The Green Tea Party

Monday, January 23, 2012
bird on teapot
Image credit: 
Taylor Jones

Neither political party is providing any environmental leadership. Democrats keep throwing money and regulations at environmental problems, and Republicans keep arguing that a focus on jobs and the economy must trump environmental protection.

It’s time for a movement that brings environmental quality through economic prosperity. It’s time for a Green Tea Party.

The GTP would not be for you if you think increasing Washington bureaucracy budgets will produce a cleaner environment. Since 1980, the Environmental Protection Agency’s inflation-adjusted budget has been relatively flat, but air and water quality have improved. Most improvements came through cost-saving technologies in the private sector, not regulations.

The GTP’s platform would be that only prosperity and incentives can drive environmental improvements. The first plank: wealthier is healthier. From the United States to the former Soviet Union, data show that economic growth is necessary for environmental improvement, not its enemy. Such growth requires a strong private sector, not more federal spending and red tape. The second plank: incentives matter. The GTP would use a carrot instead of the regulatory stick to improve environmental quality, and let energy markets and prices dictate energy sources. A replacement for fossil fuels will be found only when entrepreneurs can make a profit from cheaper, cleaner, and more efficient energy.

The first plank: wealthier is healthier. The second: incentives matter.

The Obama administration has spent billions on alternative energy, ostensibly to create jobs and improve the environment, but it hasn’t been able to pick winners. The now-bankrupt solar company Solyndra received subsidies of $535 million and had only 1,500 employees. Subsidized ethanol production encourages the destruction of wetlands and increases the use of pesticides and herbicides. Wind turbines disrupt bird flight paths, and solar farms are unsightly.

bird on teapot

Here are a few GTP environmental policies that make economic and common sense because they rely on market forces to discover what works:

  • The GTP would make land management agencies such as the Forest Service, Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management turn a profit on the federal estate. With lands worth trillions of dollars, there is no excuse for continually adding red ink to the federal deficit. Yet between 2006 and 2008, the Forest Service lost an average of $3.58 billion per year. Moreover, an estimated thirty-nine million acres are at risk of catastrophic wildfire and six million more are dying from insect infestation, no thanks to environmental lawsuits that prevent agencies from cutting trees.
  • In contrast, between 1998 and 2005, the Salish-Kootenai Confederated Tribes in Montana earned $2.04 for each dollar they spent on tribal forests—because trees from their healthy forests command higher prices and keep administrative costs down. All this while maintaining an endangered-species habitat and improving water quality. The GTP would require federal land management agencies either to earn a profit or turn the land over to state agencies, tribes, companies, or environmental groups with a record of sound fiscal and environmental stewardship.
  • The GTP would tap water markets instead of tapping the U.S. treasury. For decades, agencies such as the Bureau of Reclamation and the Corps of Engineers have subsidized housing by providing free flood protection and water treatment, and below-cost irrigation and hydropower. These agencies have made water cheaper than dirt while ignoring environmental impacts such as dams that prevent salmon from spawning, and toxic irrigation runoff. Water markets would make consumers face the full cost, including the environmental cost, thus reducing the demand for water and providing more revenue for deteriorating infrastructure, such as water treatment plants.
  • The GTP would establish tradable catch shares to halt the decline of ocean fisheries. Where such shares—essentially, fishing rights—have been implemented, as in the Alaska halibut fishery, season lengths have increased, costs have declined, fish quality has increased, and profits have risen. The Journal of Sustainable Development recently reported that “the federal deficit could be decreased by an estimated $890 million to $1.24 billion . . . if thirty-six of the forty-four federal U.S. fisheries adopted catch shares.”

It’s not enough to strut your stuff in clothes made of recycled materials while driving your hybrid to an environmental protest. And environmental quality cannot be bought simply by throwing more tax dollars and regulations at problems. The Green Tea Party would serve environmental quality, budget cuts, and economic prosperity.