Two types of environmentalism
The environmental movement is a puzzling phenomenon. On the one hand, environmentalists frequently claim that global warming is a major problem, perhaps the major problem facing the globe. Yet despite these expressed views, one repeatedly see environmentalists opposing the sorts of steps that would be required to address global warming.
Matt Yglesias recently linked to a story where three major environmental groups in Maine succeeded in stopping construction of a power line from Canada that would have brought enough clean hydropower electricity down to America to reduce carbon emissions by 3 million tons per year, equivalent to taking 700,000 cars off the road.
In Germany, environmentalists succeeded in getting the government to agree to shut down the entirely nuclear power industry, which will lead to a large increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Elsewhere, environmentalists have succeeded in demolishing clean hydro plants and have prevented the construction of solar and wind power facilities. Many are even lukewarm on carbon taxes. So what gives?
In my view, there are two types of environmentalism. Scientific environmentalism looks at issues from a rational cost/benefit approach, always keeping an eye on the bottom line—how do policies affect the natural environment?
The bigger and more powerful part of the environmental movement is what you might call “emotional environmentalism”. This movement is centered around the interests of human beings, not the rest of the animal kingdom. Policies that are seen as risky to humans (like nuclear power) are opposed even though they are beneficial to other animals. The focus is on the visible and the local (unsightly power lines), not the unseen and the global (climate change.)
There’s nothing strange about political movements working against their own stated interests. Many housing advocates oppose new housing developments and favor rent controls. Nationalists in the US worried about China’s growing power often oppose immigration of high-skilled Chinese people into the US. Those who assert that “black lives matter” try to defund the police. Proponents of higher interest rates favor tight money policies that reduce interest rates in the long run. There are numerous similar examples.
But even compared to those examples, the environmental movement really stands out. The weakness of scientific environmentalism and the power of emotional environmentalism raises important questions for public policy intellectuals. How can we develop effective public policies in a world where most of our political allies don’t understand how to achieve their stated policy goals?