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Why The Planet Doesn’t Care About Your Eco-Friendly Lifestyle

Gernot Wagner argues that small individual actions—like eating local—make people feel better at the expense of creating real change. What’s the solution, and what can you do to help?

Gernot Wagner doesn’t drive. He doesn’t eat meat either. But he’d be the first to tell you that those gestures don’t really make a difference. In his new book But Will The Planet Notice?, Wagner, a Harvard- and Stanford-trained economist at the Environmental Defense Fund, argues that to stave off catastrophic climate change, we need more than well-meaning environmentalists—we need smart economics.

Co.Exist:What does the average environmentalist get wrong?

Wagner: Environmentalists, all too often, think that the best way to go about solving the problem is to get everyone to do as they—we, I included—do. I don’t eat meat. I don’t drive. But individual do-gooderism won’t solve global warming.

And it may actually be counter-productive, for two reasons. First, there’s a well-documented psychological phenomenon called "single-action bias." You do one thing, and you move on. You carry your groceries home by foot, in a cotton canvas bag, and you think that single act of environmental kindness makes up for other sins.

Second, you spend all your energy thinking about these tiny things. Should you buy the local apples that have been stored for months in a cool house somewhere, or should you buy the fresh apple flown in from across the world? Or should you not buy apples at all when they are not in season and risk not getting enough vitamins?

You’d go positively crazy trying to figure out what to do, and you’d miss the big picture: That, at the end of the day, none of that really matters.

Instead of individual volunteer environmentalism, you advocate "smart economics." What’s an example?

Turns out Washington, D.C.—the city government, if not the federal government—is taking a lead here and showing the way. In 2010, it introduced a tiny fee—5 cents—on disposable bags (paper and plastic). It’s the kind of fee that shouldn’t make a difference. You don’t notice 5 cents on your $100 grocery bill, and implementation is spotty. But still, it appears to be making a real difference. Conclusive data on D.C. aren’t in yet, but Ireland, which introduced such a PlasTax in 2002, managed to decrease plastic bags by 1 billion bags a year. That’s a decrease of 90%. That, too, won’t stop global warming, of course, but it shows the way to the kinds of policies that do work.

If you could design a carbon policy for the United States, what would it look like?

It would be a firm limit on overall carbon pollution with the maximum flexibility possible to achieve that limit. It would be what Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich supported before they started running for president and running from their environmental records: cap and trade.

Which countries are getting carbon policy right?

There are plenty of examples. Europe, of course, has long been a leader. Half of its global warming emissions are covered through the E.U.'s Emissions Trading System. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start. It puts a price of about $15 on each ton of carbon dioxide.

India has a coal tax. China is looking into emissions trading for carbon pollution. Australia just passed a carbon price. California is now putting in place what will likely be the world’s most comprehensive emissions trading system. New Zealand, Brazil, Mexico, and a few other countries are actively looking into systems like this. Washington is falling behind.

The bag tax in Washington, D.C., is great, but how do we clear the political hurdles to get to something like a national cap-and-trade system?

Policy incrementalism. Show that this approach can and does work in situations small and large.

Does capping carbon mean moving to a low- or no-growth economy?

No! It means moving to a smart growth economy. We know that infinite material growth on a finite planet isn’t possible. By some measures, we are already using 1.5 planets or more to support our current lifestyles—and that’s in a world where billions still live in abject poverty. So yes, dematerialization is the word of the day.

Are you optimistic about our ability to stave off catastrophic climate change? Will humanity make it?

I’d love to be optimistic here. MLK gave an "I have a dream" speech, after all—not an "I have a nightmare" speech. Sadly, we are so far down the high-pollution, low-efficiency path that even if we turned the ship around today, we’d have considerable global warming and sea-level rise.

There’s a reason why many of the best climate scientists have essentially moved on. They don’t think the world can rein in climate changing pollution on time to avert the worst and are instead looking to geoengineering, shooting particles into the upper atmosphere to deflect sunlight, as a stop-gap measure. No one knows whether it will work. Very few think it’s a good idea. Yet that’s where science is heading.

None of that means that we can just sit and watch the scenario unfold. But we do need to realize that even with the best policies put in place now, we are still in for a world of pain.

What got you into climate issues in the first place?

Every 6-year-old is an environmentalist. I just never grew up.