“Make the planet notice”: a response to our latest podcast

(In the interest of disclosure, I’ve worked with Gernot Wagner closely at Environmental Defense Fund, where he helps bring insightful economic thinking to the complex challenges of climate change.)

In the latest Sense & Sustainability podcast, Gernot Wagner discusses his recent book, But Will the Planet Notice? How Smart Economics Can Save the World.

Gernot argues that while individual choices to drive hybrids or use fewer plastic bags are appealing ways to help the environment, to make the planet notice, we must have policy changes that generate transformations in the market as a whole.

Much like Gernot, I arrived at college thinking about becoming an environmental studies major. I spent a year studying plastic versus foam, coal versus nuclear–trying to determine which choices would benefit humankind. When I read debates about whether reusing dishware was worse for the environment than throwing out foam plates every night, I began to think that none of the answers would ever be clear.

And these answers were evasive even with devoted study. The vast majority of people I’ve talked to about climate change are alarmed by its looming danger and want to reduce it, but are unsure how. Most people have obligations to their jobs, communities, and families – we don’t have the time to read endlessly about which tomatoes have the lowest carbon emissions.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t prioritize environmental projects like local farms – but that those projects are most important because they strengthen our communities, diversify our crops, reduce harmful pesticide and fertilizer use, and give us healthier and fresher food. There’s a lot more than low carbon emissions that makes a good tomato.

I have a goal that’s different from many environmentalists. We should hope that in fifty years, people don’t think about the environment. Because with the right price signals built into the market, they won’t have to. With a policy that caps carbon pollution, our free market can help find the cheapest, most effective ways to reduce our carbon emissions and make sure we live in a sustainable world.

How often do you think about acid rain? Thanks to a cap on sulfur dioxide pollution, the American northeast has already achieved dramatic (and cheap) reductions in acid rain. The Economist called it “the greatest green success story of the past decade.” Similarly, market-based programs like REDD and catch shares promise to help save our forests and fisheries.

If we build political support to implement them, these market-based policies can reduce our environmental problems for us. Our world doesn’t give us many chances to “solve” problems – hunger, failing health, and injustice have been with us for millennia. But everything I’ve learned suggests that unleashing the market’s innovation will, yes, solve the problems of climate change.

Future generations should be able to tackle other challenges instead of being trapped in the same crises. Isn’t this the promise of progress?