Congress gave away the nation's air quality for free, so the public got nothing but pollution in the bargain.
The Right to Pollute
Instead of reducing pollution, the market in "pollution rights" simply moves pollution from one region to another.
Trading "pollution rights"
does nothing to reduce pollution. The amount of pollution is established by the "cap," which is set by EPA in an old-style "command and control" decision. The buying and selling of "pollution rights" ("trading under a cap") actually works against pollution reduction because it reduces the incentive to search out, and adopt, less-polluting technical innovations; at some point it becomes cheaper to purchase the right to pollute than to prevent pollution.|
Instead of reducing pollution, the market in "pollution rights" simply moves pollution from one region to another, or from one neighborhood to another. Since technically inferior, highly-polluting facilities are often located in poor neighborhoods, those are the facilities most likely to purchase "pollution rights," thus increasing the relative pollution burden falling on the poor, and people of color. The buying and selling of "pollution rights" changes the discussion from one of fairness and public health to one of economics and high finance --thus moving the discussion into the realm of monetary experts, masking the ethical issues and removing them from public debate.
At this point, we might ask, are there real consequences from living in a polluted neighborhood? In the medical journal Lancet on April 8, 1995, a British researcher, Dick van Steenis, described children in the town of Johnston, England, who live downwind from 3 oil refineries and an oil-burning power plant. Thirty-five percent of the 8-and 9-year-old children in the town have asthma so badly that they carry medically-prescribed inhalers to school. Van Steenis writes, "To localise matters and to reduce the influence of variation in diagnosis and prescribing, it was decided to ascertain the proportions of primary school children (5-11 [years old])... taking inhalers to school for asthma. Some 1 in 5 [20%] took inhalers to school very close to the Pembroke power station/Texaco refinery complex; some 1 in 7 [14%] took inhalers to school directly downwind for about 72 kilometers [45 miles]; some 1 in 15 [7%] took inhalers to the schools receiving outfall [air pollution] 1 to 2 days a week; and only some 1 in 50 took inhalers to schools on the coasts not usually in any downwind [area]. The map is remarkably consistent," van Steenis wrote. He mentioned similar effects observable in the towns of Kent near Richborough and Ince on Merscyside. Thus we must conclude that transferring pollution into particular neighborhoods has serious negative consequences, especially for the children living there.
The sharpest criticisms of the "third wave" scheme for buying and selling "pollution rights" come from the viewpoint of democracy and justice. Peter Bahouth, former executive director of Greenpeace, told the Wall Street Journal, "If you were trying to handle drug problems in your community, you wouldn't be saying: 'Let's try to work this out with the drug dealers.'"
Mark Dowie says, "The worst aspect of third-wave environmentalism is that it is essentially anti-democratic. Environmental protection, to the extent that it is achieved at all, is won through negotiation among the powerful. When Fred Krupp, director of Environmental Defense Fund, cuts a deal with General Motors over automobile emissions there is no public participation. When he enters that board room in Detroit whom does he represent? The 36 members of the EDF Board? The 120,000 passive contributors? The donor foundations? Himself, or some vague principle he believes will benefit the environment? More important than these questions is whether or not he represents the public. And if he does, where was the public hearing?" Dowie asks.
The intention of third-wave environmentalism is to protect the environment while preserving economic prosperity and price stability. But the hidden costs of cheap lumber, cheap energy, and cheap gasoline are extinct and vanishing species, loss of farmland, an early death for tens of thousands of city dwellers each year, and future generations of deformed children. Until those "externalities" are dealt with in an open and democratic way, third-wave "market incentives" won't make sense.
To gain support from most environmentalists, free market enthusiasts would have to base their programs on charging the full, true environmental costs for all resources used and all harms done. And it would help if companies were required to seek out (and publicly discuss) least-damaging technical alternatives, including the alternative of doing nothing, thus requiring them to discuss the need for their project.
In sum, we conclude that the free market has a potentially valuable role to play in environmental protection, but that buying and selling "pollution rights" does not.
Objections to the third-wave concept of "pollution rights" come into sharpest focus if we consider that clean air and clean water are fundamental human rights, in the same category as the right to be free from arbitrary incarceration, or the right not to be tortured. It is inconceivable that human rights activists would negotiate the right to torture. ("You may torture 5% of your citizens, a 50% reduction from the 10% you tortured last year.") But something similar is going on when EDF and other third-wave environmentalists negotiate buying and selling of the "right to pollute" and therefore the "right" to make people sick. Such a right never existed until "third-wave" environmentalists created it.
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