We Are All Environmentalists Now
That is the claim of Edward L. Glaeser. His basic argument is that to a large exten the evironmentalists have won. Everybody is now aware that our actions have an impact on the environment and that we have to aware of these impacts and deal with them.
He does caution the environmental movement that it is time to shift gears though. Instead of doing anything and everything to promote awareness and try to get some sort of action; environmentalists have to suggest not only green policies, but smart policies as well.
But environmentalists should celebrate their much-deserved success with an increasing commitment to responsible policies that target climate change and weigh costs against benefits. In the early days of environmentalism, almost any action could be justified as a means of increasing environmental awareness. Now we are all aware and committed to the environment, and it is time to turn to policies that are both green and smart.
Smart environmentalism has three key elements. First, policies should be targeted toward the biggest environmental threat: global warming. Second, our resources and political capital are limited. This means we must weigh the benefits of each intervention against its costs. Third, we must anticipate unintended consequences, where being green in one place leads to decidedly non green outcomes someplace else.
Which is exactly right. Is Kyoto a good idea? I don’t think so. Not because I don’t think global warming is some sort of crazy notion by tree hugging environmentalists (and too be sure, I’m not convinced it is going to destroy the planet either). Kyoto has problems in that it seems all too easy for various nations to get out from under the trading caps. Europe is a fine example. Then there are developing countries which are exempt form Kyoto which should point a big problem right there. Developing countries are, well, developling. Development usually goes hand-in-hand with things like higher energy use and that usually means more green house gasses.These simple rules provide a policy road map for environmentalism.
The fight against climate change requires us to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The most effective way to reduce emissions is to charge people for the social costs of their actions with a carbon tax. A significant carbon tax would be painful — gas will cost more at the pump — but it is never easy to change behavior, and change behavior we must.
Sounds like Greg Mankiw’s Pigou Club. However, the idea that European and American governments set up funding for rewarding other countries for reducing emissions is a bit…well hard for me to consider smart. I usually view politicians as self-serving, venal, and spineless people who will abuse their power. Or as Radley Balko put it when discussing his change of view on torture,
I should have opposed torture for the same reason I oppose just about every other surrender of power to the government that naive people (in this case, like me) tend to think looks good on paper: Because the government won’t use it competently, because the government will abuse it, and because the government will find new, inappropriate contexts in which to use it.
How soon before these incentives are used not just for reducing carbon emissions, but other things that suit America’s foreign policy needs?
Still, while I’m not thrilled with that idea, this one sounds pretty good.
New technologies are likely to be our best weapons against climate change and we should try to encourage more energy-efficient innovation. Our patent system is poorly suited to encourage these innovations, since successful innovations will create environmental social benefits that far exceed the private revenues earned by the innovator. Patents also make it less likely that technology will be transferred to the developing world. A better system might be to offer large public prizes that reward innovations, which are then made freely available throughout the globe.
Not only that, but people who spend lots of money to develop patents have incentives to try and keep people from achieving that same goal via innovation as well. This kind of rent seeking behavior actually can reduce growth and does very little that is productive. Further, patents blunt the incentive to innovate. Once you have the patent, you actually face less competition than if patent were not available.
Still the main point of the article is a good one. Environmentalists have to start thinking of how to get things done in a smart way and less of the symbolic action that were popular early on in the environmental movement. Thinking about incentives is now paramount for todays environmentalists, as boring as that maybe. That is where the rubber meets the pavement.