The events of 9/11 altered the political and policy landscape for many issues including the environment. Security now dominates policy including the protection of water resources, nuclear plants, etc. and how the nation might become more energy independent. However, two historical underlying themes continue to dominate the long term public policy debate about environmental policy. First, how much environmental protection do we want and can we afford as a nation? Much of the public expects protection from air and water pollution and good stewardship of resources. While significant reductions in gross pollution have occurred over the past thirty-five years, pollution problems and adequate protection of natural resources are still major concerns.
Second, are the market and voluntary measures or the regulatory power of the state the best way to go to protect the environment? While a mix of both are necessary, the debate is fierce. As power shifts from the federal government to state and local authorities, this debate will intensify. This argument is part of the larger political and philosophical debate over the proper role of the state and the market in meeting societal goals. This struggle too often pits developers, mining and timber companies, ranchers and farmers, and other property owners against local and state governments, environmental groups and other sets of property owners. The skirmishes often show up in the courts under the rubric of "takings." (The fifth amendment to the U.S. constitution calls for compensating property owners when property is seized for a public good. Recently, some efforts are being made to extend constitutional protection to cases where property values are changed by regulation (a "regulatory" seizing).
Within the context of these two themes, three specific but related issues are before the public. First, addressing global climate change is a continuing challenge. The debate now is really about cost and responsibility. Some argue that the mandated measures of the Kyoto Protocol will cost the U.S. economy too much relative to the environmental gains and that key developing countries need to be included in any mandatory scheme. Some prefer market strategies and voluntary measures as a solution. Others support mandatory measures to combat climate change and developing countries insist on the right to develop and call for more leadership and action by the developed nations.
The second issue is energy policy. Many support more energy independence, with the Bush Administration calling for an increase in domestic energy supplies while reducing dependence on foreign sources. This most likely means increased use of fossil fuels, particularly coal, and possibly nuclear energy. Others urge greater focus on conservation and the development of alternative fuels. The flash point in this debate is whether to open up the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge for major oil drilling. Affording energy is always a challenge for the poor.
The third issue is environmental health. The safety of food, water and air are paramount public health concerns. While almost everyone is concerned about safety, this is particularly true for vulnerable populations (children, the elderly, pregnant women and migrants) and for the poor at large. The debate centers around science and cost. Proving scientific cause and effect is not easy. In the face of uncertainty, some caution that more stringent regulations are too costly. Others in the face of this uncertainty invoke the "precautionary" principle that suggests we avoid harm and prevent public health problems by establishing or maintaining stringent environmental industrial regulations.
What runs beneath this public debate are different philosophies and approaches to the environment. Some view the environment as a resource to be used and to be managed primarily by private interests. Others view the environment as having an integrity of its own and as a public resource to be managed primarily through public resources. Both approaches are needed.
USCCB Policy Stances
Global Climate Change: In June 2001, the bishops adopted a major statement, Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence and the Common Good. The statement calls for using prudence with a priority focus on the poor and a search for the common good. The bishops do not endorse any specific treaty, but do call for U.S. leadership, international solidarity, energy conservation, a move toward more alternative fuels for the future, and a sharing of emerging technologies with poorer countries.
Private Property and Takings: Several years ago, the Conference offered testimony that provides a starting point for national and local policy efforts by State Conferences and dioceses. (/sdwp/environment/public) While not providing detailed policy prescriptions, the testimony places the right to private property ownership and use within the wider context of the demands of the common good. The North Dakota Catholic Conference also has educational materials and statements on takings.
Environmental Health: The Domestic Policy Office, in concert with a Catholic coalition, initiated an effort on children's environmental health. (Contact Domestic Policy Office for materials and see the Backgrounder on children's environmental health.) The coalition has an active program of leadership development and is now preparing a policy agenda for consideration. A new law was enacted in December governing "brownfields," which are abandoned industrial toxic sites. The Department has a statement regarding brownfields policy (/sdwp/environment/ public), which you might consult as you help your community apply for funds.
To supplement national policy efforts, the Environmental Justice Program has provided grants to dioceses who are beginning to address urban sprawl, water pollution, large hog confinement and other issues. Over the past year and a half, four regional bishops' pastorals have been issued.
For further general program information contact: Walt Grazer 202-541-3182 (ph); 202-541-3339 (fax); for information about grants and diocesan activities contact: Dan Misleh (202) 541-3195; and for information about children's environmental health contact: Roxana Barillas (202) 541-3445.