Earth Day at 50: Pathways to a Sustainable Future

Image: Wisconsin DNR

By Daniel C. Esty

Tens of millions of Americans took to the streets 50 years ago this week to demand ramped-up environmental protection in the face of choking smog in cities across the country, fouled waterways (including the drama of Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River catching on fire), and a terrible oil spill that blackened the California coastline near Santa Barbara.  These gatherings came to be known as Earth Day and signaled the launch of the modern environmental era.

Earth Day events have now become an annual opportunity to reflect on America’s progress toward a sustainable future.  While the hundreds of 50th anniversary celebrations that were planned across the nation could not take place (although some commemorations went forward on a virtual basis), it is still a good moment to reflect on the environmental progress that has been made in the intervening decades – and the challenges that remain.

In the 1970s and 80s, Congress passed on a broad bipartisan basis a Clean Air Act, a Clean Water Act, and sweeping statutes to manage waste, regulate chemicals, expand our national parks, and protect wilderness areas. In the intervening decades, a great deal of progress was delivered.  Our air is much cleaner now.  Water quality in our rivers and lakes has improved dramatically so that Americans enjoy better fishing, swimming, and boating than at any time in the past century. And we have more extensive parks, better-managed forests, and abundant wildlife across the nation.

But significant obstacles to a sustainable future remain, and new issues have emerged.  Tens of millions of Americans continue to face air pollution levels that exceed public health standards – posing a special risk for those with asthma and other respiratory illnesses.  Our aging infrastructure means that drinking water quality remains sub-par in a number of cities – most infamously, Flint, Michigan, where hundred-year-old water pipes leached lead into the water that served thousands of homes.  And waste continues to pile up in our landfills with too many materials, notably plastics (which require extensive use of fossil fuels to make), that are not fully recyclable and sometimes end up in the ocean, making them environmental problems in multiple regards.

Perhaps most critically, we have not responded to the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that threatens to raise global temperatures. This warming and the broader climatic changes it produces create a risk of:  more frequent and intense hurricanes that will devastate coastal communities; changed rainfall patterns that will profoundly disrupt farming and ranching and leave us with more floods, droughts, and uncontrolled fires across the country; and warming temperatures that enable new pests (such as the pine bark beetle) to devastate our lands and forests as well as unleashing disease vectors that threaten public health.

To reduce greenhouse gas emissions, society must transform the energy foundations of our economy.  But our current framework of environmental policy is not well-positioned to deliver innovation at the scale required.  While the 20th Century laws provided abundant “red lights” and stop signs, making clear what people should not do, this “command and control” regulatory structure offers few “green lights” or incentives to deliver the transformative changes that are now needed.

The prevailing legal framework also relied too heavily on the federal government to identify problems and specify solutions. But it turns out that many of the decisions that determine the carbon footprint of our society get made by Mayors, Governors, and corporate leaders not to mention each of us as individuals, so we need a transformed policy program that emphasizes bottom-up action as much as top-down goal setting. This shift can be facilitated by a move away from a regulatory structure based on government mandates toward broader use of economic incentives and price signals to motivate changed behavior and better business practices.  Simply put, we should make polluters pay for the harm they cause.

With a price to be paid for greenhouse gas emissions or any other pollution for that matter, industry and others causing pollution harms would have an incentive to do things in new and different ways that don’t pollute.  Specifically, a carbon charge that might rise from an initial $5/ton to $100/ton over 20 years, would induce polluters to develop low-emissions products and production processes – from cars to power plants to clothes.  The rising charge would also be a powerful “green light” for the entrepreneurial talents across our society, steering them toward the range of problems that society needs creative spirits to address and for which they will be handsomely compensated as their innovations help those paying harm charges to reduce their emissions and thus lower their costs.

The availability of 21st century communications and information technologies represents another change in our circumstances that could help to move us toward a sustainable future. In particular, while the shift to harm charges and economic incentives would entail tracking lots of emissions and the billing of polluters, this is just the sort of activity that computers and the Internet are very good at. More generally, the Digital Age offers lots of opportunities to identify harms, establish causal linkages, track trends, and refine policy responses with advanced data analytics and other tools that were not available in the past.

So let’s mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day not just with a passing nod to progress but with fresh thinking, new policy frameworks, a push to deploy breakthrough technologies, a sharpened structure of incentives to drive behavioral change and inspire innovation commensurate with the challenges we face, and a re-doubled commitment to take action to respond to our most urgent problems beginning with the existential threat of climate change. 

Dan Esty is the Hillhouse Professor at Yale University and the editor of the recently released book, A BETTER PLANET: 40 BIG IDEAS FOR A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE. He served in various senior roles at the Environmental Protection Agency in the 1980s and 1990s and as Commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection from 2011 to 2014.

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