Environmental laws and security laws, after passage

2009-06-29

in Economics, Law, Politics, The environment

Purple flowers on green

There is an interesting difference between the basic pattern that crime and security legislation tend to follow, after passage, when compared with the development of environmental laws. In general, crime and security legislation is too strong at the outset: it exaggerates a particular risk (say, youth violence) and then creates draconian measures intended to counter it. Generally, the measures are less effective than expected and there are virtual always harmful side effects not fully anticipated by the drafters of the law. Often, the courts compel the evolution of such laws into more pragmatic vehicles that strike a better balance between mitigating a problem and creating new ones, such as abuses of authority.

Environmental laws, by contrast, often start out weak and riddled with loopholes. As they operate, people realize that they do have the power to mitigate the target problem, are they are often tightened to that effect. Usually, costs turn out to be lower than the opponents of the law claimed they would be at the outset; after all, opponents of environmental legislation know that scaring politicians with talk of economic destruction and job losses is an effective approach to blocking stricter environmental rules.

A major difference between the two, I think, has to do with the psychology of politicians. Nobody wants to be seen to be ‘soft on crime’ or insufficiently committed to fighting terrorism. In either case, there is a big downside risk if you oppose a law and then the problem it targeted gets worse. Since environmental outcomes are usually less clear (and less closely observed by voters), that is less of a risk when it comes to opposing environmental regulations.

There is also the flawed by widely accepted view that there is a trade off between economic and environmental health. You rarely hear politicians opposing tough crime or security legislation by evoking such a notion of ‘balance.’ While air pollution kills far more people than terrorism, the point is rarely raised in political forums. In order to improve environmental outcomes – and deal with the major threat of climate change – it seems necessary to improve the risk perceptions of both politicians and the public at large, as well as the sophistication of the debate about public policy issues.

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. March 25, 2010 at 9:44 am

Review all anti-terrorism laws, say MPs

All counter-terrorism laws passed since 11 September 2001 should be reviewed to see if they are still necessary, says a committee of MPs and peers.

It questioned whether ministers could legitimately argue, nine years on, that a “public emergency threatening the life of the nation” remained.

And it said the government’s “narrow” definition of what amounted to complicity in torture was “worrying”.

he government says the threat from terrorism remains “real and serious”.

In its report, Parliament’s joint committee on human rights said it was pleased to see that ministers said a commitment to human rights “underpinned” counter-terrorism work.

But it said “all too often” this were “squeezed out by the imperatives of national security and public safety”.

Milan June 21, 2010 at 1:53 pm

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway cite a good example of the phenomenon of industry exaggerating the cost of regulating pollution while downplaying the harm the polution does, in the context of acid rain regulation in the United States:

In 1990, under the new administration of George H.W. Bush, amendments to the Clean Air Act established an emissions trading – or “cap and trade” – system to control acid rain. The system resulted in a 54 percent decline in sulfur dioxide levels between 1990 and 2007, while the inflation-adjusted price of electricity declined during the same period. In 2003, the EPA reported to Congress that the overall cost of air pollution control during the previous ten years was between $8 billion and $9 billion, while the benefits were estimated from $101 billion to $119 billion – more than ten times as great. [Fred] Singer’s “billion-dollar solution to a million-dollar problem” was just plain wrong.

The energy industry has often accused environmentalists of scaremongering, yet this is just what they had done with their claims of economic devastation. Protecting the environment didn’t produce economic devastation. It didn’t lead to massive job losses. It didn’t cost hundreds of billions of dollars. It didn’t even cause the price of electricity to rise. And the science was correct all along. As Mohameg El-Ashry of the World Resources Institute was quoted in Newsweek, “When we waited for more research on acid rain, we ended up realizing that everything we knew 10 years earlier was true.”

Oreskes, Naomi and Erik Conway. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. p.105 (hardcover)

Emphasis theirs.

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