Margaret Mead famously said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Those words have inspired many—myself included—to work for positive change in the world. It occurs to me, though, that climate change presents a big challenge to Margaret Mead’s proposition.
In his recent book, But will the Planet Notice?, Gernot Wagner humorously wrestles with the notion that individuals can make a difference as they make everyday choices. Part of what makes the book funny is that Wagner—an environmental economist for the Environmental Defense Fund—is poking fun at himself. He and his wife actively choose to reduce their impact on the earth by reducing their carbon footprint to as small a footprint as possible.
The question posed by Wagner has occurred to all of us who try to make environmentally responsible choices. We can choose to bring our canvas shopping bags to the supermarket to avoid waste. We can be tireless and precise recyclers. We can drive only the most fuel-efficient cars to reduce the amount of pollution in the air. We can refuse to support businesses that harm the environment. But will the planet notice?
Wagner suggests that if we really want to change the world to prevent the worst effects of climate change, we need to use smart economics. The relatively small number of people who make the right choices are not enough to reduce global warming pollution and prevent climate change. Most people make their choices based on a basic calculation of costs and benefits.
We need a world economy that better directs individuals toward those products and activities that have the least environmental cost. Choices that are anti-social because they endanger the health and welfare of others should cost more than choices that are socially responsible and protect the health and welfare of others. How do we do that?
First, we need to get rid of backward incentives, like subsidies for fossil fuels. Burning oil contributes to global warming pollution, so why do we give billions of dollars in subsidies each year to oil companies posting record profits? At the same time, we have erected barriers to good things, like investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy such as solar power and wind. We need to remove those barriers and make it as easy for clean energy as we have made it for oil and coal for decades.
Second, we need to stop some from imposing environmental costs on others. If an industry or electric generator burns coal and spews pollution unabated into the atmosphere, it imposes serious health and environmental costs on others. We have been too slow to require polluters to clean up their acts. The usual opposition to environmental regulations is that they cost too much. But not controlling pollution costs all of us dearly.
Gernot Wagner argues that the best way to control pollution is to charge polluters, to make it more costly to pollute so polluters have a built-in incentive to reduce pollution. This has been tried numerous times in the United States to great effect.
And that is where Margaret Mead’s inspiring proposition comes in. Fighting climate change needs to be about more than a small group of thoughtful, committed people reducing their individual carbon footprints. If we’re going to stop global warming in its tracks, we need all people to act. That means smart economics that makes the right choices easy. And smart economics can only come from smart government policy.
We need to make climate change an election issue. We need small groups of thoughtful, committed citizens to stand up for the well being of their children and grandchildren. Only then will the planet notice.
Franz Litz is the Executive Director of the Pace Energy and Climate Center and Professor of Law at Pace Law School.
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect the views of this station or its management.
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