Seizing the Ecomodernist Moment – Competitive Enterprise Institute

I recently had the chance to attend Ecomodernism 2022, a conference hosted in northern Virginia by the Breakthrough Institute. The theme was “Deregulating Abundance” and it brought together an impressive array of experts, activists, researchers and business people. Atlantic‘s Derek Thompson opened things up by talking about a topic he’s been getting a lot of attention on lately, the “abundance agenda.” As he wrote in January of this year:

We say we want to save the planet from climate change, but in practice many Americans are fundamentally opposed to the clean energy revolution, with even liberal states shutting down zero-carbon nuclear plants and protesting plans to solar energy. We say housing is a human right, but our wealthiest cities have made it extremely difficult to build new homes, infrastructure, or megaprojects. Politicians say they want better health care, but they tolerate a catastrophically slow FDA that withholds promising tools and federal policy that deliberately limits the supply of doctors.

At the conference, Thompson recounted his failed attempt to write a book about the history and importance of inventors. He came to realize that many of the problems we face in the United States today are not related to a lack of invention and innovation, but rather to institutional constraints to effectively deploy and scale the technology that we already have. This aligns well with what we at the Competitive Enterprise Institute have been saying for many years, since the “Free to stimulate” agenda in 2011 to our “Never neededcampaign in 2020 to transform regulatory suspensions during the COVID-19 crisis into permanent reforms. It also brings to mind one of my former boss Fred Smith’s favorite sayings about deregulation: you don’t have to teach the grass to grow; you just have to move the rocks from the lawn.

In terms of specific policy proposals, participants were particularly excited about the prospect of reforming the federal permitting process for major construction projects, particularly by making changes to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and declarations of environmental impact it requires. My IEC colleague Mario Loyola knows enough about this, and his August 2022 editorial in The Wall Street Journal Renewable energy? Where is your license?is a great quick read on the matter. Not only is the cost and uncertainty of the NEPA process holding back industrial progress in general, but ironically it is now holding back environmental progress in particular:

If the climate crisis is really a “red code for humanity” like [President] Biden says Congress needs to take permissions reform seriously. Otherwise, the United States will not meet its clean energy goals. Federal bureaucracy deprives American communities of the modern infrastructure they need and deserve. Congress should stop tinkering at the margins and fix this problem.

I have also written my own analysis of this puzzle for Law & Freedom last year in an article titled “Self-destructive environmental activismwhich originated in a lecture at a seminar organized by the Law & Economics Center of George Mason University:

Anti-nuclear and anti-development campaigns [of the 1970s] were both driven by an effort to stop as many offending projects as possible, rather than measuring and weighing their marginal costs and benefits. Of course, we did not end up with zero nuclear power plants or zero new infrastructure projects, but only because the environmentalists who pursued these goals were politically less powerful than they would have liked.

The real goal should be an energy and environmental policy that offers clear benefits to all. Policies should be based on a reasonable standard by which marginal preferences for environmental amenities are balanced against preferences for things like dividends, wages, innovation and growth. Smart managers and decision makers will, where possible, avoid commitments based on appeals to naturalistic purity rather than wealth creation and human flourishing.

This same theme – environmental laws standing in the way of environmental progress – is exposed again this week in Atlanticin which Demsas of Jerusalem (a presenter at Ecomodernism 2022) cites various experts, including the Center for Growth and Opportunity’s Eli Dourado (also presenter at Ecomodernism 2022):

Economist Eli Dourado has studied the failures of NEPA for years, and he is skeptical that thoroughness and time spent should be construed as political success: “If every review were done so thoroughly that it took 100 years to complete and the resulting trial rate was zero, it would be a failure, not a success. The problem is that “the threat of litigation continually increases NEPA’s review burden, rendering our agencies unable to make quick decisions even in cases where it is clear there is no significant impact. on the environment,” Dourado told me.

Dourado also pointed to the aforementioned case of a solar company taking legal action to block a wind project. Even if the case is decided in favor of the defendant, it has increased the cost of producing renewable energy, to the detriment of all. There is also evidence that public officials try to avoid conflicts with neighborhood groups by selecting sub-optimal locations to locate transit and renewable energy infrastructure.

We need to reform the laws in the United States that currently make it expensive, difficult, and sometimes impossible to build the things Americans need to be happy, healthy, and successful. Anyone who cares about these things should get on the ecomodernism bus – we have a lot of work to do.

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