Experts React to Sustainable Washington Report

Published May 1, 2003

The Sustainable Washington Advisory Panel developed several suggestions “for using human, environmental, and economic resources more wisely, including the use of energy-efficient products, recycled materials, and conservation programs.”

The Panel’s recommendations were widely criticized by the local news media as well as experts interviewed by Environment & Climate News.

Renewable Energy

Among the Panel’s stated goals is a commitment to renewable energy sources. “By 2030,” the report pledges, “we will have dramatically increased our energy efficiency and conservation, and we will meet virtually all of our energy needs through solar, wind, hydrogen, and other renewable sources.”

Bruce Ramsey of the Seattle Times observed the city of Seattle recently attempted a similar course of action, meeting disastrous results. In April 2000, Ramsey reported, the city council unanimously approved a law instructing the city to procure all of its new power needs through renewable sources with no net greenhouse gas emissions. The city sold its interest in the Centralia coal plant and embarked on its new mission.

The result, reported Ramsey, was “an increase of $700 million in ratepayer debt and 60 percent in residential rates in two and a half years.”

According to the Energy Information Administration, renewable energy sources–almost entirely hydroelectric power–already provide 80 percent of Washington State’s electricity. Only Idaho, with 97 percent (also primarily hydroelectric), makes greater use of renewable energy. These states are a prime battleground in what has become a nationwide anti-hydroelectric campaign by interest groups that have targeted dams for removal due to their impact on fish and other wildlife.

Removal of dams would result in energy supply shortfalls and higher prices to the state’s electricity consumers … and make it difficult for Washington to sustain its current commitment to renewable energy, let alone increase it.


The Panel also called for unprecedented levels of recycling, essentially a “zero tolerance” program for waste. “Scientists discovered early on that there is no concept of waste in nature,” the Panel notes.

“Eliminating waste in honest and economic ways will always benefit society,” responded Jay Lehr, science director for The Heartland Institute. “But mandatory recycling programs waste human resources and do not benefit the environment.

“Recycling is good only for the human psyche. We get a warm and fuzzy feeling when we recycle, but the facts say we are wrong to feel that way.” Lehr notes “we are not running out of any of the resources we recycle, and we are not running out of landfill space.

“I am a bleeding heart liberal,” Lehr confesses, “when it comes to improving the human condition. Recycling does not do this.”

A group of Swedish environmentalists cast further doubt on the Panel’s recommendations with an updated report on recycling programs.

The team of environmentalists, led by Valfrid Paulsson, a former director of Sweden’s environmental protection agency, and Soren Norrby, the former campaign manager for Keep Sweden Tidy, concluded that incineration of cardboard, plastics, and other household trash is not only less costly than recycling, but also better for the planet.

The team documented developments in clean burning technology that virtually eliminate pollution from trash incineration. Incineration can also generate significant amounts of electricity, they noted, reducing the need to burn fossil fuels. By contrast, any benefits that might accrue from recycling are outweighed by environmental costs, such as additional truck miles necessary to collect and transport recyclable goods.

“Protection of the environment can mean economic sacrifices, but to maintain the credibility of environmental politics, the environmental gains must be worth the sacrifice,” reported the environmentalists.

Global Warming

The Panel also urged significant cuts in the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. “The scientific debate on the basic facts of global warming is over,” note the report’s authors.

S. Fred Singer, president of the Science and Environmental Policy Project and an internationally recognized expert on energy, environment, and climate change issues, disagrees.

“Scientific debate is growing,” emphasized Singer, “about whether there is any noticeable contribution to climate change from human activities. In fact, measurements from different sources disagree on whether there is any ongoing warming at all.

“Results from weather satellites–the only high-quality global data we have– show no appreciable warming of the atmosphere. It is therefore foolish to suggest economically damaging ‘solutions,’ like energy taxes or rationing, if there isn’t even a problem.”

“A state greenhouse gas program would cost far more than whatever benefits it is likely to produce,” warns Joseph Bast, president of The Heartland Institute and coauthor of a recent scientific and economic analysis of state greenhouse gas programs. “Even if the state were successful in reaching its greenhouse gas emission reduction goals, such reductions would be too small to have a measurable impact on the global climate.”

Bast and his coauthors estimated reducing greenhouse gases to 7 percent below 1990 levels–the emission reduction called for by the Kyoto Protocol, touted by the sustainability report’s authors–could cost the state government of Washington $3.3 billion a year in direct expenses and lost revenues. The average household in Washington, they warn, could lose $5,326 a year in income.

Social Justice

According to the Panel, “Applying the sustainability lens to the issues of social justice, criminal justice, equitable health care, and effective human relations will mean working within an interconnected framework focused on maximizing human resources and potential.”

Eric Montague, policy analyst for the Seattle-based Washington Policy Center, called that rhetoric “recycled socialism.”

“This sounds ominously similar to the fictional utopian, centrally planned communities of early socialist planners,” Montague said. “The plan is largely devoid of any real economic research or even credible environmental science to back up its claims, and so it presents a seriously flawed view of a truly functional and prosperous community.”

“Look at the data,” advised Jerry Taylor, director of natural resources for the Cato Institute. “Life expectancy across the globe has shot up over the course of the last two centuries. People are better fed, better clothed, and better housed today than ever before. Inflation-adjusted prices for virtually all resources–renewable and nonrenewable–are going down, which points to growing abundance, not growing scarcity.

“The human footprint on the environment is indeed becoming lighter and softer.”