This is sort of a philosophical question rather than a factual one, but it’s a good question. Certainly there are those who will argue that government is at least sometimes proactive in addressing environmental concerns, and there’s some evidence to support that; the Clean Air Act, for instance, was groundbreaking legislation when it was first passed in 1970, as was CERCLA (the “Superfund” law) ten years later. On the other side of the argument, many people complain that U.S. and other governments aren’t moving fast enough to combat climate change. Government, at least in Western democracies, tends to work best in a reactive mode. If there’s an invasion, a government sends troops to resist it; if there’s a disaster, the government coordinates relief efforts. The more immediate and dramatic the stimulus, the faster and more decisively the government responds (though with notable exceptions, such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005). Environmental crises, however, are typically very long-term in developing, sometimes decades in the case of climate change. Democratic governments must work on the basis of political consensus which is often difficult to marshal in a gradual as opposed to a sudden crisis. Few would argue that Japanese planes attacking Pearl Harbor or terrorists attacking New York and Washington do not merit an immediate comprehensive response, but the situation is different when you’re talking about rising sea levels or a 1- or 2-degree temperature increase over 10 or 20 years, despite the obvious catastrophic effects that would have. In short, I think governments are slow to react to less sudden crises because they’re hard-wired to seek consensus and take bureaucratically appropriate action.
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