his tepid stance on environmental issues in his previous term, resulting in a complicated relationship with environmentalists, highlighted in this article.  There has been much speculation about how he’ll proceed this time around, as this Columbia Journalism Review piece indicates. As you read these pieces, what questions do they raise for you about the way environmental politics is covered? I look forward to your posts with questions for your fellow students.

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About jhalpert

Julie Halpert is a freelance journalist with more than two decades of experience writing for national publications, including The New York Times, Newsweek, CNNMoney.com, iVillage, Fortune.com, and AARP Bulletin. She currently contributes regularly to over 25 publications. She is also the co-author of Making Up With Mom (http://www.makingupwithmom.com/) and has recently started blogging for The Huffington Post. Her subjects have focused on everything from how auto makers will reinvent themselves following bankruptcy, to the viability of various environmentally-friendly technologies and how boomers will reinvent retirement. She also covers parenting and family issues for such magazines as Parents, Family Circle, MORE and Redbook. She has reported on the air for many public radio programs, including The Environment Report, Marketplace and Living on Earth. She also co-teaches an environmental journalism class in the University of Michigan's Program in the Environment and was a founder of The Society of Environmental Journalists.

9 Responses to “The Political Tug of War Over Environmental Decisions”

  1. I feel that environmental issues in politics often become deadlocked because there are so many theoretical approaches that no action results. It is like constructing an elaborate conceptual model full of confounding and mediating variables. You are left with a complex diagram and model that you can vaguely talk about but includes no obvious plan of action. This problem is not going to be solved in a eureka moment, nor is it going to solve itself. I believe that instead of trying to tackle the problem as a whole, one aspect of the problem should be addressed with a defined intervention. This is obviously easier said than done.

    President Obama addressed climate change in his inaugural address saying he would “respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.” However, these worldly claims are not backed by plans as discussed in this Washington Post article.

    Hopefully we will soon see scientists, politicians, and businesses collaborating to address this important issue.

    • Kaitlyn:
      Thanks for posting the link to that article. It definitely adds to the discussion of this topic. Did you have any questions you could pose to fellow students based on this week’s readings?

  2. After reading the articles there seemed to be a few things evident. The U.S. is afraid of being economically vulnerable, or even less extreme, becoming economically stagnant. The idea of economic growth as the only satisfying outcome of our economy continues the idea that America is a nation that needs to continuously grow, produce, and consume more, of everything. This is a short term fear that society has accepted to be a serious threat to the continuation of their current lifestyle. This is why, it seems, that due to the economy, most people feel that climate change is a secondary problem because economic problems within society pose more of a threat to the alteration of their lives.
    Another theme that I pulled out from the articles was that there is a large, well funded effort to fight limits on growth, pollution, and extraction of natural resources. Those who profit from the continued use of fossil fuels or other polluting substances, have large amounts of money to invest in places that will ensure their company will not become less profitable due to regulations. Those who own the company have their own financial interests in mind, and not, for the most part, public health concerns. These companies have a large influence on the public, and thus have the ability to influence politicians to remain mum about climate change issues, as well as fund programs with science to back up their claims about the non-issue of climate change or the abundant natural resources that remain within the U.S.
    Why do we as a country seem to favor economic growth as a complete and unequivocal good? Are there downfalls to constant growth? Is this even possible?
    How can we convince people the severity of the climate change situation? How can we change the discourse with regard to climate change in America so it crosses over into a more accepted issue, rather than a partisan one?

  3. It is actually amazing to think that the environment has all this power nowadays… so much that a “wrong” statement about the issue might define the results of the past elections. But, in my opinion, and based on the suggested reading, this is not only because people are becoming more aware of the importance of the environment, or the consequences our actions have on a global scale. Seems to me that the media uses the “environment” to manipulate public opinion. As is up to us, who are also part of the media industry, to share information and raise awareness in a responsible way. If politicians are avoiding the topic we should do the exact opposite, and provide the public with accurate, clear and unbiased information.

    • Andreia:
      I appreciate your thoughtful comments. Can you think of a question for the class related to this week’s readings? It could involve story structure, which articles were the most convincing, any element that you feel is worthy of discussion. Students, as you leave responses to the posts that Emilia and I write, try to include a question, as we would like to use your questions as a basis for in-class discussion on the readings. Thanks!

  4. As a business student and environmentalist, this subject is complicated. I understand the economic stance on environmentalism – restructuring a business requires a lot of resources, capital, and time. Every minor change that a system needs to undergo is costly and can seriously impact whether or not a company will survive the changes. It is easy for an environmentalist to create regulations and cap businesses on their energy usage, but from a business standpoint, that is quite difficult. However, as an environmentalist, I understand the need to change the climate situation. Our planet is in dire need of change and our resources are depleting rapidly. The environment cannot be evaluated with typical cost-benefit analysis and an economist does not have the ability to fully judge whether or not something is better than the other. To an economist, saving the environment might not seem rational based on monetary gains. However, the gains are much more extensive and are not all tangible. It is necessary for people to broaden their perspectives about the situation and figure out what is feasible for businesses to do, how they can do it, find a way to provide additional funding for the changes in business practices, etc. Both sides need to realize the needs of the other and compromise and find long-term solutions that will satisfy both parties instead of critiquing how one side is selfish or one side is overly dramatic.

  5. As many of the articles mentioned, environmental issues are complexly tired with politics and industry debates. It’s interesting how environmental issues are portrayed in an economic light, and in terms of the financial/economic costs and benefits. There is little attention paid to the long term environmental and public health benefits that result from the regulations. Ultimately, these regulations are for our future benefit, yet our perspective is so limited, we only care about the immediate benefits, most often in form of jobs, gas or economic incentives.

    My current perspective of environmental politics is that it is just politics on energy and the economy, considering what the environment can do for humans, and how can it serve our current purposes and needs. Some questions that arose as I was reading the articles include: What will it take for politicians to seriously consider the effects of climate change and to recognize their ability to create change? Will environment issues ever become ‘popular’ because of care for the environment and the need to prevent climate change, and not purely because of economic reasons? How can we, as journalists, create an urgency that will garner political attention for environmental issues? Care for the environment is often largely perceived as black and white, as either/or binary options: care for the environment and the reduction of climate change alongside of a perceived economic decline, or economic prosperity with a neglect of climate change issues. Greater research, understanding, and public engagement of the duality of these issues is necessary so that we can approach our representatives with the facts and issues they seem to be ignoring.

  6. There seems to be a divide between politics in the white house / congress and interest group politics. Journalist in these articles have crafted the premies that environmental interest groups are inherently in the right and that the issues they stand for are without question moral. They do this through their lack of inquiry into the actual environmental issues and instead focus on where politicians lie in engaging in the environmental policy discussion. For example, the articles on presidential politics covered the lack of interest from Romni and Obamas apathy towards environmental issues, however it never dove into the “environmental issues validity” that they were ignoring, and gave the assumption that they were highly important issues being avoided.

  7. What struck me about the news pieces for this week was the glaring paradox between personal and political agendas and the scientific or economic issues being reported on. As was the case mentioned in the NPR segment on the EPA, it seems that Americans on opposite sides of the issue (pro or anti-EPA) are quite literarily living in two separate worlds, albeit equally subjective.

    This debate reminded me of a similar issue brought up in an NPR segment found here: http://www.npr.org/blogs/itsallpolitics/2011/12/14/143719155/just-how-many-jobs-would-the-keystone-pipeline-create
    In that piece, NPR tackles the question of jobs created by the keystone pipeline. In it, the number swings from 5,000 to 200,000 jobs depending on who in Washington you ask.

    Of course, any news consumer can find a plurality of examples of this confusion and hyperbole on a variety of issues spanning from immigration, to health care costs to Iran’s nuclear program. I think the question for journalists is thus twofold: First, what role can and should journalists play in clarifying issues such as these (and not just stating that ‘it depends on who you ask’ as the NPR story above does), and second, how should journalists go about finding these figures, given that capitol hill has oftentimes proven to be an unreliable source, and communicating them in a authoritative way to their audience without adding their own biases? As of now, the ability and propensity of politicians and lobbyists (and even many broadcasters) for exaggeration and all-out fabrication has put a heavy burden on journalists and news consumers alike to sift through the political jabber and find the facts.

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