Why environmental policy issues are complex

Environmental policy issues are the problems of making policy — a decision or plan of action for accomplishing a desired outcome — about the environment. They are inherently complex and beset by value judgments, a multitude of stakeholders and uncertain outcomes.

Imagine this view across a valley toward a hillside. It is verdant, covered with forest that has been growing in this place for a long time.  What you know is that this valley is on the edge of a much larger forest and you also know that the soils on the valley floor are fertile and ideal for cropping.

What values must be considered?

The view because it has aesthetic value and a sense of place

The trees and the multitude of other species that live in the forest have intrinsic value

The forest acts as a sponge and filter for rainwater regulating release into streams and the recharge of groundwater

The forest trees transpire moisture moderating local climate that is valued as an ecosystem service as is soil retention 

The timber has monetary value to the forester and utility value when you sit down at the wooden dinner table

Clear the trees and the soil can support agriculture that has utility value and monetary value once the crops deliver yields

When the forest is used and utility value realized then jobs are created through commerce and even a handful of jobs contribute to the integrity of rural communities

What do stakeholders value?

Any policy decision will result in a compromise between the many values the forest can deliver and that means some values will be favoured over others. Some could be lost altogether.

So we see very different values held:

  • The walker the view
  • The conservationist the biodiversity
  • The farmer the soil
  • The forester the timber in the trees
  • The local publican the visitors
  • The restaurateur the local produce
  • The politician the job creation
  • The mayor the need to keep everyone happy [or his voters happy if he’s elected]

If the trees are cut down then there is value in the timber but loss if biodiversity, ecosystem services and aesthetics. Clear the trees and the land can be used for crops but the forester would be upset because he can’t log again unless the trees regrow.

Leave everything as it is and the politician must rely on the local community to accept that there is enough economic development in tourism.

The publican is probably happiest when people are still arguing over what to do over a few pints.

No wonder political scientists describe environmental policy issues as being “wicked” or “messy” similar to many on the list of environmental issues. 

choice about what to do with land, especially for urban planning, is becoming an increasingly fraught ecological policy issue  

Features of environmental policy issues

Wicked policy problems share some common features. This list is based on a scientific paper by Lackey [2006]

  • complexity — there are always many options or formulations that are possible and each one carries a trade-off in values 
  • polarization — values frequently clash and people do what comes naturally and defend their corner, often with great vigor. Visit any forum on social media and you’ll get the idea.
  • winners and losers — because of trade-offs, when a policy decision is made some people will see their values upheld, others will feel hard done by or even harmed and some people will be uncertain of what the consequences mean for them
  • delayed consequences — a feature of environmental decisions is that outcomes, including benefits, usually take time to come about. This delay makes it very hard to justify some of the harder trade-off decisions. 
  • decision distortion — when advocates are loud or hold especially strong values that fuel passion this can distort the real policy choices and their consequences. This happens often with NIMBY problems. 
  • national versus regional conflict — quite often policy priorities are affected by scale, what matters locally may not be important to the region or nation and vice versa. This is the NIMBY problem scaled up.
  • misuse of scientific information — information should help policy decision making but arguments over science can easily become a surrogate for arguments over values and preferences. This is usually not good for the science or the decision.

Environmental policy issues are replete with these features. Most of the major environmental issues show these characteristics of being contentious because values have to be traded using incomplete evidence on outcomes.


There is no escaping the difficulty of environmental decisions. They require value-laden trade-offs with uncertain consequences that can take years to appear. Whatever the decision there are some unhappy stakeholders. 

No matter what ecological policy makers decide they are open to derision. The only real choice they have is who to annoy the most. And this usually comes down to their politics. 

In an idea world environmental policy issues would be resolved through engagement and access to objective information. Science has the ability to evaluate policy options and to compare between them so at least when the value trade-off is made there are some numbers to evaluate the choices.

Unfortunately the world is not ideal. Decisions are made without the available evidence or engagement. Or worse still decisions are not made at all. 

› environmental policy issues

Confused Confucius spurned the monastic life for the world of work, moral conundrums and mobile devices. His sayings, questions and incongruous idioms on the environment and modern life bring delight and bafflement in equal measure...  check out more Confused Confucius sayings.

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