The solutions needed to solve climate change and its consequences will not come from government regulation. Regulatory policy is a blunt tool for solving environmental problems. Even well-intentioned regulations often have unintended consequences. Instead, many existing regulatory policies should be loosened and reformed to allow the free market to build and innovate for the future.
Regulators are far too often working for special interests who finance their campaigns while implementing restrictions on areas and people they have nothing in common with. Add in the fact that they are usually highly precautionary, it is no wonder it’s so hard to make progress in climate policy.
Many of these problems become especially apparent at the state and local levels. State and local regulatory policies are easily influenced by local elites who play an outsized role in policy decision-making. Businesses seeking to develop anything are met with arduous permitting requirements and confusing regulations. The development necessary to provide clean, abundant energy and sustainable development requires reform to local regulatory policy.
Research indicates that government regulation is often a major barrier to clean energy production. This occurs at multiple levels. At the production stage, production is often stalled by complex bureaucratic processes, with layers of planning delays and restrictions, ratcheting up the cost of entry into the clean energy market. Tariffs on input goods also impose costs on domestic clean energy producers, despite being overlooked by many environmentalists and progressive lawmakers. However, at the state and local levels, clean energy projects can often be completely halted.
The building of clean energy infrastructure is often met with Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) opposition by the same politicians implementing clean energy mandates. Since the 1960s, many environmentalist groups have opposed nuclear energy on dubious scientific grounds. Even Ralph Nader played a major role in opposing Ohio’s nuclear plant production plans, while simultaneously supporting the creation of coal plants. Anti-nuclear activists argued that the risks of nuclear were too high – they fearmongered about its effects on human health and its potentially apocalyptic failures – despite the fact that nuclear energy remains a safe, carbon-neutral energy source that does not depend on the weather.
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While environmentalists opposed nuclear, they did so by claiming we did not need nuclear, and instead could depend on wind and solar. These renewable resources are far from perfect and use up a lot of lands that threaten wildlife habitat, prompting opposition from environmentalist groups to solar and wind farm projects. The American Bird Conservancy has worked to block several wind turbine projects. These events demonstrate how government regulations and complex permitting processes can be exploited by special interests to halt clean energy innovation and development.
Another, potentially less obvious, contributor to these regulatory barriers to solving climate change is residential zoning. In practice, zoning is often used to prevent dense infill developments in urban areas. This incentivizes developers and homebuilders to build further and further beyond the urban core, increasing development’s environmental impacts.
Those who implemented restrictive zoning regulations did not imagine that this would be the result. This, however, demonstrates how pervasive unintended consequences are in regulatory policy and why regulations are unlikely to be the answer to our biggest climate change challenges.
Regulations at the state and local level may be beneficial with well-specified, narrow goals. However, the reality of government bureaucracy and regulatory capture creates incentives for an ever-growing list of regulations that hurt politicians’ own stated climate goals. Rather than relying on the brute power of government to solve climate change, we should be looking towards those in the private sector, local citizens, and grassroots organizations to develop local solutions for these issues.
Elijah Gullett is a senior at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill studying public policy and urban planning. He is interested in how urban development, housing policy, and infrastructure interest with the natural world. This piece was a runner-up in the Market Environmentalism Op-ed Contest, hosted by Project Canary and the American Conservation Coalition.