Volts podcast: rampant environmental rule-breaking and how to fix it, with Cynthia Giles

Designing rules (including climate rules) that are harder to break


The US has hundreds of environmental rules and regulations on the books, meant to achieve various environmental goals — clean up coal plants, reduce toxins in consumer products, limit agricultural waste, and so on.

Once these rules and regulations are put in place, most people don’t give them a lot of thought. To the extent they do, they tend to believe two things: one, that environmental rules are generally followed (maybe, what, 3-5 percent break the rules?), and two, that the answer to noncompliance is increased enforcement.

According to Cynthia Giles, both those assumptions are dead wrong.

Giles was head of EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance for all eight years of Obama’s presidency — and had a long career in environmental enforcement before that — so she knows something about rules and enforcing them. Through the Harvard Environmental & Energy Law Program, where she is a guest fellow, Giles has been writing a series of pieces (which will be issued as a book in 2022) on “Next Generation Compliance: Environmental Regulation for the Modern Era.”

In those pieces, she reveals that environmental rule-breaking is absolutely rampant — and that there’s surprisingly little increased enforcement can do about it. Instead, the key is to design rules better, such that compliance is the default choice.

I’m a sucker for policy design, so I was eager to talk to Giles about what she’s learned, how to design rules well (or poorly), and most of all, the best way to design climate rules.