Interview of the Week: Dan Esty on the New Book of Essays Entitled “A Better Planet”

Daniel Esty is the Hillhouse Professor of Environmental Law and Policy at Yale University and the editor of a new book entitled “A Better Planet: 40 Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future.”

ODP:  The Yale Environmental Dialogue was launched in 2017 — why?  What did you hope it would accomplish?

DE:  Dean Indy Burke of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies launched the Yale Environmental Dialogue in 2017 to provide a platform for a more thoughtful and substantive discussion about how to make progress on environmental protection across America and around the world. The goal was to get beyond the political breakdown that has stymied progress for years and to bring together issue-area experts, government officials, NGO leaders, business executives, and other thought leaders—across party lines and other divides—with the hope of identifying common ground and pathways to a sustainable future.

ODP: How does this collection of essays written by experts in the field advance the environmental agenda in the era of the Green New Deal?

DE:  The Better Planet essays offer ways to translate the political momentum and enthusiasm for taking environmental efforts to a higher level—including proposals such as the Green New Deal—into a concrete set of proposals for progress on air and water pollution, clean energy, climate change, more sustainable natural resource management, land conservation, and other issues. A number of the Better Planet authors also put forward process suggestions about how best to bring people together across political differences (such as Brad Gentry’s, “Driving Systems Change Through Networks”), engage the public in building momentum for action (such as Tony Leiserowitz’s “Building Public and Political Will for Climate Change Action” or Deborah Coen’s “Science by and for Citizens”), and communicate with critical constituencies that have often been left out of environmental debates (such as Thomas Easley’s “Hip-Hop Sustainability”).

ODP:  In your essay, you argue that environmental protection isn’t working anymore, and it’s time to update it for the 21st century. What’s your proposal?

DE:  I want to build on the environmental progress made in the 20th century, but recognize that today we face new challenges and changed circumstances. We also have better policy tools and 50 years of regulatory experience to bring to bear. Specifically, I think that our original framework of environmental law from the 1970s and 80s focused largely on “red lights”—and telling people what NOT to do. We now need an equal measure of “green lights” that signal to innovators, entrepreneurs, and businesses, as well as individuals, where they should devote their resources and creative capacity to solve society’s problems.

We must also recognize that our knowledge base has advanced considerably since the prevailing approach to environmental protection got framed in the 1970s. We have better epidemiological and ecological studies, much improved mapping of the fate and transport of pollutants, considerable empirical evidence about what sorts of policy tools work in various circumstances not to mention vastly expanded capacity to use Big Data and Information Technologies to make our policy approaches more granular, cost-effective, and environmentally successful. So, it is time that we re-engineer our legal structure and policy framework to focus on innovation, take advantage of all the opportunities we now have, and to meet the new challenges we face.

ODP:  We are now a divided nation, and the Trump Administration has been working since 2017 to tear down the current system of environmental protections.  But conservation used to be more bipartisan.  What happened? 

DE:  Quite right! Up to the mid-1990s, Democrats and Republicans competed for environmental leadership. Indeed, the 1990 Clean Air Act went through the United States Senate by a vote of 89 – 11 with overwhelming support from Republicans as well as Democrats. And the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change sailed through the Senate on a voice vote. But beginning in 1994, environmental protection became a wedge issue—with each side caricaturing the other party’s positions to fire up their political base. But the path forward cannot be mindless deregulation nor nostalgia for the 20th-century world of command and control mandates. We need an agenda of thoughtful, carefully crafted, up-the-middle regulatory reform centered on the new tools and opportunities now in front of us and focused on strategies that can attract bipartisan support. Simply put, enduring change—particularly transformative change of the sort required to decarbonize our economy—cannot be done on a one-party basis.

ODP:  Reading the news, it seems that the U.S. and the planet are in a true crisis, and many people feel helpless. Is there anything that gives you hope?

DE:  While those engaged in the political battles in Washington D.C. spend all their time in trench warfare that feels unproductive and rather hopeless, my students give me hope every day. They recognize the serious challenges in front of us, but are devoted to action and not despair. They are willing to think BIG—and in many cases, they are looking to devote their careers to moving the world toward a better future whether by helping to advance clean energy, more sustainable farming and ranching, better conservation practices, improved pollution control, or a circular economy.

ODP Bonus:  Do you have a favorite essay?  Of course, we do!  How about you?

DE:  Just as no parent can have a favorite child, no editor of a volume with 40 essays—all of which address critical issues and make important points—can have a favorite. But I am especially fond of Thomas Easley’s “Hip Hop Sustainability” piece, which I think brings into focus the need to do things differently and better going forward so as to overcome the significant shortcomings of past environmental efforts. Easley reminds us that those who want to deliver environmental change must approach the public on their terms and in their language—not those of the environmental community or the policy world. This lesson stands out especially strongly with regard to low-income and minority communities, who often bear a disproportionate share of pollution harms.

Easley’s essay also puts into sharp focus concerns about equity as a fundamental policy consideration—as does Eli Fenichel’s piece on “Natural Capital, Equity, and the Sustainable Development Challenge.” In the climate change context, this emphasis on fairness argues for more attention to communities that will be jarred by the transition to a decarbonized economy – including low-income people but also those who live in rural areas and are therefore more fossil fuel dependent that many other groups.

I also thought the guy who wrote the introduction to A Better Planet did a pretty good job sketching out the state of play in environmental protection and surveying the big ideas advanced in the chapters that follow. As a result, every reader gets a clear and comprehensive picture right up front about the environmental challenges and opportunities we face as Americans and as a global society – with each of the 40 essays providing a deep dive into the substance of sustainability from a science, data, law, policy, economics, equity, communications, or political basis. All that—and just in time for holiday gift-giving!

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