It’s Time For Environmental Accountability

Aubrey Bettencourt Executive Director, California Water Alliance
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When considering the direction of our nation’s environmental successes and failures, don’t bother listening to me. Listen instead to Nobel laureates Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University and the late Milton Friedman of the University of Chicago:

“A well-run organization will reward planners for precise execution and penalize them for failing to anticipate difficulties, and for failing to allow for difficulties that they could not have anticipated.”Thinking, Fast and Slow, D. Kahneman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011

“One of the greatest mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.” — M. Friedman, 1975

Progressives, conservatives and human nature all want someone to hold responsible, someone to applaud for their successes, or someone to castigate and blame for failures.

Yet, despite this consensus view, the sad fact is that neither progressives nor conservatives — or those in the middle — hold anyone accountable for our nation’s environmental policies and actions. Where else could accountability be more important than when it comes to clean air and water we share in common with every living creature in the world?

We find it easy to blame someone for the Deepwater Horizon or Exxon Valdez disasters. Both parties responsible were in the private sector. Long knives and many lawyers are quick respond in such cases, demanding immediate corrective measures and restitution or fines and jail terms.

It’s more difficult to hold a public agency accountable when it fails to meet its environmental goals. A public agency charged with authority and cloaked in ethical righteousness — the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — befouls a river in Colorado with toxic mine tailings and kills off every living thing along its path through three states. Yet it was the  EPA that was responsible, and it is still cleaning up after itself while denying its role in causing the crisis. The EPA’s actions prove it is an exception to its own rules by not holding itself to the same standards it would any private party.

It’s equally difficult when actions intended to do good accomplish little, are ineffectual or cause actual harm.

The record is filled with examples of well-intentioned, well-designed environmental interventions that underperform, have no effect, cause horrible damage or harm the public. In a minority of cases, actions are taken to reverse course in these programs or projects. Too often, though, these projects proceed indefinitely, continuing to consume resources in an ongoing failing process like senseless robots on a path without direction.

Kahneman and Friedman are right. Our nation needs environmental accountability, for our successes and for our failures. The environment is too important to be left to chance or well-meaning hopes.

Environmental Accountability is a 21st century approach to our 21st century environment. A results-oriented approach, Environmental Accountability provides incentives for reaching achievable goals utilizing the best science and technology, and public-private partnership, rewarding success and discontinuing policies and programs of failure.

Success in the environment is too precious to allow stakeholders with skin in the game or bureaucrats drunk with power or beholden to inflexible policies or agenda politics to make promises based on sketchy ideas or emotion without incentives to perform or meet our environmental goals knowing there will be no reckoning if their forecasts fail to materialize.

Before another environmental executive order is signed, another environmental bill passes Congress or another environmental regulation is adopted, our elected representatives on both sides of the aisle need to put their houses in order and pass an Environmental Accountability Act.

As Friedman said, “We all know a famous road that is paved with good intentions.” But the road to clean water, clean air and a healthy environment for generations to come is paved with partnerships and programs that promote, provide for and reward positive results.

It’s time to go beyond  saying what we plan to do. It’s time to prove that we are accomplishing what we set out to do.

Aubrey Bettencourt is the executive director of the California Water Alliance, a statewide water policy non-profit that advocates for the water needs of California families, cities, businesses, farmers and the environment.