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.

FILED UNDER: Blogosphere, Climate Change, Economics and Business, Environment, Science & Technology, US Politics, , , , , ,
Steve Verdon
About Steve Verdon
Steve has a B.A. in Economics from the University of California, Los Angeles and attended graduate school at The George Washington University, leaving school shortly before staring work on his dissertation when his first child was born. He works in the energy industry and prior to that worked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Division of Price Index and Number Research. He joined the staff at OTB in November 2004.


  1. Bithead says:

    You make it sound like the discussion is over.
    It’s not.

  2. Steve Verdon says:

    Interesting link there Bithead.

  3. RJN says:

    When I was going to school, in Chicago, in the 1930’s and ’40’s we were all envoirnmentalists.

    We had movies about it in our assembly halls. Everyone was enamored of, and protective of, the envoirnment.

  4. davod says:

    You may be interested in Beyond Kyoto . The article is from 2005 but things have moved on to much greater participation.

  5. Tano says:

    “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…”

    Environmentalists have been thinking that way for a long time.

    This type of article always makes me laugh. The very people who deny the problem the longest and hardest, then turn around (when resistance becomes beyond absurd) and start lecturing everyone on how to solve the problem.

    I’m not saying that being wrong at first means you must have no voice in the solution, but if such a person does want to be taken seriously, a little humility might be in order. And a little serious research into what others have actually been proposing for a long time.

  6. anjin-san says:

    Well the Bush admin is still dedicated to the destruction of the environment, so I guess they have not heard the news…

  7. William d'Inger says:

    Fifty years ago, when I entered high school, out science teacher gave a lecture on global warming. She said the Earth has been warming, by fits and starts, since the end of the Ice Age around 14,000 years ago. She then droned on for an hour about the benefits of a warmer world.

    Basically, the difference between me and the environuts is the meaning of change. They fear it; I embrace it. It seems that what they fear is change itself (as opposed to the results of change). To them, change has to be bad by definition, and they push the alarmist panic button over any and every inconsequential, improbable possibility. To me, change is largely a wash — some good, some bad, the one cancelling out the other.

    Change is unavoidable. It is better to prepare to adapt rather than waste effort on something that can’t be stopped.

  8. Anjin-San says:


    Your right, change is inevetible. So if your neighborhood became a toxic swamp because the government or some corporation could not be bothered to dispose of toxics properly (something that has happended many, many, many times in this country), you would just take it in stride. Embrace it even. You can hang with change.

    And hey, if you became ill as a result, you would not whine about it like some darned envoirnut, no sir. You would have some ancient schoolboy lesson to fall back on for comfort.

    No one in the enviornmental movement is concerned about the changes that nature itself causes. But any fool can see how man has had a negative impact on the enviornment. People like William think that because the sky is still blue (sort of) and they still have a tree in the yard that all is well, and they can continue to go forth and consume a disproportinate percentage of the worlds resources with no consequence.

    Well actually there do seem to be fools that can’t see it…

  9. William d'Inger says:

    What’s wrong with this sentence?

    Your right, change is inevetible.

    The grammatical and spelling errors are pretty obvious. I’m sure the author intended: “You’re right, change is inevitable.” What saddens me most, however, is the mental sloppiness.

    I was talking about climate change, but Anjin-San runs off talking about a toxic swamp as if what I said about the one thing applies equally to the other. It’s mental sloppiness like that which makes me think of them as environuts. Many of them can’t logically think their way out of a brown paper bag, yet they expect us to take their word for how to run the planet. Get real!

  10. Bithead says:

    You’re missing the point, Bill.
    Look; if the thinking applied wasn’t sloppy, do you really think they’d be coming to the conclusions they are?

  11. Anjin-San says:


    Where do I start? 50 years ago, a high school teacher told you global warming is good. Therefore, here in the 21st century, you are unconcerned with it, and are also superior to those who are. Now that’s logic! Pat yourself on the back, you have earned it.

    BTW, congrats on your ability to run a spell check. Impressive.