It's always a pleasure to read a confident, funny and convincing writer who promotes counter-intuitive conclusions. If you like the idea of an environmentalist who works for one of the nation's largest environmental groups making a full-throated argument against the Endangered Species Act and fuel-economy standards, then But Will the Planet Notice?: How Smart Economics Can Save the World is the book for you.
Gernot Wagner is, as he admits amusingly, a seeming contradiction: an environmental economist. Readers will perceive a second contradiction: he's an economist and policy wonk who you would actually want to talk to at a party. He's employed by the Environmental Defense Fund, which got its start fighting the use of DDT, a pesticidethat was both an effective killer of mosquitoes and some of our nation's most iconic birds, including the bald eagle. As an environmentalist, Wagner is a deeply ethical. He dutifully packs reusable bags on his bike to buy ingredients for his vegetarian meals. But as an economist, he can't help pointing out, over the course of 216 clear, humorous and incredibly readable pages, that it doesn't make a bit of difference to the health of the environment that he takes these actions.
For one thing, as he readily concedes, he practically flies for a living, and a couple roundtrip international flights to visit his family in Austria or Thailand, or to attend a U.N. climate summit, emit enough greenhouse gases to fog any of his do-gooding on land. But Wagner's point is much larger. If we aim to truly tackle global environmental problems like climate change, people have to respond genuinely to economic imperatives and incentives. That means that everyone: committed first-world environmentalists whose attempts to "go green" are outweighed by their overall rich lifestyle, first-world fat cats who don't give a damn, and the billions of third-world residents living in poverty who want to enjoy some of the good life.
To that end, Warner sees efforts like the Endangered Species Act completely wrongheaded, because the law requires that no expense be spared to preserve the last of species, regardless of the importance they play in an ecosystem, rather than spending money to preserve biological hotspots that will have a much bigger bang for the buck, from a conservation perspective. His favorite example is the famous hunt for the ivory-billed woodpecker, which inspired millions of dollars of spending in recent years for searching and protecting the habitat of a species that is likely extinct; anyway it's so similar to cousins like the pileated woodpecker that it's hard to justify such extreme efforts.
He criticizes fuel-economy standards, despite their clearer record of success, because they provide an inefficient incentive. If the goal is to reduce fuel burned, and fuel burned per mile, taxing fuel is more efficient; instead, the U.S. requires the overall fleet of cars to achieve a specified fuel efficiency set by the government. With a gas tax, market forces would spur car companies to innovate because customers would demand more fuel-efficient cars after watching their wallets drain into their gas tanks. Our current policies result in (relatively) low gas prices, and (relatively) fuel-efficient cars, which creates more incentive for people to drive... and burn more gas.
With these types of criticisms of mainstream environmental policy, Wagner effectively positions himself as a free-thinking environmentalist. So his main point should carry more weight, one would hope. And that point is that the only effective way to combat climate change is to enact a cap-and-trade system for carbon like the one that California and several Northeastern states have enacted on the state and regional levels. If the overall level of carbon emissions is capped, and progressively lowered over time, market forces will spur innovation, flatten the costs of renewable technologies relative to fossil fuels and ultimately drive society toward a tipping point that leads toward sustainability. It's worked, he argues, for pollution that causes acid rain, for lead in gasoline and other environmental scourges that the U.S. has solved without sacrificing its economic growth. Greenhouse gas emissions present a tougher problem than other problems solved with cap-and-trade systems, because the problem is global, but Wagner is optimistic, because it's still a relatively few countries that would have to come to agreement to make a global carbon cap work: the U.S., Europe, China, Russia, India, Japan, Brazil and Indonesia. That relatively small number of countries, with their competing agendas, has so far proved far too much for global climate negotiators to reconcile. But one can hope.
Wagner's book provides that hope. You put it down, feeling smarter, feeling relieved that some very smart people can also communicate engagingly, and feeling that reasonable people will have to come around to trying these smart solutions before it's too late to stop the worst consequences of global warming. One can hope.
But Will the Planet Notice?: How Smart Economics Can Save the World ($16.90 at amazon.com)
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