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When Green Means Stop


By Phil Hampton

Published Jan 1, 2008 8:00 AM

Major environmental disasters automatically make politicians more sympathetic to green positions, right? Not according to Matthew Kahn's research.

Kahn, an environmental economist at the UCLA Institute of the Environment, tallied the votes of individual members of Congress on 380 pieces of environmental legislation between 1973 and 2002. He then compared them with the votes on 15 bills proposed in the immediate aftermath of five well-known environmental disasters: Love Canal; Three Mile Island; Bhopal, India; Chernobyl; and Exxon Valdez.

Kahn found that representatives were less likely to take pro-green positions on legislation in the wake of the disasters than at other times during the same calendar year. The reason? Legislation following a disaster is typically written by those with the most radical agendas, and, in effect, they overreach.

"There's truth to the claim that enhanced regulation is the silver lining of environmental disasters, but it's not as automatic as people tend to think," Kahn says. "The legislation goes too far and turns off those who had taken the pro-environment position on other legislation in the same year." In short, says the scholar, who writes frequently about environmental regulation and behavior and challenges conventional notions with enthusiasm, "Environmental disasters polarize the Congress; they're not uniting Congress."

The research has implications for any issue that receives wide media coverage and generates a large amount of legislative hearings — the definition of the "shocks" examined by Kahn — including terrorist attacks, product recalls and recent stories such as the Virginia Tech shootings and the Minneapolis bridge collapse.

"If more ambitious risk regulation is voted on in the aftermath of shocks, does it raise the likelihood of more socially inefficient regulation being adopted as passions flare?" he asks, urging further research. "Alternatively, do such shocks raise the likelihood of socially beneficial regulations being enacted because they helped [disparate] interest groups to work together?"

The research raises questions about the effect of celebrity versus science on the biggest environmental issue — climate change. In other words, concludes Kahn, "Would the Sierra Club prefer a really hot summer or a really successful Al Gore movie?"