Climate change has been the dominant environmental concern of the 21st century. Public discussion of the topic is less an informed exchange of ideas than a strident debate pitting alarmists against deniers—at least that is how each side labels the other. Both are secure in the knowledge that truth, reason and the moral high ground undergird their positions.
And thus it has always been with environmental policy. There was a brief period of productive collaboration during the Johnson and Nixon administrations, but thereafter "green" politics settled into a stark polarization as issues like hazardous waste, environmental racism, acid rain, the ozone layer and the Amazonian rain forest each came to the fore. Climate change is just the latest chapter.
It is this larger story that Patrick Allitt tells in "A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism." In recounting partisan battles, Mr. Allitt's objectivity is refreshing.
His account begins with the environmental initiatives inspired by Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" (1962) and more apocalyptic writings, like Paul Ehrlich's "The Population Bomb" (1968) and Barry Commoner's "The Closing Circle" (1971). In Mr. Allitt's telling, these books inspired such strong public responses because the public was already attuned to the existential threats of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. In the 1960s and early 1970s, there was broad national support for the Wilderness Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
There were dramatic reductions in pollution, expansions of national parks and wilderness areas, and the restoration of several threatened species. Even so, environmentalists continued to cry wolf and were undeterred when their doom-saying forecasts of global famine and ecological ruin failed to materialize. The consensus collapsed, and the public grew skeptical, especially the people bearing the significant and often unintended costs of regulation. The acid-rain and environmental-racism scares, writes Mr. Allitt, "turned out to be evanescent." Yet companies had spent hundreds of millions on regulatory compliance. Many apple farmers were put out of business in 1989 by what proved to be baseless claims that the chemical Alar was causing cancer in schoolchildren. And numerous Northwest communities were devastated in the 1990s by a 90% cut in public-land timber harvests, which crippled the timber industry to save the Northern Spotted Owl. Scientists later found that the greatest threat to this owl was its cousin, the Barred Owl.
The environmental lobby seldom acknowledged its failures—or even its successes. Since 1990, there has been a 90% reduction in automobile emissions (and a 99% reduction since 1960), yet the car remains public enemy No. 1. Despite widespread recognition that ethanol has few if any environmental benefits, subsidies and mandated use persist—and food prices have been driven higher by the diversion of corn from food to fuel production.
Environmentalism has grown into an industry of interest groups, lobbyists, litigators, impact assessors and bureaucrats who rely on warnings of impending disaster to sustain and expand their enterprises. It is much the same with their opponents, for whom the wolf is always at the door—notwithstanding numerous examples of their somehow surviving what they had vehemently insisted were business-killing regulations. Both sides reacted in predictable ways when climate change reared its political head in the early 1990s.
Mr. Allitt covers this ground well and fairly presents the views of everyone from "Deep Ecologist" Arne Naess, who believed that humans must regard plants and animals as our equals, to Helen Chenoweth, the Idaho congresswoman who called environmentalism "a cloudy mixture of New Age mysticism, Native American folklore, and primitive earth worship." Mr. Allitt's critique of the relentless crisis mentality will lead many environmentalists to dismiss the book as anti-environmental, while anti-environmentalists will object to his conclusion that much conservation has been achieved at little cost to ordinary Americans.
Yet for all its balance, Mr. Allitt's account falls short in two important respects. He misunderstands "free-market environmentalists" and bundles them with the "Sagebrush Rebellion" of the late 1970s and the "Wise Use" movement of the late 1980s. There is little that connects them. While the last two, like today's protesters at Cliven Bundy's ranch in Nevada, advocated for state rather than federal control of the vast public lands of the West, they were dependent on the largess of a friendly public landlord. Free-market environmentalists urged property-based solutions, spurring tradable emission permits, congestion pricing on roadways, volume-based trash-collection fees, transferable ocean-fisheries quotas, and numerous other market approaches. Even EPA administrators "eventually realized," in Mr. Allitt's words, "that it would be better to allow manufacturers to trade in the right to pollute."
Mr. Allitt also pays little heed to the large role that environmental litigation (as well as the threat of litigation) has played over the past half-century. Nowhere has our divisive environmental politics been more apparent and influential. Thanks to bipartisan legislation of the 1960s and '70s, which opened the courthouse doors to both sides of the environmental divide, scarcely a timber sale or urban-development plan moves forward without courts being asked to assess whether the developer or the government has properly weighed the pros and cons. The judge as policy maker is thus a central part of the story.
Given the uncertainties of climate-change forecasting and the urgency portrayed by "alarmists," expect the "deniers" to hold their ground—and our environmental politics to remain in a climate of crisis.
Mr. Huffman, dean emeritus of the Lewis & Clark Law School, is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the author of "Private Property and State Power" and "Private Property and the Constitution."