Aesop got it wrong. In "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," the townsfolk stopped believing repeated false alarms of danger. But in real life, we seem to jump time after time at the same shrill cries.
The alarmists, again, are entrenched industry and the well-heeled national Chamber of Commerce warning of the dangers of tougher energy and environmental regulations. Rather than join forward-thinking business leaders in meeting our challenges, these special interests fall back on their old refrain that tougher regulations will hurt business and thus the country.
They say the energy bill being debated in Congress will harm the economy. They say the president's tougher fuel standards are as far as they can go. They say we should not move so boldly to switch our ambitions -- and incentives -- from the old polluting industries to new renewable forms of energy. Unfortunately, some in Congress parrot their lines.
Do we need more proof of the consequences of the failure of diligent oversight than our current economic morass? The old cry that regulations are bad for business has helped sink our stock market, erase $11 trillion in wealth, ground our economy to a virtual halt and left 14 million Americans out of work.
If we must have more proof, let's look back at the record of truthfulness of big industry claims. Does anyone remember their bitter lamentations over automobile seat belts? If the auto industry was to be believed, passage of regulations requiring seat belts would prompt Americans to become a nation of lawbreakers and to abandon their cars, collapsing the auto industry. Twenty-six states passed mandatory laws, seat belts save an estimated 15,000 lives a year, and the auto industry now runs ads promoting its safety equipment, having found -- gasp! -- that consumers want more safety.
Or how about leaded gasoline? The oil and lead industries cried foul on that one, again predicting a ban would destroy car engines and their business. Never mind that lead in car exhausts was a neurotoxin causing brain damage in children and its production had killed lead industry workers. Over their protests, lawsuits, and despite George H.W. Bush, leaded gas was gradually phased out from 1973 to 1996. The lead in children's bloodstreams dropped 78 percent, and -- gasp again -- Exxon Mobil remains America's most profitable company.
When we realized the depleting ozone layer was killing us with new cancers, and moved to eliminate the dangerous chemicals in 1995, opponents moaned that industries would collapse under the weight of $135 billion in costs. The actual costs were barely one percent of that, the health benefits were enormous, and chemical companies made millions producing less dangerous chemicals.
When we realized that sulfur dioxide pollution creates acid rain and was turning our lakes and streams into chemical cauldrons, the industries howled that limiting emissions would kill their business. Instead, the emissions cap-and-trade system set up by the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments is now hailed -- by environmentalists and business alike -- as a resounding success story.
The American Automobile Manufacturers Association fought the Clean Air Act of 1970, warning that manufacturers would have to shut down. They cried that requirements for catalytic converters to reduce smog would close assembly lines. And automakers bitterly fought California's higher fuel efficiency standards. The automakers claimed, once again, their business would collapse. They said, with straight faces, that production of such efficient cars was impossible, even though every other major car manufacturing country -- including China -- already was making the cars.
The common thread of this chronology is that the industry's resistance to change not only proved groundless, but that higher standards set by government actually stimulated economic growth. Fortunately for America, businesses mired in short-term thinking are becoming fewer. A growing throng of investors and business leaders recognize the grave risks of both the economy and environment, and understand we must rise to test rather than decry its rigors. They recognize the need for a level playing field, common goals throughout the states, and a wider, national effort to remake our society for a clean energy future.
And they welcome, rather than condemn, the kinds of laudable goals proposed by the Obama administration and the energy and economy legislation introduced by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.). They understand the history of successful business in America is clear: Set higher goals, and smart businesses respond, innovate, create efficiencies and prosper.
This is not to say we shouldn't be cautious in enacting new policies. We have the capacity to get them wrong. But revisions being sought by big industry lobbyists in Washington are souring this ripe opportunity. They want to weaken renewable energy goals, for example, exactly the wrong approach given the huge job-creation and pollution benefits clean energy can provide. They want to limit funding for energy efficiency, the most cost effective way to help the environment and reduce energy bills for consumers.
The wolves truly are at the door. But the danger is not that in setting our sights and rules higher we will strangle business or the economy. The danger is that shortsighted industry groups will undermine our best chance at remaking our economy for the next century, and will leave us vulnerable to the coming threat of global warming.
Mindy S. Lubber is president of Ceres, a leading coalition of investors, environmental groups and other public interest organizations working with companies to address sustainability challenges such as global climate change. For more information, visit http://www.ceres.org
Image by johnnyberg.