Bi-Partisan Environmental Improvement?
April 23, 2004 11:10 PM   Subscribe

A new study (in a biggish PDF) from PRI states that most environmental indicators in the United States have improved dramatically since the 1970's regardless of the political party that controls the White House. Notably: "CO (Carbon monoxide) levels were the lowest recorded during the past 20 years" (EPA, 2002, pg 48), ambient lead levels have fallen 98% between 1976 and 2002 (pg 46), and sulfur dioxide has fallen 70% since 1976 (pg 44). (Mostly) Happy Earth Week, right?
(Via Easterblogg)
posted by loquax (26 comments total)
This 98 page report is too broad to be summarized properly, but suffice it to say that the numbers provided paint a far better picture of the environment and of environmental policy than is commonly reported. The link to Easterbrook's entry also has some interesting things to say about the environmental debate in the United States. The year in review section in the PDF runs from page 11-29, Air Quality is on 29, Water on 51, Toxic Chemicals on 59, Public Land Management on 65 and Species on 75.
posted by loquax at 11:11 PM on April 23, 2004

This 98 page report is too broad to be summarized properly, but suffice it to say that the numbers provided paint a far better picture of the environment and of environmental policy than is commonly reported.

Depends which parts of the environment you're referring to. It ain't all roses. These are good figures though - the drop in lead levels, in particular, is a trend that's been repeated throughout the industrial world. Before the trolls arrive and blast the environmentalists for being a bunch of lying bastards though - just ask yourselves if stats would be this good if people hadn't been vocal about the past problems.
posted by Jimbob at 11:16 PM on April 23, 2004

Steven Hayward, the author of this study, is just full of good news: He doesn't believe in global warming:

"Between hacky-sack games, enviro-moralists kick around the imminent apocalypse of global warming, brought on -- they're sure -- by the pollution of human industry and the mindless plunder of our shared heritage. This 34th Earth Day is likely to be no different.
But it ought to be.
Because the underlying scientific debate over climate change has shifted dramatically since last Earth Day. The most recent studies now cast major doubt on global warming itself -- the basis for all the gloom-and-doom predictions."

Let's hope his optimism is well founded.
posted by digaman at 11:21 PM on April 23, 2004

commonly reported

I should clarify, I mean numbers and studies that I've been exposed to. YMMV.
posted by loquax at 11:23 PM on April 23, 2004

If I close my eyes the monsters will go away!

People can refuse to "believe" in anthropogenic climate change if they want, just as they're free refuse to "believe" in evolution. You've got to be concerned, however, that a lot of people denying the existance of climate change seem to demand "further research" when scientific opinion looks bad but happily tout research that looks good.

It isn't a simple problem. It does need further research, but to find out the truth, not to prop up egos.
posted by Jimbob at 11:28 PM on April 23, 2004

From the Publisher's Weekly review of Hayward's book, The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order 1964-1980:

"In Hayward's Manichean universe, opposite the rightness of Reagan's conservatism is the wrongness of all things liberal. Labeled with the 'l word,' among many others, are the war on poverty, feminism, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, detente, 'New Yorker' film critic Pauline Kael, the movie 'Dr. Strangelove' and the 'chattering class' of intellectuals. Hayward forwards many provocative opinions, among them that the Vietnam War was a success, delaying the fall of Saigon long enough to convince Communists that Southeast Asia could not be easily won; Hayward also believes that Watergate was an ideological dispute over whether the executive branch or Congress would have supremacy. The author assembles a wide variety of facts; unfortunately, he often includes them indiscriminately and tediously, as in his minute-by-minute description of the 1976 presidential primary. In the end, this is an ultraconservative polemic masquerading as history."
posted by digaman at 11:29 PM on April 23, 2004

digaman, I agree that it's useful to know the background of opinions being offered, and this report does contain a lot of opinion. But it does also have a lot of empirical data, the majority of which is from the EPA or other government agencies. I'm not sure I catch your meaning. Does his political background invalidate the findings?

Jimbob, I agree, it does need more study, not grandstanding by Hayward or anyone else. I think the report acknowledges that greenhouse gas emissions at least have not been reduced as fast as other pollutants. Even still, global warming is just one part of the larger environmental issue.
posted by loquax at 11:45 PM on April 23, 2004

loquax: As everyone knows, how complex sets of data are presented can have a huge effect on the apparent picture. This is from the PDF itself:

"There are serious arguments to be had over the Bush administration's environmental policy, but the fervency and style of the most publicized arguments suggest something simpler than honest policy disagreement. The real complaint is that a Republican occupies the White House. Many environmentalists were unhappy with the Clinton administration, but did not make a commensurate public fuss."

Hayward's boiling down of the environmental critiques of current White House policy to a "public fuss" does not give me confidence in his use of empirical data.
posted by digaman at 11:56 PM on April 23, 2004

digaman, I'm not disagreeing with you at all about the presentation of data. And maybe the report is glib, but certainly no more so than many articles in the NYT and elsewhere have been with the current environmental policies. I wouldn't go so far as to say that the current critiques of policy are a "public fuss", but if the data presented is unrefuted by other sources, maybe he isn't too far off the mark.
posted by loquax at 12:08 AM on April 24, 2004

Also listed as a contributor to this document is one Sam Thernstrom. Remember those reports about the air quality near Ground Zero after 9/11 that turned out to be, well, overly optimistic, influenced by pressure from the White House? According to the New York Times, it was Thernstrom who applied that pressure:

"There were 'screaming telephone calls' about the news releases between Tina Kreisher, then an associate administrator, and Sam Thernstrom, then the White House council's communications director. The E.P.A.'s chief of staff, Eileen McGinnis, had to ask the head of the White House council, James L. Connaughton, to urge his staff to 'lighten up,' according to interviews with the inspector general's office. Ms. Kreisher, who now works as a speechwriter at the Department of the Interior, is quoted as saying she 'felt extreme pressure' from Mr. Thernstrom."
posted by digaman at 12:08 AM on April 24, 2004

So this study allegedly shows that since Lake Erie caught fire and Nixon created the EPA, things have gotten better?

I hope we weren't advocating this as a study that disproves government regulation improving the situation.

Or is someone arguing that certain entities should be allowed to pollute more?

Meanwhile, Knoxville, TN is a rural retreat that's got an air pollution problem.

I've got a 4 month old puppy that won't shit where it sleeps. What percentage do you suppose of the population of the US is dumber than my dog?

And while Lake Erie now has a thriving sport fishing economy, they still recommend that people don't eat too many of the fish. Even though things are better. Good thing catch and release has become so popular, eh?
posted by dglynn at 2:42 AM on April 24, 2004

This is a bit like pointing out the blue patch of sky that's left poking through the mass of black clouds. Referring to "the data" can't be done in an assessment of the whole environment, there'd just too much of it. Thus a great deal of selection would need to be done.

At any rate, call what improvements there are a victory for sane environmental policy. Nixon was probably the best president the US has had in recent times for the environment, believe it or not. (This is back when 'conservative' and 'conserve' actually went together apparently).

The people who say 'look, things are getting better, time to get rid of all these regulations that made it tihs way," are willfully obtuse.
posted by Space Coyote at 2:45 AM on April 24, 2004

This Hayward chap was on the wonderful and informative Jim Bohannon radio show yesterday talking about how automobiles are, contrary to what the parlor pinkos in the media would have you believe, one of the greatest preventers of pollution!!! You see, if it weren't for these automobiles we city-dwellers would be up to our ears in road-apples and our cities would stink from their flatus. Well, no thank you Mr./Ms. {insert name of liberal traitor} you can have your horse and buggy, but I am doing fine with my horseless (also poopoo-less) carriage. Of course, if you are some liberal killjoy like the well known lesbian assassin Hillary Clinton you can replace buggy in the preceding sentence with "private jet". Come to think of it I bet she and Al Franken and the rest of that traitorous lot wouldn't like cleaning a street pie or a road apple (hint, it isn't a kind of fruit) from the soles of their thousand dollar French shoes. I will retain my pollution preventing 1983 Chevy Caprice Classic. So take that red-diaper-doper babies. On the other hand, I wouldn't mind having a little more "horse exhaust" handy to throw at that nasty Bob Woodward.
posted by mokujin at 4:21 AM on April 24, 2004

Oh my dear loquax it seem that you aren't loquax enough. When I saw PRI in your post as the sponsor of this important and informative study I assumed that it was Mexico's former ruling Party of Institutionalized Revolution (I am a big fan), but it was hard for me to believe that the hegemonic government of a foreign nation could have anything to do with our wonderfully bipartisan system. Well boy was I relieved on reading the title page to find out that not only is this a completely different PRI, but, in true bipartisan spirit this study is co-sponsored by something called the AEI.

Three cheers for the PRI (Colosio got what he had coming) and three cheers for the AMERICAN ENTERPRISE INSTITUTE. Why didn't you tell us sooner? This study is truly a "no spin zone".
posted by mokujin at 4:52 AM on April 24, 2004

mokujin - a) you've got an awsome poker face going on there. Or, if not : b) OhmyGod! It's like a Metafilter reincarnation of Ed Anger! Ed! Ed - where ya' been? We missed your poorly informed bile!

But seriously - Let's make one thing clear. Unless this report from the PRI has been through the scientific peer review process, we can assume that it's authors are mainly concerned with advancing a political agenda.

PRI is NOT a scientific research institution. It is a "Think Tank" which produces "reports" and promotes a political agenda that includes a championing of Bjorn Lomborgism, a call for the US to dramatically ramp up it's coal production, and claims that Global Warming has been disproved.

Having said all that, my objections do not - of course - invalidate this study per se. I'm downloading it right now, and will have a look. Then, I'll be able to tell whether it's printworthy or whether I'd just wind up with heap of paper sub-optimal for even wiping my ass.
posted by troutfishing at 6:04 AM on April 24, 2004

Well, the study is less crude than I thought. It's just hugely disingenuous.

Yes, many environmental indicators in the US are improving.....largely as the result of years of struggle by environmentalists for controls on auto emissions, the banning of leaded gasoline (a generation of slightly retarded Americans can thank the crafty Thomas Midgely for that wondrous invention, Tetraethyl lead), wetlands protection measures, and so on.

Many American environmental indicators are indeed improving - and these trends should continue. Humans are tough, sure, but sub-optimal childhood development - from ambient lead, ozone, carbon monoxide, persistent organic pollutants (and so on) is a sorry thing.

This report is mainly suspect 1) for it's omissions and 2) for it's claims on biodiversity. Take the second :

"The researchers assume that global warming will reduce habitat. Yet this isn't the case. The earth is not shrinking. The reduction of one area of habitat does not mean that it is replaced by void. Other habitats expand." - Here Hayward displays an embarrassing (or mendacious) ignorance of the actual subject. "Habitat reduction" is a contextual term. It means habitat for species X or species Y. Most rainforest species cannot live in the desert, nor can most desert species survive in rainforests. So, if all the face of the Earth is reduced to a single monotonous and degraded habitat, that habitat will not support the vast number of species currently alive. Most will not be able to adapt quickly enough and so they will perish.

Interstellar space might even considered be a "habitat" for some hardy forms of life, or at least a vehicle for spores. So what? Most terrestrial life can't exist in it.

In those single few sentences above, Hayward reveals himself to be a political propagandist. And he might be a very good one at that. But he's still a shill.

Old growth forest is chopped down for plywood and toilet paper - and replaced by monoculture forest. Good? Benign? - Well, the new monoculture might soon approximate the biomass of the destroyed Old growth, but the biological diversity supported by that destroyed Old Growth will vanish. That is not progress. That is devastation.

"....And so far, all the evidence we have points not to desertification or other changes to less hospitable
climates as a result of global warming. Instead, the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere seems to have led to a six-percent increase in the amount of vegetation on the earth. The Amazon rain forests accounted for 42 percent of the growth." - Well, NASA would beg to differ with the desertification claim.

NASA's superb Visible Earth website is instructive, with satellite pictures of the massive burning of rainforest ongoing in Indonesia and Equatorial Africa. Of course, by the reckoning of Hayward, this might not count as deforestation - if Kudzu and Japanese Knotweed moves quickly in to re-cover the scorched landscape.

Hayward's "Greening Earth" claim is probably true up to a point and, in fact, new research has just demonstrated pervasive changes in the Amazon rainforest in areas never believed to have been visited by humans before - species diversity is declining. This seems to be a byproduct of higher CO2 levels. And further, there may be parameters beyond which the Amazon begins to unravel. Increased heat and CO2 can be good up to a point. But beyond certain thresholds.....


Meanwhile - back on the farm - one trend Hayward neglects to mention is the rise in levels of persistent organic pollutants found in human breast tissue. This includes Dioxin, PCB's, PAH's (a PCB-like class of POP's which has been shown to bio-accumulate).

Breast feeding has been recently shown to decrease breast cancer in human females, and the mechanism is speculated to be this : Breast feeding flushes those POP's, which are fat soluble and so build up in the fatty tissue of breasts, into nursing infants.

There, they exert a subtle and pervasive effect through their chemical similarity to hormones produced by the endocrine system that mediate human growth and development. One curious aspect of this is that the POP's tend to have an estrogenic effect.

Another trend Hayward neglects is that of general climate destabilization - between the decade of the 1980's and 1990's, US insurance industry payouts for climate related disasters increased by about a factor of 10. Not all of this is due to Global warming driven destabilization, surely - but some of it certainly is.

In general, local US environmental indicators seem to be improving, yes (with a few reversals here and there) - but the US is not an island, and so the new class of environemtal declines should worry us, for it concerns global tends : the destruction of rainforest, Global Warming ( with climate destabilization and the possibility of sudden climate shifts), the loss of biological diversity, and the buildup of persistent organic pollutants.
posted by troutfishing at 6:56 AM on April 24, 2004

damn. This sort of excrescence takes far too long to properly rebut. I think that's exactly the point :

With enough "Think Tank" PR flacks shovelling out enough shit, the job of merely beating back that barrage of crap consumes so much energy that little is left over to spend addressing real problems or making positive changes in the world.

But don't trust me on this. Listen to NASA
posted by troutfishing at 7:01 AM on April 24, 2004

Good work, troutfishing.
posted by digaman at 7:18 AM on April 24, 2004

Since Hayward champions coal burning, I wonder what his view is on mercury pollution.
posted by stbalbach at 8:29 AM on April 24, 2004

Or trash incineration. I used to live in one of the top three Mercury hotspots in the US - it was mostly from all the trash burning incinerators. No one seemed to know or care really, though. It was strange that way - depression, cancer clusters, autistic kids......and apathy.

Apathy...Mercury. Hmm. Maybe not so strange.

But property values were through the roof.
posted by troutfishing at 8:56 AM on April 24, 2004

Wow. Nice analysis, troutfishing.
posted by graventy at 9:09 AM on April 24, 2004

Mokuijin - That's why I included the link to PRI in the post. And I tried to indicate my own lack of ability to fully analyze the report with the question marks in the title and in the post.

I don't think there's anything wrong with a think tank, regardless of political leanings, authoring a report about the environment or any other scientific subject. Data is just data, totally meaningless without interpretation. I was trying to present this as one interpretation of the data discussed within. absolutely everyone, including the EPA, or NASA or Democrats and Republicans in an election year will have biases in the data they chose to expand upon and present. Of course this report will not contain all environmental factors, or address every concern. But I think the average person could be excused if by reading links such as these, they thought that George Bush himself was pouring nuclear waste into drinking water. Why are those positions any more valid or truthful that this report? Omissions aside, are the statements made by the PRI report wrong? That's all that really matters in this discussion. If the numbers are right, it's good news no matter what, right?

Troutfishing - good examples of further improvements that need to be made, and some problems with the report. That NASA link is really something.

So let me ask this. Given that this report is not complete and states that more improvement is necessary, is it not a good indication of the progress made with respect to various environmental issues over the last 20-30 years? Are republicans to blame for every current environmental issue? Does President Bush have a "secret war" on the environment? Is he the worst environmental president of the last 100 years? Or is the truth not as bad or as good as the various interests would have us believe?
posted by loquax at 1:17 PM on April 24, 2004

"So let me ask this. Given that this report is not complete and states that more improvement is necessary, is it not a good indication of the progress made with respect to various environmental issues over the last 20-30 years?" - Of course. It notes significant enviromental progress, yes. Yet - although this report may seem relatively innocuous - I don't view it as benign. Though it is not in itself a work of science, it cloaks itself in the veneer of scientific objectivity.....and then advances, by selective distortion and omission, a pointed agenda. That's my opinion. " Are republicans to blame for every current environmental issue?" - Not at all. You might as well blame humanity, existence itself, or God. Two of the greatest environmental presidents in US history have been Republicans - Teddy Roosevelt (for creating the beginning of the US park system - from hanging out with and listening to John Muir and from being a hunter and an outdoorsman himself) and Richard Nixon - who signed more environmental legislation into existence than any other US President and who presided over the creation of the EPA. "Does President Bush have a "secret war" on the environment?" - Well, yes, I think his administration has been waging a sort of covert war. "Is he the worst environmental president of the last 100 years? Or is the truth not as bad or as good as the various interests would have us believe?" - As far as I can tell, the Bush Administration has been trying to roll back environmental regulations and legislation wherever and whenever it can - but quietly - they seem to have the view that the scientific community is trying to foist some sort of agenda. I'll post a few links later when I get a chance.
posted by troutfishing at 7:07 PM on April 24, 2004

And here's a good one. One of many. The veracity of the story is up to you, the reader (loquax, or anyone) to judge. But I'd make one pointed observation - I've heard the "I've been in the business since the Eisenhower/Nixon/Reagan Administrations, and I've never seen anything that comes close to comparing to this....." observation about the Bush Administration countless times now - and not just with regard to environmental issues.

The Bush Administration is employing very sophisticated tactics. It has stuffed, wholesale, midlevel federal positions related to the environment with industry lobbyists who know precisely how to gut federal environmental legislation - through the adroit use of rules and regulations that serve only a narrow industry based agenda.

Old growth forests? Rivers and streams? The backyards of people living in West Virginia? Pah.
posted by troutfishing at 8:58 PM on April 24, 2004

loquax - But that's not satisfactory, in my mind, as a reply.

I'm still ruminating on a thorough answer to your question. I take it quite seriously and - in matters of importance - I'm like one of Tolkien's Ent "tree herders".

I don't like to be hasty.

posted by troutfishing at 11:12 AM on April 25, 2004

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