Publications and Books

Verchick’s ‘Facing Catastrophe’: A Roadmap to a Safer Future

Rob Verchick’s new book, “Facing Catastrophe: Environmental Action for a Post-Katrina World,” might help avoid future disasters like the Deepsea Horizon blowout. 

Verchick views wetlands, lakes, forests, and rivers as a kind of infrastructure, providing ecosystem services that are just as important as the services provided by other infrastructure, such as roads and dams. For instance, Gulf Coast wetlands provide a buffer against storm surges (protecting not only people but key oil facilities), and nurtures vast numbers of birds and sea creatures (including a fifth of all U.S. seafood). He makes a compelling case that we need to do more to preserve this crucial infrastructure.

Too often, Verchick says, we rely on cost-benefit analysis (CBA) to guide our decisions about preservation. Like many critics of CBA, he argues that it shortchanges such important values as preservation of human life and natural wonders; undercounts the interests of future generations; and assumes a degree of knowledge about risks that is often out of reach. He also points out that “most of the flaws in the cost-benefit approach regarding monetization, discounting, and uncertainty are grossly amplified in cases of low-probability, high-magnitude events.” Think Katrina. Think Deepwater Horizon.

Instead of CBA, Verchick contends we should stress three principles. First, we should minimize exposure to hazards by preserving natural buffers and integrating those buffers into artificial systems like levees or seawalls.  Second, we need to pay close attention to issues of environmental justice. Third, we need to cultivate a precautionary attitude toward disaster risks. In particular, we should make much more use of scenario analysis, considering a range of possible futures, rather than trying to guesstimate the odds of any one outcome.

In my view, his point about scenario analysis is especially powerful. RAND pioneered a method called “future-now thinking,” which has given rise to impressive scenario exercises by global companies like G.E. and Shell, as well as sophisticated governmental efforts like Finland’s FISKEN project. Even the Army Corps of Engineers is getting into the act, using scenarios to help plan the post-Katrina flood control system.

As Verchick points out, scenario planning can help planners “break out of established assumptions and patterns of thinking.” This is particularly important because experts believe “failures in crisis management can usually be attributed to a lack of imaginative vision or denial of that vision.”

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Bidding for Pollution Control Dollars in the Chesapeake: A Modest Proposal for the Amish Farmer

If I remember my Sunday School lessons correctly, “clean living” should result in a lot of good things in addition to a heavenly reward: a strong character, an orderly home, and a healthy body and environment.   Ironically for the Amish, a clean living group if there ever was one, clean living also produces dirty waters.

As yesterday’s New York Times article reminds us, Amish farms in Lancaster county generate more than 61 million pounds of manure a year – much of which ends up in waterways that run straight into the Chesapeake Bay.  Dealing with the farmers in Lancaster county is a challenge: How do you encourage a population that resists change to adopt new farming practices? Impose stronger regulations? Do what we usually do with farmers, which is to pay them using grant dollars to change?

The challenge is even greater when you consider how strongly the Amish value self-sufficiency and distrust government.   Unlike many who loudly profess such values, the Amish practice what they preach:  they live genuinely self-sustainable lives, and they don’t take government benefits, refusing even Social Security. I was struck in the article by a farmer declaring he had vowed never to take a government grant – quite a different mindset from our culture of subsidies for agribusiness, corporate welfare, and bank bailouts. 

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CPR Scholarship Round-up: Innovation for nonpoint source pollution and animal migrations on the one hand, and obfuscation at OIRA on the other

We’ve all seen the dramatic headlines recently concerning large-scale environmental disruptions, including a catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf and mining disasters killing workers from West Virginia to China. Meanwhile, in Congress, climate change bills are proposed, altered, weakened, and eventually shelved, and the United States still fails to take action on climate change. CPR’s Member Scholars march forward, however, proposing reforms that range from creating transparency in agency decisions to protecting animal migrations. Below is a quick overview of some of their recent publications.

  • Robert Adler, in his article, Priceline for Pollution: Auctions to Allocate Public Pollution Control Dollars, which was published in the William and Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review, argues for competitive bidding for public pollution control money, most notably in the area of nonpoint source pollution. After discussing the benefits of auctions in government spending, Adler uses the Colorado River salinity control program as a model for soliciting bid proposals in the Chesapeake Bay watershed to fund projects designed to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment and identifies lessons learned from the program that could be applied to auctions in other watershed programs. He finds that the addition of bidding into programs, such as the Chesapeake Bay Program, could increase cost-effectiveness and efficiency in pollution control.
  • Robert Fischman, in the Virginia Environmental Law Journal, The Legal Challenge of Protecting Animal Migrations as Phenomena of Abundance, co-authored with Jeffrey B. Hyman, discusses the ever-changing need for migration protection, especially in the face of climate change. By focusing on the legal steps necessary to create an effective conservation strategy, the authors establish four specific goals to protect migrations: incorporating thresholds based on abundance goals, potential transboundary laws, migration connectivity, and protection from harvests of both the migrating animals and the migrating animals’ food sources.
  • A disturbing aspect of climate change programs, and agency actions in general, is the potential interference by the White House as presidential supervision.   In Disclosing “Political” Oversight of Agency Decision Making, which appeared in the Michigan Law Review, Nina Mendelson argues that presidential supervision creates an opaque process that masks executive influence over agency rulemaking. She cites examples of presidential interference in cases of global warming, surface mining operations, and numerous other decisions, calling for better transparency to prevent politicization of agency rulemaking.


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'Bending Science' Wins Prestigious Award


A little bragging is in order this morning. Last week, CPR Member Scholars Tom McGarity and Wendy Wagner won the University of Texas’s Hamilton Book Author Award for their book, Bending Science: How Special Interests Corrupt Public Health Research. The award is given to the author(s) of what is judged the best book by University of Texas faculty in the previous year.

Published by Harvard University Press, Bending Science takes a hard look at the ways and extent to which scientific data are misused and abused in regulatory and tort law, focusing in on misdeeds by corporations, plaintiff attorneys, think tanks, and government agencies. Using case studies, the authors dissect the techniques by which perpetrators create research tailored to their commercial or political needs, conceal unwelcome data, spin public perception about matters of science, discredit legitimate but “inconvenient” research, and bully the scientists who produce it. McGarity and Wagner propose a series of reforms, as well, including forcing “bent” science into the sunlight and providing more vigorous oversight for the use of science in policymaking.  The book was inspired in part by McGarity and Wagner's participation in various "clean science" conversations at gatherings of CPR's Member Scholars.

The award is sponsored by the University Co-operative Society and is considered the highest honor of literary achievement given to published authors at The University. McGarity is the immediate past President of the Center for Progressive Reform and the Joe R. & Teresa Lozano Long Endowed Chair in Administrative Law. Wagner is the Joe A. Worsham Centennial Professor in Law at The University of Texas at Austin.

There’s more on the book here. Or you can just break down and buy it from Amazon or Harvard.  A paperback edition is on its way in the spring.

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