Science takes back seat

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As the world celebrates Earth Day, it is time to separate real environmentalism from the fake variety. If there is one rule to follow in this regard, it’s this: if an idea is trendy, it probably isn’t good for the planet.
As environmentalism has become trendy, politicians and businesses have learned that appearing green can lead to profit and political gain. Increasingly, science takes a back seat to policies that make people feel good or appear environmentally friendly.
I write about the rise of trendy environmentalism in my book “Eco-Fads.” I outline the ways people often substitute feel-good approaches for the difficult work of following the science and economic to protection the environment.
In New Mexico, two examples stand out.
The push by school districts to require schools be built to “green” building standards is often more about image than results. Politicians push systems like Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) supposedly to make buildings more energy efficient. The results, however, often fall far short of the promises.
Santa Fe school officials built a LEED-certified school in an effort to save energy. To their credit, officials did something that few others do – they audited the actual energy performance of their building. As a result, district officials say they won’t build another “green” building.
First, to meet the LEED standards, the district spent money on design features that do little to save energy. For example, the district created parking spots to charge electric cars even though there are few electrics on the road. It cost the district money but didn’t yield environmental benefit.
Second, many green schools use more energy than other schools. In Santa Fe, the LEED-certified school actually spends more on energy than average schools in the district. This is not unusual. Many “green” buildings across the country end up using more energy than traditionally built schools in the same district.
One of the reasons “green” schools fare so poorly is building managers already know how to save energy and they have pursued these savings before it was politically popular. That is likely the case in Santa Fe. Like many school districts, Santa Fe’s schools were green before we knew it.
When Governor Richardson was in office, he signed an executive order requiring many state buildings to meet these same, failed standards. Given the fiscal challenges facing New Mexico, rescinding that order would be one way to cut state costs.
That’s not the only eco-fad in New Mexico.
Ten New Mexico cities joined the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement in 2005-6. City leaders pledged to reduce carbon emissions to seven percent below 1990 levels by 2012. When officials signed on, they sent out press releases touting their commitment to reducing the risk of climate change.
The deadline is now approaching, so how are these cities doing? The answer is: not well. New Mexico’s emissions as a whole were nearly 10 percent above 1990 levels in 2009 and the state would have to reduce emissions by nearly 20 percent between 2010 and 2012 to meet the promised target.
The results in individual communities could be different, certainly, but will officials in any of the ten cities want to find out? Probably not.
This has been the case elsewhere in the country. Seattle, whose mayor started the Climate Protection Agreement in 2005, recently admitted that it would not meet the goal, dismissed the pledge as “political.” A recent study finds this is the rule. Looking at California cities with climate plans, the study found that “climate plans are largely rhetorical.”
How then can New Mexico, and other states, take meaningful steps to help the environment? The simple truth is technology created by the free market is the most powerful force for conservation – doing more with less – the concept at the center of environmental sustainability.  The Toyota Prius, the symbol of environmental consciousness, was created by a business seeking a profit, not by politicians trying to burnish their environmental image. Politicians often jump on the bandwagon of new technologies like the hybrid, but they are followers, not leaders.
The Land of Enchantment rightly enjoys a reputation for natural beauty and resource riches. By embracing the creative free market forces that encourage all of us to do more with less, we can put New Mexico back on the path to sound, science-based environmental policy.
Todd Myers is the environmental director for Washington Policy Center, a Seattle-based free-market think tank.