These days, it's no surprise to learn that anyone who's anyone in Republican politics opposes efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker doesn't even like recycling, so of course he opposed both President Obama's Clean Power Plant rule and his larger climate agenda.
But tweeting about Obama's latest moves Monday night, Walker went well beyond opposition to Obama's specific actions and called for an extremely radical remedy — eliminating the federal role in pollution control entirely and letting states handle it instead:
This is not just an offhand tweet. Speaking at an Economic Growth Summit hosted by Florida Gov. Rick Scott in June, Walker deemed the EPA "a good example" of a larger agenda he'd like to see of "pulling major portions of Washington and sending it back to the states."
Walker wants to see "major portions of the funding and responsibilities" of the EPA eliminated in favor of a small rump organization dedicated to "interstate disputes and compacts where you've got bodies of land and water that go over multiple state lines," with the rest left up to the states whose agencies are allegedly "more accountable."
Air flows freely across state lines
Walker, to his credit, recognizes that you could not have a purely state-level approach to something like the Mississippi River. After all, it forms the border between Wisconsin and Minnesota and then flows down into Missouri and Illinois. To manage it in a sensible way, you need interstate cooperation, and Walker envisions the EPA retaining a role in monitoring such agreements.
What appears to have escaped his attention is that water is not the only thing that flows from one state to another.
Notably, air also has this property.
Automobile emissions from the Chicago area can blow north over to Milwaukee or vice versa, depending on the prevailing winds. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from power plants routinely lead to acid rain that falls in other states. This is an important reason why the federal government has, for decades, taken a leading role in addressing air pollution even as state and local environmental agencies continue to work on more localized problems.
Local accountability is the problem
Walker's contention that state environmental agencies are more accountable actually speaks to the problems with his proposal.
The California Environmental Protection Agency is, indeed, accountable — to the people of California and to their interests. It is not at all accountable to the interests of people living in Nevada or Oregon. And yet people who live in Nevada are, in fact, people — free and equal human beings whose lives and interests count for something. And because air crosses state lines so easily (you can verify this for yourself by standing on a state border on a breezy day), air pollution issues that arise in California can impact Nevadans' lives.
Local accountability is a great idea for problems that are local in nature. But the EPA's air pollution rules — including the Obama administration's climate actions — seek to address problems that are national or even international in scope. When faced with such challenges, institutional solutions based on strict local accountability are bound to fail.