At the most general level, environmental policies reflect society's collective decision to pursue certain environmental goals and objectives and to use particular means to achieve them. Public sector decision making incorporates a diversity of perspectives on environmental problems, from those of industry to the views of activist environmental organizations. Ultimately, policies reflect the inevitable compromises over which environmental goals to pursue and how best to achieve them.
Private decision making by corporations and individuals also affects society's ability to respond to environmental challenges. Indeed, critics of governmental performance look to the private sector for initiatives. Yet, as a nation, the United States relies heavily on public decision making because only governments possess the necessary financial resources or have the requisite legal authority or political legitimacy.
Environmental policy is complex. Beyond the laws, regulations, and court rulings on the subject, it is strongly affected by agency officials who are charged with implementing and enforcing environmental law. Their decisions, in turn, are influenced by a range of political and economic forces, including the policy beliefs of elected officials, the health of the economy, anticipated costs and benefits of laws and regulations, federal-state relations, public opinion, media coverage of environmental issues, and efforts by corporations, environmental groups, and scientists to influence public policy.
The environmental quality standards that are set in laws and regulations reflect the uncertain and changing base of environmental science, as well as policy judgments concerning the extent of risk from air or water pollution or toxic chemicals that is acceptable to society. How clean is clean enough? A
sustainable able to be practiced for many generations without loss of productivity or degradation of the environment sustainable development economic development that does not rely on degrading the environment significantly safer or cleaner environment may be harder to achieve with existing technologies. Moreover, the effort may be both more costly and more controversial. Confronting tradeoffs among competing social values lies at the heart of environmental policy decision making.
Environmental policy covers a wide range of issues and has had a pervasive and growing impact on modern human affairs. It also goes well beyond federal and state actions on air and water pollution or control of hazardous waste and toxic chemicals. Increasingly, these actions are linked to decision making in many related areas that also affect environmental quality and human health. These include such disparate concerns as energy use, transportation, population growth, and agriculture and food production. Scientists and scholars use the concepts of sustainability and sustainable development to link these varied human influences on the natural environment. Reports from the 1992 Earth Summit and the President's Council on Sustainable Development firmly endorsed this more comprehensive and integrated view of environmental challenges.
At an even more fundamental level, environmental policy concerns the protection of vital global ecological, chemical, and geophysical systems that scientists increasingly believe to be put at risk through certain human activities. Climate change and loss of biological diversity are examples of such threats. Thus, environmental policy decision making addresses both long-term and global as well as short-term and local risks to health and the environment. For all these reasons, it has become one of the most important functions of government in both industrialized and developing nations.
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