Will the Green Goop in Toledo's Water Be the End of GOP Anti-Environmentalism?

Maybe...but Republicans first have to acknowledge that there’s a problem to be solved.

Photo Credit: Brenda Culler, ODNR Coastal Management

It’s easy to doubt the effects of climate change – especially if you’re a Republican or a dedicated Fox News watcher. It’s an abstract concept easily “disproven” by the first cold day, and Republican-driven policies (or the lack thereof) to address it reflect just that. But it’s more difficult to deny the causes of smelly green goop washing up on a lakeshore or sticking to your toes.

But the toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie that caused 400,000 Toledo residents to avoid municipal water for two days provides an opportunity for conservatives to illustrate the ease with which they could co-opt the environment movement to push for local control, market solutions and individual choice – and start dealing with the very real crises on their doorsteps.

To that end, Ohio’s Republican governor – and pro-fracking enemy to the state’s environmentalists – John Kasich already signed legislation to address the algal blooms producing the toxins in Lake Erie earlier this year. That was too late, of course, and it might also be too little: it’s a voluntary program to certify farmers who use the phosphorous fertilizers that cause the blooms, and it won’t take effect untl 2017.

But even signing the legislation puts Kasich on the “Al Gore” side of the environmentalist spectrum to others in the GOP. In Washington state, Republican state house members argued that there was no science“that proves fertilizers have any impact on water quality”. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker “eased” the deadlines for polluters in the state to meet the previous administration’s numerical standards for the amount of phosphorous allowed in public waters (he tried to replace the numeric standards with a “narrative description” of reduction efforts, but wasn’t successful). In Tea Partying Florida, the Republican state legislaturesought to overturn locally-enacted bans on phosphorus fertilizer – an effort pushed by a Scotts Miracle-Gro lobbyist who texted a representative, “I am begging for your help here.”

Meanwhile, dozens of communities and 12 states have banned phosphorous fertilizers – and some even ban phosphorous in detergent, too. These laws don’t just spring up in Birkenstock Nation capitals such as Vermont or Ann Arbor, Michigan: Virginia banned phosphorous fertilizers in 2011 under the watchful eye of Republican governor Bob McDonnell, and New Jersey governor Chris Christie enacted the nation’s strictest regulations on the use of the chemical with trademark defiance and sentimentality in 2012. Christie explained:

We understand that the beauty of the body of water that we have here in New Jersey is much more important to our psychic health and our economic health than any of the arguments being made by the other side.

Research from 2009 shows that the results of fertilizer bans are clear: one of the oldest bans in the country – in Michigan – was linked to 28% reduction in phosphorus in downstream waters.

We shouldn’t be too surprised by some GOP flexibility on this aspect of environmental regulation: it’s mayors and governors who wind up having to deal with environmental crises on the ground and in real time – and who ultimately cannot afford ideological purity at the cost of their communities (though it may cost them higher office).

For them, GOP disdain for executive power stops at the Beltway’s edge; they cannot afford the luxury of speeches and stunts when their constituents go thirsty or can’t take baths.

Environmental crises are usually trotted out as case studies in the limits of conservative governance: they are systemic problems, requiring broad, coordinated action and strict penalties in place to dramatize the cost of continued malfeasance (since the real costs are all too broad to force individuals to take action). Coal seems like “cheap” energy ... until you calculate the associated health and environmental costs after its use; avoiding chemical fertilizers seems expensive until you compare it with the cost of cleaning up after them.

The situation in Ohio has brought home how short the timeline of deferred costs can become, and it should: phosphorus fertilizers aren’t like oil wells or fracking fields, because consumers can make a direct choice in using them or not. Specific sites such as waste management plants (so-called point sources) aren’t even the primary sources for phosphorous pollutants in public waters like Lake Erie; rather, much of the pollution in the water is the result of run-off from developed land (non-point sources).

And algal blooms aren’t like climate change – though, importantly, they’re exacerbated by it: they are near-term and ugly, comparatively immediate consequences of definable actions that everyday citizens can see without a microscope or binoculars. They are inarguable.

In Ohio, the urgency to take action on the algal blooms can only be enhanced by the recognition that doing so makes economic sense – and will keep harsher regulations at bay. Phosphorus bans even make a certain economic sense: The EPA estimates that “nutrient pollution” costs the US $1bn a year in lost revenue from outdoor tourism and waterway recreation.

The problem with getting consensus on environmental policy is not, primarily, that Democrats want to expanding the leviathan of big government and Republicans are seeking local solutions – it’s that many conservatives refuse beyond all reason to acknowledge that there is a problem to be solved at all.

Maybe a glass of goop can change that.

Ana Marie Cox is political columnist for the Guardian US.