Happy Earth Day

More than 30 years ago political scientist Anthony Downs discerned what he called the “issue-attention cycle,” a five-stage process by which the public and especially the news media grow alarmed over an issue, agitate for action, generate piles of scary headlines, and then begin to draw back as we come to recognize that the problem has been exaggerated or misconceived, and the price tag for action comes in. While Downs thought that the issue-attention cycle for the environment would last longer than most issues, it appears the mother-of-all-environmental scares — global warming — is following his model and is going to begin to fade like other environmental alarms of the past such as the population bomb and the “we’re running out of everything” scares.

The current media and political blitz on Capitol Hill for government controls on energy production are the product of the panic felt by environmentalists who realize that opinion polls show the public is climbing off global warming bandwagon. The latest annual Gallup survey on the environment shows that only 37 percent of Americans say they worry about global warming “a great deal,” down from 41 percent last year, and, moreover, about the same as a decade ago. Americans rank global warming far down the list of their main environmental concerns, behind air and water pollution, toxic waste, and the loss of open space. One or two more cold winters like the one we’ve just experienced and there will be a panic among the climate alarmists that even the media won’t be able to ignore.

The irony in this year’s political stampede stems from the fact that intense focus on environmental concerns (especially the United States) over the past decade has caused a significant diminution of environmental problems. It’s hard to scare people any more. Air pollution is on its way to being eliminated entirely in the U.S. in about another 20 years.  Levels of air pollution have fallen between 25 and 99 percent (depending on which pollutant you measure), with the nation’s worst areas showing the most progress. For example, Los Angeles has gone from having nearly 200 high ozone days in the 1970s to less than 25 days a year today. Many areas of the Los Angeles basin are now smog-free year round.

Water pollution is more stubborn and harder to measure (and is being made worse in the Mississippi River basin by the government’s crazy ethanol mandate), but here too there have been major improvements since the first Earth Day in 1970. The Great Lakes have been cleaned up, with many previously endangered species of birds now thriving. The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland doesn’t catch fire any more. The amount of toxic chemicals used in American industry has fallen by 61 percent over the last 20 years, even as industrial output has grown. Forestland in the U.S. has been expanding at a rate of nearly 1 million acres a year over the last generation.

The world’s worst environmental problems are in poor nations, precisely because they are poor. Economic growth turns out to be the prerequisite for environmental protection—a fact that most environmentalists now grudgingly admit. But even in the developing world there are signs of environmental improvement. The UN’s latest global forest survey finds that the rate of deforestation in the poor parts of the world has fallen by half over the last decade; Asia has halted net deforestation entirely, and is now experiencing net re-forestation. Air pollution in India is leveling off, and may begin to decline, as it has over the last decade in Mexico City.

Most of these improvements are the result of economic growth and technological innovation. Regulations unquestionably force the issue, but usually at a very high cost to the economy and to property rights. More so than other federal agencies, the EPA specializes in billion dollar solutions to million dollar problems. This kind of bureaucratic environmentalism has about played itself out, and is decreasingly relevant to the local environmental problems that remain to be tackled.

Time magazine this week is running its sixth cover story about global warming, but one of these days the editors of Time and other publications are going to grow bored with yet another “green” issue, just as the media grew bored with the AIDS crisis, civil rights, the NASA space program, and other once front-burner issues. No doubt something else will come along (the threat of asteroids perhaps?), because it is the nature of the media and activist groups to find some new panic to ride. For the time being, ruin an environmentalist’s day by celebrating Earth Day for the enormous progress it represents, not the panic they want you to feel.