An American in Davos: Insights from the World Resources Forum 2011

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I was one of only a handful of Americans at the World Resources Forum 2011. A few times I was asked was how I felt about America’s besieged environmental policies, or the lack of America’s participation in global climate talks, or other questions along those lines that acknowledged some international frustration with America in the environmental sphere.

How do I feel?  Pretty discouraged.

The current US political landscape and debate is alarming for a conservationist.  Congress has recently glutted many environmental regulations through chopping environmental program budgets and passing anti-environment riders.  Almost all of the current Republican presidential candidates think global warming is a myth (and evolution too!), with Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann being among the most vocal.  There are calls to abolish the EPA as it is an example of federal “regulatory assault“; despite the fact that the health and productivity benefits from EPA regulations outweigh their costs.  Far from being a money-drain, EPA’s 2010 budget request was ~$10billion, which as Beth Wellington of the Guardian put it, is less than one request from the Department of Defense for new planes, yet the EPA and environmental regulations are routinely vilified as money sucks and ‘job killers’.

This glutting of environmental legislation and funding is happening even though businesses are calling on politicians to protect and expand environmental safeguards and the general public supports environmental regulations.

While the economic crisis makes any political spending unpopular, it is possible that environmentally harmful subsidies like those for corn ethanol, fossil fuel drilling and blending, and flood insurance guarantees will finally be cut.  It’s through this way that we may make progress federally, as we probably will not be getting any sort of comprehensive, progressive energy legislation anytime soon. We do have some federal research in environmental initiatives happening, thanks to Obama’s Economic Stimulus plan: the Department of Energy is funding several research projects in smart grid technology, electric vehicle infrastructure, alternative power and more.

There is cause for hope in actual action, however. Some corporations are light-years ahead of Washington, calling for climate change legislation, reducing carbon and water footprints and attempting to totally revamp their supply chains to get rid of unsustainable products and raw materials. Other leaders include states and municipalities, some of which are attempting regional carbon markets, cap and trade emissions schemes, stricter environmental regulations and rezoning initiatives.

So my full response is – yes, I am discouraged, but I am hopeful too.

Photo credit: Shadia Fayne Wood, from Tar Sands

While American attendance at the World Resources Forum 2011 was disappointing, sustainability-minded American academics, businesspeople and NGO leaders are participating in global conferences, multi-stakeholder agreements, international initiatives and research. The thing is, the entire world is struggling with how to properly address problems like water and air pollution, ecosystem services valuation and resources overconsumption. The problem is vastly complex – but each year, more brilliant minds around the globe attempt to provide solutions. And while the federal government has struggled on recent energy, environment and climate bills for the last 20+ years, businesses, NGOs and local governments are providing what leadership they can until we can sway the opinion of climate- and environmental-regulation- skeptics in the public and government. So yes – discouraged but hopeful.


((Some of this post was adapted from an earlier post on IGEL@Wharton’s blog))

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