The baby-steps plan to stop global warming

History teaches us that strong environmental legislation takes years of effort to perfect

By Andrew Leonard
July 2, 2009 1:33AM (UTC)
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One of the squishier defenses of why we should try to be enthusiastic about the passage of a neutered energy-and-climate-change bill is the "baby steps" argument. In other words: Get this not-very-good bill passed, and then improve it, step-by-step, until it approaches something resembling acceptability. I say "squishier" because anyone who makes this argument (including me) is asking critics to take it on faith that there will be a: the will to keep working on it, and b: that such an evolutionary process is actually possible.

Encouragingly, The New Republic's Bradford Plumer, who I am increasingly coming to rely upon for insightful, up-to-the-minute analysis of environmental and energy issues, has some interesting history to share today on how landmark environmental legislation has taken shape in the past.


Looking back through history, every single piece of major environmental legislation in the United States evolved in fits and starts. The original Clean Air Act in 1963 dealt rather lightly with air pollution. But it kick-started innovation in scrubber technology and was expanded little by little, in 1965, 1966, and 1967, as awareness of the dangers of air pollution grew. Finally, by 1970, a new, much more comprehensive Clean Air Act was passed into law.... Similarly, Europe's cap-and-trade system has been bolstered over time, its weaknesses patched, its targets tightened....

...Indeed, that's essentially what happened with the push to curb CFCs and prevent the destruction of the ozone layer during the 1980s and '90s. As Michael Kraft, an environmental-policy expert at University of Wisconsin recounts, early moves on CFCs were modest, but the Montreal Protocol included a provision allowing countries to revisit the treaty every five years. As the science of ozone-layer destruction became clearer, and as people realized that transitioning away from CFCs didn't cost nearly as much as industry spokesman had warned, it became easier to accelerate the cleanup. "This sort of incremental decision-making is how the United States usually proceeds," notes Kraft.

Since President Obama seems exactly the kind of guy who has the temperament for a long-haul, incremental, step-by-step approach to solving problems, maybe it isn't so squishy after all to get a bad bill out the door and then work on making it just a little bit better.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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