My colleague and friend, Dr. Gernot Wagner, has a new book coming out, But Will the Planet Notice?: How Smart Economics Can Save the World (available in hardback and kindle editions on October 5th). The premise is that individual actions, like changing incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescent, using groovy (yes, I said groovy) reusable grocery bags instead of plastic, and buying local food may make us feel better about our environmental impact, but actually do very little to reduce global climate change, resource use, or improve overall environmental quality. To make the “planet notice” we need systematic and collective changes in behavior.
In this class you will learn that, contrary to popular opinion, economists don’t believe unregulated markets will naturally supply this type of systemic and collective behavioral change. We also don’t put a lot of faith in the powers of moral suasion (even by the former Vice President). Instead we believe in the power of incentives—the power of the price signal. If carbon emissions are costly (through a carbon tax or from a cap-and-trade system), then goods produced using more carbon are more expense. By the law of demand, when prices rise, quantity demanded falls. So if carbon-intensive goods are more expensive, fewer of those goods will be consumed and less carbon will be emitted. Less carbon is emitted not because people care deeply about the impacts of climate change (although some may), but because they care deeply about their pocketbook. Note that unregulated markets don’t result in the correct price signals; we do need public policy to address environmental problems. We do need the big R—Regulation!
Let’s bring this discussion home to Duke. If you go to sustainability.duke.edu you will see a carbon footprint calculator. This tool asks you a series of questions about your eating habits, travel, and electricity consumption. Questions include things like: How far do you drive per trip to work? How much of your food is locally produced? Do you turn off your computer at night? These are all very reasonable questions and clearly linked to each individual’s carbon consumption. But perhaps we should also be asking: How many letters have you written your congressman demanding action on climate policy? How many community meetings have you organized to explain climate policy to your neighbors and friends? The “true believers” doing a lot won’t solve our problem. We need carbon to be priced in order to affect behavior sufficiently to reduce overall carbon emissions.
So why the focus on individual actions? I think it is because we can control our behavior, but influencing public policy seems overwhelming. My own feelings about Washington in the last few years have gone from “Yes We Can!” to “Maybe We Can With A Lot of Drama” (think town hall meetings summer of 2009) to “We Can’t Seem to Get Out Of Our Own Way” (think debt ceiling debate of summer of 2011). And with that, I think I’ll go change a few more incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescents…
Questions for Discussion:
- Other than lobbying congress, what ideas do you have for how we can “make the planet notice”?
- Universities are frequently leaders in sustainability efforts. But even if Duke cut carbon emissions to zero, the planet would not notice. Does this mean Duke should stop trying to lower its carbon footprint? What is the role of the university in promoting environmental change?