Article by Erik Smith. Published on Friday, August 17, 2011 EST.
Calls Washington Ground Zero for Some of the Craziest Ideas
Todd Myers and his book “Eco-Fads: How the Rise of Trendy Environmentalism is Harming the Environment.”
By Washington State Wire Staff
OLYMPIA, Aug. 19.—Seems like everyone wants to be green these days. They talk about green energy and green jobs, green construction, even green toilets. And don’t forget the green vote – that always seems to be foremost in people’s thoughts at the statehouse.
Not that there’s anything wrong with wanting to save the Earth, says Todd Myers. But a lot of it strikes him as about as silly as the hula hoop. Some of it, he says, might even be making things worse.
Myers, prominent in Washington public-affairs circles, is author of “Eco-Fads: How the Rise of Trendy Environmentalism is Harming the Environment.” It is published by the Washington Policy Center, where Myers works as environmental director, and it synthesizes and expands on the speeches Myers has frequently delivered on behalf of the right-of-center think tank. Politicians and activists pick their agendas the way most people pick their fall wardrobe, Myers argues – what counts is what makes them look good. Science be damned.
It might not be a new argument. But what might be of most interest to an Evergreen-state audience is that Myers draws heavily on the experience of Washington - one of the greenest states around, and certainly one where green is gold. Myers has had a front-row seat on the development of environmental policy in Washington. For four years he was communications director for the Department of Natural Resources, under Republican Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland.
“The benefit that I have of studying environmental policy in Seattle is that I get a taste of things before the rest of the country does,” Myers says. “This is this sort of like Willie Sutton saying I rob banks because that’s where the money is. I would say that if you want to study environmental policy, go to where the environmental policy is, and that’s Seattle. So I am trying to share the lessons from ecotopia with the rest of the country.”
Washington State Wire spoke with Myers. Here’s how he tells the story.
A Matter of Fashion
“When I first went to work for the Department of Natural Resources about a decade ago, I had a fairly traditional understanding of the balance between the environment and the economy and those sorts of trade-offs. What was good for the environment was bad for the economy and vice versa. But what I soon began to realize was that even when policies that were supposed to help the environment didn’t do that, the environmentalists and other folks wouldn’t change them. In fact, they refused to change them.
“I started to recognize that what was happening was that the value of those policies was not in what they did for the environment, or at least not primarily what it did for the environment. It was how it made environmentalists feel about themselves. The same is true for politicians who want to look green to the public, and even businesses that want to profit from marketing their products. I started to recognize that the way that we make policy and environmental decisions these days is that we choose those policies that have the biggest social and public benefit, not those that have the largest environmental benefit.
“There are a number of studies that actually found this to be the case. For instance, J.D. Power and Associates asked people why they would buy hybrid cars, and the number one answer was ‘what it says about me.’ that’s why they were buying – not because they saved gas, not because it was comfortable, but because they wanted to show off to others they were green. This year, a study by two economists found that in Seattle people were willing to spend up to $1,600 more to buy a Prius rather than another hybrid car because the Prius is recognizable as a green car, where other hybrids simply look like regular cars. So they were paying $1,600 more just to make sure everybody knew that they had hybrid. There is a strong emotional component in how we make environmental decisions and the result is lots of bad environmental decisions.
Green Buildings That Suck Energy
“Let me give a couple of examples. One is green buildings. In 2005, Washington passed a law requiring all schools to meet green building standards. We did some research and found that schools that met those green standards in many cases were using more energy than the non-green schools in the same districts. The proponents of the bills denied this and said that our data was wrong. But the Joint Legislative Audit and Review committee, the legislative auditing agency, confirmed our data this year and found that half of the green schools performed not just worse than new schools, but performed worse than the average school in the same district.
“It took a while to figure out why that was the case, but there are plenty of reasons. Let me give you two examples. advocates of the standards believe that big windows improve student test scores and reduce energy use. Now, when I was in school, big windows that looked outside didn’t help my concentration in the classroom. But they believe that outside lighting is better.
“Big windows mean that in the summer, the room is a greenhouse, and in the winter it is very cold, because lots and lots of energy comes in and out of windows. So that means they have to run the heating system a lot more frequently to keep the room at a consistent temperature. Another is that they say these buildings are healthier because they have more fresh air. So what they do is they bring more fresh air in from the outside, heat it up to room temperature, put it in the room and then pull it out and start the process all over again. Now, that’s great. I like fresh air but they are not going to save energy doing that. They’re going to use more energy doing that. So these sorts of counterproductive efforts turn green schools into energy hogs.
“But more interesting to me than just the fact that this didn’t work, because we all try things that don’t work, is the reaction of politicians to this data. The sponsors of that legislation, instead of saying we need to find a better way, have simply rejected these data, attacked JLARC, and said we are not going to make any changes. And so the question is what do they care about? The environment or their green image? It seems they care more about their green image than the environment.
The Biofuel Bust
“Another good example is that of biofuels. Washington state has done all sorts of things to promote biofuels. King County Metro purchased soy-based biofuel to run in its buses, but they stopped after a year because the research started to show that soy-based biodiesel actually emitted more pollutants and carbon than traditional diesel. So they were paying more for a product that was less environmentally friendly and they ended up having to stop doing it.
“Now, in that case it was actually good, because they admitted it was counterproductive. But then we have ethanol standards in Washington state. It is widely recognized that ethanol may be damaging to the environment, and yet in Washington state we continue to promote biofuels and ethanol.
“Since we now subsidize biofuels, primarily at the federal level, and we have state mandates like in Washington state for the use of biofuels, farmers have switched from food production to fuel production. Worse than that, because the subsidies are so significant, they are now planting on marginal lands, lands that that don’t produce as well. And what that means is that you have to put more energy into the ground and get less energy out of the ground because the crops don’t yield as well. The result is that is that we take acreage away from food, and the crops that we are growing are less efficient, because the subsidies are so high.
“This is not a surprise to anybody. Everybody knows this, and in fact, the Congressional Budget Office said that ethanol costs about $200 a ton of CO2 that it reduces. Well, that is 10 times the market rate in Europe of a ton of CO2 [under cap-and-trade policies]. So 90 percent of the money that we are spending on ethanol to reduce carbon emissions is essentially wasted. But instead of reducing the program, we continue to strengthen the mandate and increase the subsidies.
Misplaced Cleanup Priorities
“Puget Sound cleanup, I think, is a fantastic example of where environmental image has bested environmental science. The Puget Sound Partnership was created with the admirable goal of using science to prioritize Puget Sound cleanup, but years later we’re still waiting for them to create a scientifically based priority list. Yet we haven’t stopped spending money. And so we end up spending money on political goals rather than on environmental goals.
“The best example is that the state and King County spent about $30 million to buy a gravel mine on Maury Island and turned it into a park, despite the fact that the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Department of Ecology, the Department of Natural Resources and others said there was very minimal environmental impact from that operation. To put that in context, the Environmental Protection Agency gave the state of Washington $33 million last year for all of its Puget Sound cleanup efforts.
“So for what we spent on one parcel that had little environmental impact, to turn it into a park, we could have spent on Puget Sound cleanup what we got from the federal government for Puget Sound as a whole. That is just simply political priorities. And in fact, [King County Executive] Dow Constantine and legislators had a party for people on the island to take credit.
The Buy-Local Boondoggle
“There is another one that I think surprises a lot of people when I talk about it, and that is that the buy-local [movement]. There is a big trend to buy local food to reduce we call food miles, the distance that your food travels, because if it travels less distance, obviously it must mean less energy. This turns out not to be the case at all.
“In fact, there is research that found that if you are in Great Britain and you bought lamb from Great Britain, it would actually use several times the energy than lamb grown in New Zealand and shipped to Great Britain would use. The reason is that transportation energy is a small portion of food production. So you can raise the lamb and process it more efficiently elsewhere, even if you have to ship it, and use much less energy.
“Now, I like farmers markets as much as the next guy. I go to them frequently. But I don’t fool myself that I’m helping the planet. I do it for other reasons.
“The buy-local [movement] is one of the biggest fads this out there for the environmental movement. In Portland last year there was a cooking contest, and one of the local chefs actually punched the organizer because the winner used food from out-of-state. They ended up having to arrest the guy. And so this is sort of how emotional people get with buy local, and how much they believe it helps the environment, when in fact that is not the case.
The Irony of Renewable Energy
“Environmentalists contradict themselves constantly when it comes to energy. They like windmills and wind power, but in Washington state they are currently opposing windmills that are not in the Columbia River Scenic Area, but that can be seen from the Columbia River Scenic Area. Environmentalists frequently oppose wind farms. They oppose solar panels, because large solar arrays out in the middle of the desert and elsewhere cover a lot of ground and take up habitat. And so environmental groups have opposed solar arrays in Washington state. Environmental groups oppose the use of biomass, which is burning wood. In their words, they claim that it’s worse than coal. The environmental community just wrote a law that we passed a few years back [Initiative 937] that specifically promoted biomass – it counted biomass as renewable. But today, whenever we try to build an actual biomass plant, the environmental community opposes it. That shows that we are dealing with emotion and not science here. They say they like wind, they say that like solar, they say they like renewable energy, and then they oppose all those things when they actually get implemented.
“The fact is that while environmentalists have all sorts of schemes for generating energy, what really is happening is that the free market, because there is a cost to energy, has done much better than any government program. We now use half of the energy as we did in 1980, per unit of GDP. And that dramatic reduction didn’t come because of any government program. It came because businesses and families and others don’t want to spend their money on energy that they don’t need. They would rather spend it on other things.
“So that’s where you see the real dramatic increases in sustainability. It is from the free-market finding ways to do more with less. And that fundamentally is at the heart of environmentalism – a concern about scarce resources. Economics is the study of allocation of scarce resources. And yet environmentalists choose politics and emotion over economics, and it should be just the opposite.
An Economic Way of Thinking
“I think there are some good things on the horizon. One of them that is in the Pacific Northwest is the ‘smart grid.’ I think the most exciting element of the smart grid is that it gives people more control over the energy they use by giving them price controls. Currently you don’t really react very much to the price during the day. But with the smart grid, what they will allow you to do is to say if energy prices get above a certain point, increase my thermostat to 74 degrees. This is voluntary. This is not something the government does. You do it yourself. The leader in this is the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in the Tri-Cities, and they found that simply giving people control, whether they were price sensitive or not, decreased energy use by 10 percent.
“So with very simple choices related to the price of energy you can make big improvements in conservation, and I think the smart grid is a way that gives consumers more power over the energy they use and how much they spend. That’s the sort of thing that is going to make real improvements, rather than trying to come up with so many political image-based plans that often don’t work.
“I think the key thing is that as a conservative, I believe that you are responsible for your actions. I don’t believe in societal responsibility. I believe in individual responsibility. So if you use water, if you use energy, you have an impact on the environment. You ought to pay for it.
“I think that is the real remedy to these things is to make people pay for the impacts that cause directly, rather than trying to have government force us to change our behavior. Those things simply don’t work. They are expensive and ineffective, and yet we keep doing them.
“There is a better way to do it. The way that has always worked is to give people incentives to find a way to do more with less. We always do a great job with that, because the creativity of billions of people is always going to surpass the creativity of the few legislators and people in Olympia.”
Myers’ book, “Eco-Fads: How the Rise of Trendy Environmentalism is Harming the Environment,” is available through the Washington Policy Center and Amazon.com.