Opinion | Hochul’s congestion pricing move suggests the environment is losing

Opinion | Hochul’s congestion pricing move suggests the environment is losing

The cause of the environment is losing the public debate.

Whether the goal is to reduce air pollution, keep pesticides and nitrogen out of waterways, enforce water conservation or, in the florid words of U.N. Secretary General António Guterres, take the “exit ramp off the highway to climate hell,” the agenda to preserve the globe’s natural ecosystems has been set on its heels.

The latest blow came from Europe last week. The Greens, who only five years ago muscled their way into the center of European politics, and the driving force behind the commitment to cut the continent’s net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050, were clobbered in elections to the European Parliament, losing more than a quarter of their seats.

This came hot on the heels of a major setback on this side of the Atlantic, where New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) stunned pretty much everybody by halting a long-awaited project to charge a fee on drivers in some parts of Manhattan to reduce congestion and tailpipe pollution and to raise money for modernizing the city’s subway system.

Ms. Hochul claimed she was acting out of a sudden — and implausible — concern for low-income New Yorkers’ pocketbooks. (The project, which was due to take effect just weeks after the governor’s U-turn, would have helped New York’s air quality and crammed streets and invested in transit opportunities for low-income people, by asking that those who use the roads more pay more.) But congestion pricing is very unpopular in the New York City suburbs that Democrats need to regain the House majority in November.

The double punch to the environmental agenda suggests other voter concerns are taking precedence over climate change and clean air, such as inflation — most notably, high energy prices. The result is resistance to environmental policies that impose visible costs on people. Hostility toward environmental restrictions has usually come from the right of the political spectrum. Yet concerns about the costs imposed by green policies on businesses and ordinary citizens have stymied environmental strategies even in liberal-minded regions.

In the United States, the conventional narrative that blames Republicans for the nation’s climate trajectory is not quite right. Democrats in places such as Washington state, New York and the U.S. Senate have rejected well-crafted climate plans, pushing alternatives that are often more expensive yet hide the costs from voters. And they have not stood up enough to environmentalists, NIMBYs (“not in my backyard”) and others blocking efforts to build the pipelines, power transmission cables and wind projects needed to decarbonize.

Overall, crafters of climate policy have failed to find the sweet spot that delivers on environmental goals and also satisfies European farmers upset at the end of diesel subsidies for their tractors and New Jersey commuters who would rather not shell out $15 to drive into the city. Instead, the environment has become another battleground in a broader ideological war between city and country, elite and “ordinary” Americans.

The Biden administration has tried to get around the problem by branding its environmental program as a battle against inflation. Yet polling suggests that Americans think the Inflation Reduction Act will make inflation worse and do more harm than good to workers and the economy.

Regardless of how the effort is branded, from Long Island to the French countryside, the message is that enough voters are not yet convinced that the effort is worth the costs.

The challenge extends beyond the green agenda. It requires overcoming the radical polarization that has reshaped politics from New York to Brussels, to convince voters of the legitimacy and fairness of government action —whether it is in the service of preserving natural ecosystems or any other priority.

Ironically, the environmental policies that tend to elicit the strongest opposition — such as congestion pricing — often are the least expensive for society at large. This leaves policymakers with few good options. They must acknowledge popular constraints, explain convincingly why action is needed, ensure their plans mitigate the impact on those who bear most of the costs, particularly the most vulnerable, and advance policies that keep costs as low as possible relative to benefits.

They must find the sweet spot soon. There is not much time left to slash greenhouse gas emissions and prevent devastating climate damage. And the solutions are likely to become more expensive. Hard though it might seem, persuading drivers to buy subsidized electric vehicles is relatively easy. Persuading them to pay more for tractor diesel, meat, household heating and air-conditioning, or driving into Manhattan is harder.

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