Environmental politics and climate change​​​

Lowry’s environmental politics​ class takes students on white-water ride down river of arguments, counterarguments

This is the third in a series of articles that describe how scholars at Washington University in St. Louis are bringing their varied skills to bear on the issue of climate change and global warming.


Why was it politically possible to bring wolves back to Yellowstone National Park? Everything lined up behind reintroduction, WUSTL political scientist William Lowry said: The wolves had a positive image (as symbols of wilderness); science showed that their reintroduction would keep elk in check, re-establishing ecosystem balance in the park; compelling economic arguments showed the gains in tourism would far outweigh livestock losses; and the two government agencies responsible for the reintroduction had a solid partnership.

In 1968, ecologist Garrett Hardin published a paper in Science magazine called “The Tragedy of the Commons” that makes a very simple point — but one that is central to every fight over the environment.

If a herdsman turns one additional animal onto a common pasture, Hardin said, he gains more by fattening that animal, which is his alone, than he loses to the effects of overgrazing, which is shared by all the herdsmen.

To people who read Hardin many years ago, it may come as a shock to learn that the first thing he said in his famous essay is there is no “technical solution” to the tragedy of the commons. He meant there is no scientific solution because the problems are rooted in human values, morality and politics, not in natural law.

Hardin’s essay is the first reading assignment in political scientist William Lowry’s course “Environmental and Energy Issues,” which he first taught in 1988. It remains one of the most popular courses on the Washington University in St. Louis campus, and it was the first WUSTL offering for Semester Online, an online learning consortium of leading universities.

The first half of the course is a broad overview of environmental policymaking in the United States, and the second half, which has expanded over time, addresses energy issues and policy.

Lowry, PhD, a professor of political science in Arts & Sciences, has paid close attention to environmental issues for 25 years, marshaling what he learns each year and testing it in front of a class of critical students.

He has honed the class so it is a white-water ride down a river of arguments and counterarguments that puts everything in context and lays out the facts.

Temperamentally averse to anger and constitutionally fair-minded, he is in many ways the ideal person to teach this explosive topic. After presenting both sides of a contentious issue, he often will say, “I can see both sides.”

He worries a few students might have dropped the class after its first meeting this fall because he said he is convinced that climate change is real. Because his goal is an inclusive conversation, it bothers him intensely that a few students might believe no meeting of minds is possible.

Lowry continually monitors the temperature of the class, sometimes asking for a show of hands to see what students are thinking. After presenting the arguments for and against fracking, he asked the class where they stood on a scale of 0 to 10 on the issue, with 0 being a total ban and 10 being no regulation. The students were pretty evenly dispersed along the spectrum.

He also tracks the way student sentiment has changed over time. Each year, he shows a clip from a 1990 60 Minutes episode about Earth First!, the radical environmental advocacy group famous for monkey wrenching.

“Over time, the classes have become less and less receptive to the Earth Firsters,” he said. “I think it has something to do with 9/11. In the video, they talk about ‘terrorism’ and ‘eco-terrorism,’ and the meaning of those words has changed.”

A second case history: Why has it been politically impossible to close the Yosemite Valley to traffic? In this case, everything lined up on the wrong side, Lowry said. Opponents were able to frame the closing as a lockout; the science on the effects on air quality were not definitive; local businesses and communities were not convinced by economic analyses of the likely impact of closure; and there were tensions among change advocates. (Credit: william Lowry)

The arc of the environmental movement

The students in class today were born before 9/11 but after the first great surge of concern about the environment in the 1970s.

In barely more than a decade, Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the Clean Water Act and the Superfund Act.

Then came the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan appointed James Watt secretary of the Interior Department and Anne Gorsuch administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Known as sagebrush rebels, they wanted the federal government to give more control of federally owned Western lands to state and local authorities and to roll back environmental regulations.

Ever since, the country has had pretty much the same legislative toolkit, even as circumstances have changed.

The Endangered Species Act passed in 1973 by a 355-4 vote in the House and without opposition in the Senate, breathtaking margins to modern congressional watchers.

The Endangered Species Act said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) was to determine whether a species should be listed as endangered or threatened on biological grounds alone. Once the species was listed, critical habitat — habitat essential to the species’ preservation — was afforded strict legal protection.

But times have changed, Lowry said. For example, the polar bear was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 2008, and the FWS asked to protect 120 million acres of the Arctic Region to preserve its habitat.

The Department of the Interior immediately issued a statement saying the ESA could not be used to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions, Lowry said. When President Obama was elected, his administration agreed the ESA is not an appropriate way to address climate change.

The commons again

Throughout the course, the tragedy of the commons recurs under manydifferent guises — but perhaps most starkly in the case of management of federal lands in the American West.

One example Lowry gives is the law governing prospecting and mining for “hard rock” minerals on public lands. It is still the General Mining Act of 1872, signed into law by Ulysses S. Grant.

The law set the price of patenting the land (which allows it to be worked as private property) at $2.50 to $5 per acre, depending on the type of claim.

The price has remained the same since 1872, Lowry said, though there currently is a moratorium on new patents.

In addition, the 1872 law does not require miners to pay royalties to the federal government. More than $240 billion has been extracted from lands made available by the law, but none has benefited taxpayers.

Moreover, taxpayers have been stuck with cleaning up heavily polluted mine sites.

Hard-rock mining epitomizes the failure of the market to force those who benefit to pay what economists call “externalities,” costs that affect parties who did not choose to incur those costs, said Lowry, who holds an MBA as well as a PhD in political science.

Bill Lowry’s Bookshelf

And then there’s climate change

By the time Lowry gets to climate change, halfway through the course, the class is on tenterhooks. What he has had to say about other issues is so balanced and well-informed, everyone wants to know what he will say about the mother of all environmental problems.

He presents the science supporting climate change, but he also tells the students that if they are reluctant to believe the science — and after all, none of us can feel rising carbon dioxide levels on our skin — they should look at what is going on in their patch, whether that is the Jersey shore or a ranch in Texas.

Each of us loves some bit of the woods or the shore whose silent testimony about the effects of climate change we acknowledge as truth, he said. His own environmental touchstone is the Western
forests, which now sometimes suffer fires so hot that the soil itself is
incinerated, leaving the land barren.

What can be done?

But what can be done, especially given our spectacularly deadlocked political process? Lowry starts with a famous economist’s comment: “The problem of climate change involves a fundamental failure of markets: those who damage others by emitting greenhouse gases generally do not pay.”

Some way must be found of folding the “externalities” into the prices paid for goods so those prices reflect all costs, including those paid by others.

Cap-and-trade programs are one way to do this, but they have proved complicated and ineffective. The price of carbon credits on the European Emissions Trading System, the most ambitious cap-and-trade program so far, is now near zero, Lowry said.

Lowry prefers a carbon tax. He immediately admits there is strong opposition to a tax: conservatives don’t like taxes of any kind; liberals think a carbon tax would be regressive, punishing the poor disproportionately. Most recent proposals for a tax have been “scorned,” Lowry said.

But, he said, this doesn’t mean we don’t have carbon taxes in place. The federal and state taxes on gas are one, though not an effective one. Ireland instituted a carbon tax in 2008, as did British Columbia. Even the city of Boulder, Colo., has one.

The proceeds for these taxes are recycled back to individuals and companies as tax cuts. And so far, they seem to be working, in the sense that they are driving down fossil-fuel use without damaging the economy.

Is there any chance the U.S. will pass a carbon tax? The 2013 Climate Protection Act, sponsored by Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is a carbon-tax bill, Lowry said.

Even The Wall Street Journal says it would support such a bill “if completely revenue neutral or balanced by tax cuts to corporations,” Lowry said.

But Lowry doesn’t really expect the bill to pass. If anything, he’s hoping it just won’t crash and burn as spectacularly as the Kerry-Lieberman bill in 2010.

Still, he believes we will get there eventually. “The lectures I gave this year on climate change,” he said, “are very different from the lectures I gave last time I taught this class.”

More violent storms and longer droughts are gradually reshaping the political landscape across which these battles are fought.

With Congress paralyzed, government agencies, the executive branch and state and local governments are working the angles to bring about change, he said.

During this fall’s class, the EPA proposed limits to emissions from new coal plants and Obama signed an executive order designed to make it easier for state and local governments to respond to weather disasters.

For the students, Lowry himself is a source of optimism, someone who listens to both sides, seeks the facts and never raises his voice.

He was a Navy helmsman in his youth, and you could say he still is trying to steer a safe course in treacherous waters. ​