Among the world's most challenging environmental problems is the deplorable state of political discussion about environmental issues.
A group of state legislators last month aggravated this subtle but dangerous form of pollution.
Few environmental problems can survive concentrated human concern, reasoned debate, judicious application of best available science, and integration of the effort with sound economic principles.
Environmental policy-making, however, is degenerating into the argumentative equivalent of a toxic waste dump-a mire of idiotic moralizing and junk science spouted by activists and politicians devoid of fact.
Environmentally, the pattern is self-destructive. History is clear that environmental values reach their highest levels where economies flourish. They slump to their lowest levels where economies stagnate. Environmentalism must at some point mature into the realization that the business institutions it regularly demonizes are essential to prosperity and, by association, improvement in environmental conditions. Trashing business thus can be tantamount to trashing the environment.
The National Conference of State Legislators polluted the air with its August resolution calling on the US Environmental Protection Agency to neither weaken nor delay a draconian rule on sulfur in diesel fuel (OGJ Online, Aug. 30, 2001).
"NCSL strongly supports EPA's engine and fuel standards and opposes efforts to either delay or weaken the fuel sulfur standard or delay or weaken achievement of the engine emission standards," the resolution said.
The standard in question, under legal challenge from the American Petroleum Institute and National Petrochemical and Refiners Association, represents a last-minute smear by the radicals who ran EPA in the administration of former President Bill Clinton.
The industry supported a 90% reduction in the average sulfur content of diesel fuel. EPA mandated a 97% cut, although the environmental differences between the two levels are nil.
The economic, however, are huge. The deeper cut requires much more investment and catalyst development. It is significantly more costly to refiners and consumers-and might not be achievable in concert with sulfur cuts in gasoline-but insignificantly different in terms of environmental performance.
Imposing the 97% reduction amounted to regulatory caprice. The issue is whether to repair the damage and restore EPA's credibility, not whether adopting the 90% cut would "weaken" the standard. It wouldn't.
Before politicians spout off about environment, they should know what they're talking about. The state lawmakers obviously do not, however much their resolution received cheers from environmental groups interested mostly in impoverishing refiners.
One of the biggest threats that the environment faces is environmental politics conducted this way. It's time for politics to grow up.