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End Environmental Extremism

PRESIDENT Clinton's commitment to an activist environmental agenda seems apparent in his appointment of Carol Browner, head of Florida's Department of Environmental Regulation, to run the Environmental Protection Agency. She is, worries one businessman, in favor of "very rigorous environmental regulation."

The problem is not that Ms. Browner favors conservation, but that she, despite her pronouncements to the contrary, seems likely to promote the sort of command-and-control regulation that is responsible for today's nearly $150 billion in annual compliance costs, as well as the $40 billion or so in added expenses likely to come from full implementation of the Clean Air Act. Unfortunately, these big bills do not translate into better protection.

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If Browner truly cares about the environment, she needs to rescue conservation policy from politics. Her first job should be to reassure the American people that, despite persistent scare-mongering, we have been making real progress: Between 1970 and 1986 the amount of particulates spewed into the air fell by 64 percent, carbon monoxide emissions dropped 38 percent, and releases of volatile organic compounds fell by 29 percent.

What were once thought to be fearsome hazardous waste sites, such as Love Canal and Times Beach, now appear to be far less dangerous.

Browner's second important task is to rebut popular but dubious environmentalist claims of imminent catastrophe. For instance, in 1989 the Natural Resources Defense Council used a public relations agency to attack the pesticide Alar. The charges received wide attention, yet were contrary to the overwhelming weight of evidence. As Dr. Joseph Rosen of Rutgers University explained, "There was never any legitimate scientific study to justify the Alar scare."

Perhaps the most serious example of environmental politics infecting science is the issue of global warming. Prophecies of climatic catastrophe are not new. In 1981 Fred Hoyle's "Ice: The Ultimate Human Catastrophe" appeared, warning that "when the ice comes, most of northern America, Britain, and northern Europe will disappear under the glaciers.... The right conditions can arise within a single decade." He advocated warming the oceans to forestall this "ultimate human catastrophe."

NOW climatologists like Stephen Schneider, who two decades ago was warning of a cooling trend that looked like "one akin to the Little Ice Age," berate the media for covering scientists who are skeptical of their "Greenhouse Effect" claims. Yet only 17 percent of climatologists in a recent Gallup poll said they believed that human-induced warming had occurred at all, while 53 percent did not.

Third, Browner, as head of the government's lead environmental program, should point out that, even where problems are real, political management does not guarantee positive results. To the contrary, Uncle Sam has proved to be a remarkably poor steward. Washington has promoted clear-cutting on much of its 191 million acres of timberland, yet the Wilderness Society estimates that the government lost some $400 million annually doing so during the 1980s. Similarly, the government has wasted billions of doll ars on water projects and range-land management while leaving environmental despoilation in its wake. And so on.

Lastly, Browner should recognize the power of the marketplace and the opportunity to use market incentives to promote environmental protection. In some cases that should mean withdrawing the problem from politics entirely. Privatizing federal timber and range land would end subsidized destruction, since no private individual or company would spend a dollar to earn a few cents in revenue.

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In other instances, public officials need to develop more creative and cost-effective solutions. Setting overall emission levels and allowing the trading of permits or imposing pollution taxes based upon emissions would more effectively reduce air pollution than present policies while saving billions of dollars annually.

In short, to be for the environment does not require reflexive support for the sort of command-and-control regulation that has failed in every other aspect of the economy.

Carol Browner and, more importantly, President Clinton, should work to depoliticize the environment; competing interests should be balanced and more cost-effective policies developed. If they do, we could end up with not only a cleaner environment, but also a freer and wealthier society.

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