Thursday, September 5, 2013

Sorry, Cass Sunstein, Your Record Shows That You Don't Fear Climate Change Enough Either...Or At All

Last week, Cass Sunstein, the former administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), penned an article in the Washington Monthly entitled "People Don't Fear Climate Change Enough."

Sunstein wrote that article in response to the leaks about the forthcoming report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which will express the growing certainty of the seriousness of the problem, the effects of human actions in exacerbating it, and the grave dangers we face from inaction.

Sunstein contrasted the seriousness of the IPCC's forthcoming and past warnings with the comparative inaction of most governments:
While the draft report states these conclusions with unprecedented conviction, they are broadly consistent with the panel’s judgments from the past two decades, which raises an obvious question: Why have so many nations (including China and the U.S., the world’s leading greenhouse-gas emitters) not done more in response?

There are many answers. Skeptics say that the IPCC is biased and wrong. Companies whose economic interests are at stake continue to fight against regulatory controls. The leaders of some nations think that if they acted unilaterally to reduce their emissions, they would impose significant costs on their citizens without doing much to reduce climate change. Especially in a difficult economic period, they don’t think it makes sense to act on their own.

To this extent, the real challenge lies in producing an international agreement. It isn’t easy to obtain a consensus on the timing and expense of reductions, especially because developing nations (including China) insist that developed nations (including the U.S.) are obliged to take the most costly steps toward reducing emissions.
He then proceeds, in Sunstein-esque style, to discuss the psychological reasons for why people and governments do not respond to the problem in proportion to its severity.

Human psychology is a problem, for sure. But so is our government's responsiveness to fossil fuel interests. Just take a look at Sunstein's own record at OIRA, and you'll see.

A few months ago, Lisa Heinzerling, who was Senior Climate Policy Counsel to EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson from January to July 2009 and Associate Administrator of the EPA Office of Policy from July 2009 to December 2010, reviewed Sunstein's new book Simpler: The Future of Government in ClimateProgress. The title of her piece, tellingly, was "Sunstein’s ‘Simpler Government’ Is Legally Suspect, Overly Secretive And Politically Unaccountable." She'd know from experience:
Another legal problem with the current process of OIRA review is that OIRA imports a cost-benefit framework into statutes that do not allow this framework. The Clean Air Act, for example, requires EPA to set national air quality standards for various air pollutants based only on the scientific evidence of the level at which such pollutants are harmful. The Supreme Court, in a unanimous 2001 ruling authored by Justice Scalia, held that the law does not permit EPA to take costs into account in setting these standards. But OIRA nevertheless requires cost-benefit analysis of these standards. And, in perhaps the most prominent assertion of control over agency prerogatives in this administration, President Obama directed then-EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to withdraw a revised air quality standard for ozone, citing “the importance of reducing regulatory burdens and regulatory uncertainty, particularly as our economy continues to recover.” It is difficult to understand this decision, with its focus on regulatory burdens and economic circumstances, as anything other than a flouting of the Clean Air Act. Notably, while Sunstein describes President Obama’s decision as “unquestionably correct,” “made on the merits,” and “not motivated by politics,” he nowhere explains exactly why he thinks the decision was correct or consistent with the law.
Two years ago, the Center for Progressive Reform, of which Heinzerling was a founding member, released a scathing report on the politicization of the regulatory process under Cass Sunstein,  Behind Closed Doors at the White House: How Politics Trumps Protection of Public Health, Worker Safety and the Environment. Here's a taste of the report:
Industry dominates the OIRA meetings process. OIRA makes no effort to balance its meeting schedule by hearing from even a rough equivalence of organizations supporting protective regulations. In the 10 years studied in the report, OIRA hosted 1,080 meetings, with 5,759 appearances by outside participants. Sixty-five percent of the participants represented regulated industry interests; 12 percent of participants appeared on behalf of public interest groups.

OIRA meetings correlate with changes to rules. Rules that were the subject of meetings were 29 percent more likely to be changed than those that were not. OIRA does not disclose its changes, but the evidence is that OIRA functions as a one-way ratchet, exclusively weakening agency rules.

The EPA is OIRA’s favorite punching bag. While EPA rules made up only 11 percent of all reviews by OIRA, 41 percent of all OIRA meetings targeted EPA rules. EPA rules were changed at a significantly higher rate—84 percent—than those of other agencies—65 percent—over the whole ten-year period.

OIRA routinely misses deadlines, stalling public health and safety protections. By executive order, OIRA has 90 days to review a rule, plus a possible 30-day extension. Of the 501 completed reviews in which outside parties lobbied OIRA, 59 (12 percent) lasted longer than 120 days.

OIRA ignores public disclosure requirements. OIRA is required by the same executive order to make available “all documents exchanged between OIRA and the agency during the review by OIRA,” and agencies are required to “identify for the public those changes in the regulatory action that were made at the suggestion or recommendation of OIRA.” Such requirements are routinely ignored.
His willingness to defer to fossil fuel interests was also on display in OIRA's gutting of EPA's proposed coal ash standards:
Consider the EPA’s protracted rulemaking over coal ash, waste from the production of electricity. In 2010, the agency unveiled a plan to regulate coal ash disposal for the first time, setting off a frenzy of lobbying by coal and utility groups. At OIRA, staff economists have held more meetings on this one environmental rule than on any other in the office’s history, 47 to date. Of those, 34 involved industry representatives; environmentalists and representatives of the public accounted for 13.

The imbalance has had a clear effect: Now, post-OIRA review, the EPA’s proposal features a less stringent, less costly regulatory option that amounts to guidelines for the states. “Coal ash exemplified the complete politicization of the regulatory process,” said Steinzor, yet it “was not an isolated incident.”
So, I'm sorry, Cass Sunstein, although human psychology may stymie action on the individual level and make political action a bit more difficult, your shameless capitulation to the nation's polluters epitomizes the bigger problem blocking climate action in this country. Maybe when regulatory "czars" like you and the elected leaders who appoint you fear climate change more than the loss of "good will" with the nation's polluters, then we'll see progress.

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