Kleindorfer and environmental policy

This is a reaction to readings in ENR 8150 Advanced Environment, Risk, and Decision Making.  The reading was Kleindorfer, P.R. Chap. 2, pp. 37-56 in Sexton, K., A. A. Marcus, K. W. Easter, and T. D. Burkhardt, eds, Better Environmental Decisions: Strategies for governments, businesses, and communities (Island Press, 1999).

I liked this article in that it made an attempt to systematically apply some of the decision-making concepts we have been looking at to the environmental arena.  Kleindorfer listed five special aspects of environmental decision-making:

  1. The relatively insignificant effect that individuals have on the environment, along with the perception that the individual bears the costs but society gets the benefits
  2. The perception that the problem is with industry or government
  3. The cost of environmental protections, and the difficulty of weighing costs against benefits
  4. Long term effects of environmental improvement are hard to weigh against near term costs
  5. Lack of scientific proof of causality between action and outcome

Kleindorfer looks at some strategies for addressing some of these issues. For example, if costs are perceived as high and benefits as low, regulation and an appeal to ethics is needed.  If costs are low and benefits high, we need to make sure people understand the benefits.  If costs and benefits are both high, people need to be convinced the problem is unacceptable and there is an alternative.

Kleindorfer classifies environmental problems into four types:

  • Easy, which the market or simple regulations can solve
  • Commons dilemmas, which require regulations and standards along with an appeal to ethics
  • Information problems, which require providing information and seeking participation and consensus
  • Tough problems, which require pretty much all of the above

Kleindorfer ends by arguing that an appeal to self interest won’t work to get people to take action on environmental problems.  He thinks you have to appeal to social responsibility or a sense of ethics.  This is what he calls legitimation, and he says it’s the foundation of all environmental decision making.

Individual vs collective

Since my main interest in this class is climate change communication, I want to explore how Kleindorfer’s concepts apply to this problem.  First, I can see how all five of Kleindorfer’s characteristics of environmental deicison making apply to this issue.  I’m especially interested in #2, because I don’t think it’s just a perception but a very valid concern.  We cannot address climate change simply by individual actions.  There have to be major structural changes in how dependent our society is on fossil fuels and on the realistic options offered to individuals, industries, and government to reduce their use.  People cannot use public transit if there isn’t any in their area or if taking the bus would add a two-hour commute each way to work.  Most people realistically don’t have time to grow all their own food.  Most people don’t have $20,000 lying around to use for installing solar panels.

There are things individuals can do such as using energy-saving light bulbs and eating less meat.  But it will take major structural changes before our society can kick its dependence on fossil fuels, and furthermore the fossil fuel interests are going to do everything in their power to delay this or keep it from happening.  That’s where climate change becomes a real public policy issue, because without policies that encourage growth of renewable energy industries, we might never get beyond the talking stages.

To make public policy happen, we do have to be able to explain the other points of Kleindorfer’s environmental decision making tree, namely how benefits outweigh costs, how benefits will accrue now and not just into the future, and how action is scientifically linked to outcome.

The costs and benefits of averting climate change are both high — though the cost of doing nothing is no less than the extinction of humans and all other species.  One of our best bets may be to argue that the costs of *not* addressing climate change are unaffordable, along with showing the solutions.  Those may be investment in renewable energy and taxing carbon as a way to internalize the externalized costs of fossil fuels.

So far as the four types of environmental problems, climate change is pretty clearly in the “tough” camp.  It’s going to require pretty much every tool to address — regulations, standards, incentives, subsidies, taxes, etc.

Social responsibility

Kleindorfer’s notion that environmental issues must be argued from social responsibilty rather than self-interest is interesting, but I am not sure I agree.  On the one hand, more companies than ever have social responsibility units and want to portray what they are doing as good for society and the responsible thing to do.  Animal protection groups have had a lot of success getting companies to sign onto animal welfare standards using this line of reasoning.  On the other hand, most of those companies wouldn’t do it if they didn’t think their customers cared about such standards and that it wasn’t good for their bottom lines.

The same is true of environemental standards, maybe even more so.  Most people care about clean air and clean water, and companies active use green programs as part of their advertising, to the point that “green washing” has become a term for companies that talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.  Again, these companies would not be appealing to the consumer’s sense of environmental ethics if they didn’t think it would help their bottom line.  For example, hotels that give you the opportunity not to wash your towels every day also save a ton of money in water, heating and detergent bills.

Such concerns, however, don’t really translate to the individual who isn’t trying to sell you something or get you to do something.  They are going to be motivated much more by self interest.  If we could have gotten farmers to stop applying so much manure to their fields in Northwest Ohio simply by appealing to a sense of the greater good, Toledo’s water supply never would have been in danger.

Regardless of what motivates a company, government, or individual to do the right thing, it’s good when they do it.  But we do have to know what motivates them in order to set up the right public policy programs to elicit the type of behavior we want, and to explain to them why they should support these policies.

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