ENVIRONMENT: The age of green dilemmas — Saleem H Ali
Environmental politics has come a long way forward in the last century but we are entering an age where the issue might not be whether or not be “green” but how best to prioritise competing environmental concerns
Environmental issues appear to be resonating globally at an unprecedented level. Amazingly enough, both Republicans and Democrats in the United States are registering some level of consensus that climate change is a real global concern. The classic “jobs versus the environment” slogan may well be considered passé, as environmental technology industries are gaining traction. You are now more likely to get a job as an environmental engineer than as a computer scientist. Even the thorny issue of endangered species seems to have garnered acceptance on both sides of the political spectrum with the recent declaration of polar bears as “threatened” fauna.
In Pakistan, there are also some glimmers of hope that the environment will no longer be dismissed as a soft issue. In a recent interview for the Voice of America Urdu Service, I discussed the prospect of environmental education with other Pakistani expatriates and there was general consensus that we are now reaching a turning point in our political culture with regard to “green awareness”.
Despite these positive signs of ecological confluence, let us not be too sanguine about environmental policy as many tough decisions await the next president and his administration. Unlike the monochromatic choices of the past where you were either “green” or “brown”, the most difficult ecological decisions of the future will involve conflicting priorities within the environmental movement. No longer will either side be able to paint the other as a lunatic fringe or “sell-outs” to corporate power.
Consider, for example, the decision made by the US federal government on June 27 to halt new applications for solar power developments on public land in six western states. At first glance this may seem like a crass decision by an administration, known for its cynicism about renewable energy. However, the reason for the moratorium on new projects is also environmentally motivated over concerns raised by conservation biologists about the impact of large-scale solar farms on ecosystems. While renewable energy activists are critical of this decision, others within the environmental movement such as the Wilderness Society have applauded the moratorium.
The environmental movement always had shades of green from radical direct action activists such as the Earth Liberation Front (considered the largest domestic terrorist organisation by the US Department of Homeland Security for their rampant vandalism of fuel-guzzling trucks and logging establishments) to very conciliatory voluntary partnerships between businesses and conservationists. However, what has changed in recent years is the range of plausible choices within specific policy arenas such as energy and climate change.
Perhaps the most acute example of this challenge is the renewed debate over nuclear power as a result of concerns about climate change. Anti-nuclear activism had once united environmentalists as a clear issue that was a non-negotiable protest platform. However, now there is vigorous debate within environmental circles about favouring nuclear energy over fossil fuels and even large-scale hydroelectric development. Scientists have once again been made to consider comparative metrics of impacts from uranium mining and the full nuclear cycle’s carbon footprint versus coal, oil and gas.
How might the next president consider these more nuanced environmental dilemmas? First, there are still numerous areas of environmental policy which are potential “win-win” propositions but have received scant attention because of a fundamental lack of political awareness or leadership.
Energy conservation programmes must top the list of such policy endeavours. Despite considerable improvements in technology, the levels of inefficiency in our energy system and water delivery system are so huge that we could delay many other policy tradeoffs such as considering new nuclear power plants for several decades if we only conserved more energy. Many of these inefficiencies are behavioural (such as switching off lighting) but others are related to aging infrastructure for power delivery.
My home state of Vermont showed leadership in this domain by launching the nation’s first state-run provider of energy conservation services to all residents which is saving precious electricity but also saving money. Since 2000, when Efficiency Vermont was established, the cumulative lifetime economic value of efficiency investments in Vermont totals more than $313 million. If so much can be achieved with a small state of only 700,000 inhabitants, consider the impact of similar efforts at the national scale in the US and indeed in Pakistan as well.
We have all kinds of regulations related to building safety and occupational health and yet a code on green building design is still a boutique pursuit. Common-sense regulations such as required energy and water efficiency for new buildings are likely to benefit all in the long-run and should be a vital priority for the new government.
Once the low-hanging fruits of ecological policy have been plucked, a deliberative process on how to consider more challenging choices can be pushed forward. Environmental politics has come a long way forward in the last century but we are entering an age where the issue might not be whether or not to be “green” but how best to prioritise competing environmental concerns.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate dean for graduate education at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and on the adjunct faculty of Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org