As the world reels from a man-made climate crisis, many are trying to come up with solutions for one of the greatest challenges humanity has faced. Some, like Daniel Esty, have been worried about the environment for much longer than others, and while he’s written several books on the subject, his most recent one takes on a new urgency. The editor of “A Better Planet: Forty Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future,” which covers 40 contributors’ proposals for combating climate change, joined Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer to discuss our environmental challenges.
Offering a mix of pragmatism and idealism, Esty, who is Yale University’s Hillhouse Professor of Environmental Law and Policy, explains the goal of this latest book.
“The spirit of this effort is to say that while the world is battling politically, there’s actually a lot of interesting work being done and thoughtful suggestions being put forward about how to advance the environmental agenda,” Etsy says on the latest installment of the “Scheer Intelligence” podcast.
“One of the fundamental premises of this volume is this: It has been the case that when we’ve made environmental progress, it was almost always on a bipartisan basis,” Etsy says.
Scheer, however, points to issues with the position of “radical centrism,” from which Esty is tackling the climate crisis.
“I’ve always been suspicious of [centrism], because frankly, it smacks of opportunism or careerism,” he tells Esty. “You know, how do you advance an idea that the people of power will accept? Some people [such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren] approach the whole climate issue as a moment for extreme action, and almost panic. Your book [on the other hand] reeks of moderation—and thoughtfulness, I dare say.”
Esty’s thoughtfulness is evident in his discussion of ways to integrate different methods and expertise, as well as to unify efforts across the U.S., as opposed to leaving the environment to just a few agencies. On a broader scale, Scheer and Esty disagree on the hypocrisy behind the Western approach to developing nations’ environmental records, but agree about a fundamental problem with climate change that no American can ignore: The climate crisis is a global issue, which, as Esty points out, will require an international effort to address.
Listen to Etsy and Scheer’s full debate on whether centrist solutions can save the planet in the limited time frame scientists estimate humanity has left to stave off the worst of an irreversible catastrophe. You can also read a transcript of the interview below the credits.
Natasha Hakimi Zapata
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of “Scheer Intelligence,” where the intelligence comes from my guests. And it does, just about every time; I don’t think we’ve failed yet, and we’ve been doing this for about three years now. And his name is Daniel C. Esty, and he is a distinguished professor, the occupant of the Hillhouse Professor of Environmental Law and Policy at Yale University. He’s also affiliated with the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. But he hasn’t always been an egghead. We’re going to be talking about environmental issues, so for people out there in the so-called real world, this is a guy who has worked in regulatory agencies; he tried to help the state of Connecticut figure out how to have a sane, responsible environmental policy. He’s a big believer in pragmatism, as well as idealism.
And some people have referred to him as a radical centrist, because in addition to “red light”–that’s the subject of an article he has, and a column in a new, or chapter in a new book called A Better Planet: [Forty] Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future that Yale University Press has just brought out. And he says, you know, the point is we can’t just say “stop with the red light”; we also have to give people ideas of how they can advance. And in his best-selling book, From Green to Gold, he was telling corporations how they can make money by being green and doing environmentally sensitive things. I think that’s a fair summary. So welcome, Daniel C. Esty.
So let me set the stage here. Because the reason I’m excited about talking to you is I am not a radical centrist. I’ve always been suspicious of the idea, because frankly, it smacks of opportunism or careerism. You know, how do you advance an idea that the people of power will accept, and kind of–I’m more a Nader’s Raider, Ralph Nader, people of that sort who really fundamentally challenge the basic system. You have Elizabeth Warren right now raising some serious issues, or Bernie Sanders for that matter, about whether the entire capitalist enterprise in some ways is responsible for this climate mess. I should point out, we’re recording this at a moment when Los Angeles County is burning. And I don’t even know if I can get to my next appointment, because whole areas of the city have been blocked off, and you have to show an identity card to get in and so forth in the county, and obviously in the state. So some people approach the whole climate issue as one of, this is a moment for extreme action, and almost panic. Your book that you wrote the introduction for, A Better Planet: [Forty] Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future, reeks of moderation. And thoughtfulness, I dare say; let me put it more positively. And there’s a foreword, even; I forget who wrote it, but it’s a very sensible foreword of “let’s calm down.” And so just bring us into this book, why the book, and what you’re hoping to accomplish with it.
Daniel Etsy: Sure. Well, thank you for having me as part of your podcast series. It’s a pleasure to be with you. And this book comes out of work at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. The foreword is written by a woman named Indy Burke, who’s the dean of that school. And the spirit of this effort is to say that while the world is battling politically, as you mentioned–and there’s lots of controversy about the environment, it’s one of those hot issues in the political wars of the current moment–that there’s actually a lot of interesting work being done, and thoughtful suggestions being put forward, about how to advance the environmental agenda. How we move from where we are to a sustainable future, and in particular, how we address climate change. And I think the book’s idea, one of the fundamental premises of this volume–and it has 40 different essays that offer pathways to a more sustainable future. But the premise is this: It has been the case that when we’ve made environmental progress, it was almost always on a bipartisan basis. Going back now almost 50 years, to the point when we first launched the modern environmental movement after Earth Day 1970. We’re coming up on the 50th anniversary of that. We created at that time an Environmental Protection Agency, with democrats in the Congress and a republican in the White House putting forward that package.
RS: You should mention who that republican was.
DE: It was Richard Nixon, of course. And–
RS: Who doesn’t get enough credit for it.
DE: He in fact wrote a number, and gave a number of addresses about the importance of the environment, and the importance of the public coming together on these issues. And he did pull disparate pieces of public health and so on that related to the environment, into what became the Environmental Protection Agency. And we have now had a 50-year run, but the last 25 years or so have seen much less progress than the first 25 years after that launch point of 1970. And this book says: Why? What went wrong? And one of the key things that we identify is the fact that the environment became a bitter partisan issue. And you described me as a radical centrist, and I guess I accept that. Radical because I do think we need transformative change. We do need to decarbonize our society, we do need to take climate change seriously. And the fact that you and I are sitting here while Los Angeles burns tells us that the future is not going to look like the past, and we’re going to need to step up our game in a significant way. But the question is how. And this book offers a lot of practical ideas about how to do that. And let me just give a few examples of what this kind of 21st century, new approach to the environment needs to look like. From the point of view of my perspective, but also a number of the other essay writers that contributed to this volume that now puts forward 40 big ideas for a sustainable future.
So first of all, the 20th century approach to environmental protection was very much top-down. The decisions were made in Washington, the answers were found in Washington, the science was done in Washington. And the model of regulation was command and control mandates from the national government. We now know that that delivered a good amount of progress; the air is cleaner in L.A. than it was 50 years ago, water is safer, we’ve got more adequate drinking water across the country. But we also know progress more recently has been limited. And we’re going to need, over the coming years, much more of a bottom-up structure of environmental follow-through. So I think we now know we need mayors and governors and corporate leaders to step up and play a role. And I think that’s one of the strong themes that come through in this book: We need broader engagement. It needs to be something you don’t leave to the EPA in Washington, but you take on in every community, and ultimately in every household. So that’s just one example.
But I would say another thing is that we, in the original structure of environmental protection, did a lot of things in silos. We had an air quality process, and a separate water process, and a separate waste strategy, and climate change was out on its own. We need to be much more integrated going forward, get beyond those silos, get people to work together across traditional, separate zones of environmental activity. And frankly, we have to take seriously the need to integrate the environmental agenda with our energy agenda and with our economy. It can’t be the case that we’re trying to do environmental protection disconnected from the economic realities, the job realities that people care about. And I think that’s part of the story again for the 21st century: how to be more integrated, and take seriously these trade-offs that we’ve got to think through.
And I would say from a pure policy point of view, we know that we need to move beyond that command-and-control regulatory structure, where the government tells you what to do, sometimes even which specific piece of pollution control equipment to put on your factory smokestack. And instead do more with market mechanisms, with price signals, with trying to guide people to do things on a more environmentally sustainable basis. And that’s, of course, what California has blazed a trail with, through things like the cap-and-trade emissions allowance system that’s been set up to control greenhouse gases. And I think California has done very well in demonstrating that you can reduce emissions broadly, and pretty steeply, but do so in a way that’s economically more efficient and less costly to the public.
RS: Well, you just put your finger on the problem, which is California can have very enlightened policies, and I think we have; I think we’ve led the country–by the way, after decades of wanton destruction of the environment. But finally people came to their senses, and I think there’s a lot of support now with the state burning; there’s probably more support than ever for sensible measures. But the fact of the matter is, California can’t do it alone. These environmental issues are not only national, they’re global, OK. So I want to raise two problems with the radical centrist position, which comes up in every area of foreign policy, what have you, domestic policy and so forth. And that is, there’s generally a desire of the radical centrist–and I’m not putting them down. We’ve had a lot of–Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a radical centrist, one of my heroes, OK. To this day, even though we have a more complex view of our heroes now than we once did. But the fact of the matter is, you know, that posture is fine as long as it doesn’t compromise the essential truths of the matter. And it seems to me it gets compromised by looking for win-win solutions. And so it’s been a while since I read your book, From Green to Gold, but it struck me–I revisited it just for this a bit, briefly, in addition to the new book that you’ve written the introduction for. And it seemed to me it was well-intentioned and smart in every way, but really it was trying to find solutions that were also consistent with profit, OK.
DE: So let’s discuss that for a moment. Because I think that’s an important point. That book made an argument that was, at that time—
RS: Give the title again, because people could still buy it–
DE: The title is–sure, no, it’s still out there, and continues to sell, because it remains one of the top guides to business, in terms of thinking about how to bring environment, energy, and now what we call sustainability, into core business strategy. And I think it does so in a thoughtful and serious way. And here’s the premise of that book, which was radical at the time. And it was that in the 20th century business was, and always seemed to be, the problem when it came to environmental issues. And I argued, beginning in–this book came out in 2007, that business could also be a solutions provider. And that what you need to get business to help contribute to sustainability is the right set of incentives. And I argue in that book that the business community, with the right set of incentives–and that’s where government still has an important role to play–can produce solutions, can be part of the innovation process.
And that really is not only the theme of the Green to Gold book, but also of this new book, A Better Planet: Forty Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future. And one of the core themes is, if we’re going to get a transformed future, if we’re going to be the kind of sustainable planet that we need to be, if we’re going to decarbonize in a way that’s going to prevent climate change, it won’t be by doing the same thing a little bit better. It is going to require quite significant transformation. And the question is, who leads the charge on that? And my argument is that business can be part of that process, needs to be part of that process. Universities need to be part of that process, doing more applied research, taking some of that basic research and thinking about how it might give us a clean-energy future. But the basic premise of Green to Gold was that companies that are thoughtful about how they bring environment and energy into their day-to-day strategy will outperform the competition. And I think that’s now been demonstrated time and time again. It turns out that if you’re a smart business person bringing these issues into your strategy, you can find ways to cut costs, reduce risks, drive revenues, as customers find your products and services more attractive because they’re not just doing what they always did, but perhaps helping with sustainability challenges. And companies want to be seen on the right side of some of these big issues. That’s the big change.
RS: Yes, but often their profit motive prevents them from being on the right side. I think the Koch brothers might come to mind here. But let me just–
DE: But let’s pause there for a moment, because I think some businesses still do things with a narrow focus on profit. But one of the interesting developments of the last couple of months is the Business Roundtable, a collection of some of the biggest companies in America, declaring that the old model of corporate mission being to maximize shareholder profit can’t work in the 21st century.
RS: Right, and the first defector from that report, the Business Roundtable–very interesting report, and broke new ground–was Jeff Bezos of Amazon. Who said, no, in our Whole Foods stores–where we, after all, care about sustainability and all this wonderful stuff–no, we can’t actually provide healthcare for our part-time–the way the Business Roundtable does. And I’m not–you know, it’s easy to pick on Jeff Bezos. But they all seem to run–you know, GE Capital under Jeff Immelt, I guess it was, he was on President Obama’s Jobs Council and seemed very enlightened. At the same time, his company shipped two out of three jobs abroad, and weren’t at all concerned about the environmental conditions under which those foreign workers were working, and how they were paid, and how much pollution there might be in China or elsewhere.
So I want to talk about–if one of the goals of journalism, certainly that I accept, is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, which I think is admirable–it seems to me we’re all for progress in these areas. And yes, you can find win-win solutions that large corporations can come to realize is in their long-run interest, if for no other reason than public relations, and to avoid antitrust and the courts. However, the question is, who are the afflicted? And you just had this with the General Motors strike. General Motors, one of the last companies in this country that has to worry about trade unions and workers’ rights. And so they’re doing, you know, robots, and you know, new ways of production, shipping jobs abroad. I bought a Chevy Bolt to have an electric car, only to discover when I picked up the car that 70% of it was made elsewhere. Under I don’t know what conditions, but probably not as admirable as the auto workers’ union has been able to get from General Motors here. Well, they just settled a strike, and you know, it represents progress of a sort; you have to worry about worker conditions.
So if we think of the, yes, we all want this progress, we have to first of all think of our own workers here in this country. Are they paying the price of that product? And then we have to think internationally. And I do want you to discuss trade, because you have in some of your writing, and you are a lawyer by training, so you do know these laws. But it seems to me one of the good things Trump has done, President Trump, is that in the NAFTA rewrite, there is actually increased protection for workers’ pay on the assembly lines and so forth in Mexico. There’s some more control by local courts, and actually even a little better environmental protection.
DE: So there’s not better environmental protection. The new agreement actually weakens the environment.
RS: Well, tell me so, because I do want to learn about this.
DE: Yeah, no, it turns out—
RS: Would you accept the first two, though?
DE: I think there–well, I will accept one and a half of your suggestions. I think there is–there was an interesting convergence between President Trump’s interest in having wages rise in Mexico to have less disadvantage to the wages of the United States, and the new president of Mexico, who shared that goal of raising wages.
RS: Well and also, it’s good for Mexican workers; they’re going to be making–let’s just be clear about it. It says that on, was it 45% of the cars that are shipped to the United States, they have to pay $16 an hour.
RS: Which if you did that for Apple’s production in China, it would be an economic revolution for Chinese workers. If you had to pay people assembling iPhones in China $16 an hour, you would have a tremendous boost to the well-being of the Chinese people.
DE: So there’s clearly a lot of issues around trade and the environment. It is a topic that I’ve spent, you know, a lot of my—
RS: By the way, let me just ask you, why didn’t that ever–you were involved in these regulatory agencies and so forth. Why didn’t other presidents–I mean, I’m all for putting down Trump, and I will on his trade with China. We’ll get to that in a minute. But I’m just saying, on the NAFTA rewrite, why weren’t there working conditions and pay rates put into those negotiations?
DE: Well, first of all, the original NAFTA is negotiated two decades ago, at a time when nobody thought trade and environment, or labor and trade issues, came together at all. The traditional—
RS: Why? Why didn’t they think that?
DE: Well, I think the world had had a whole separate track of trade relationships and trade negotiations.
RS: That ignored workers and their rights?
DE: And one of the things that, again, I did early in my career was to write a book called Greening the GATT, and argued that it was not OK to leave environment out of trade negotiations. And I’ve done four books since then, advancing that argument.
RS: I should mention, by the way, you’ve done 10 interesting books, so I’m not disputing your expertise. That’s why I want to talk to you, yeah.
DE: No, and I think the truth of the matter is that the world has changed. And I am very proud of the fact that I was one of the people that argued that there can’t be a trade policy in isolation from other values in society, including environmental values concerned about sustainability, worker rights, issues of inequality. All need to be part of the conversation.
RS: Let me just graft onto that, because that’s why I did want to talk to you. You did write that, and I applaud you for that. But let’s then go–I’ve complimented Trump on the NAFTA rewrite; let me put him down, or raise critical questions, about this whole debate we’re having with China. It seems to me all the–there are a lot of phony arguments raised, “they steal this”–people have stolen, if that–we’ve had a brain drain from the rest of the world into the United States forever. We used to be 6% of the world’s population when I was in the Center for Chinese Studies at Berkeley a half-century ago. [Laughs] The argument always was that we had 6% of the world’s population, and we were using 60% of its resources for our development, the same way England did. Now we’re complaining about China getting a drain the other way. Well, in terms of this big conflict now, it seems to me China, in order to feed its emerging middle class, right–despite having followed policies of birth control and the one-child policy, the fact is they have 900 million more people to feed than when I was a student of these affairs. And yet it seems to me Trump, to the cheers of many, even democrats, is trying to beat down China and say no, you can’t get to the next level of technology. You can’t do 5G, you can’t do robotics, you can’t build the electric cars for the world. And so we’re saying–and by extension to India, these massive populations–we’re saying you can’t follow the road that England at first, and then the United States, took to gain this level of prosperity–or you will hurt the environment.
DE: Well, this is where the issue of sustainable development comes into play. And basically, that theory has argued–over the last couple of decades, when it’s gotten real traction–that we do need to anticipate economic growth, particularly in the countries like China and India and the developing world. But what we want to hope is that that growth is undertaken in a way that takes the environment seriously.
RS: Even though we didn’t.
DE: Well, we did not for a period of time.
RS: Oh, come on. Our whole history has been one of contempt for the environment. And we wasted the resources of the world, we had an orgy of unnecessary spending, wild consumer stuff–and now we are going to lecture people in India and China that they got to tighten their belts and do it a different way?
DE: Well, I don’t think we’re lecturing. I think we’re simply saying, and this is–
RS: That’s what these trade things are. It’s a way of–worse than lecturing, it’s forcing.
DE: Well, I think you could also argue–and I would argue that the president’s walking away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, huge mistake. That was a way to get the United States’ values injected into trade across the Pacific. And by pulling out, we lose the opportunity to kind of guide that process
RS: So why did organized labor oppose it?
DE: Because I think there is a real question about whether you’ve got the breadth of issues being taken on board that you need. But I would have argued that the better approach would have been to get the agreement in place, get the environmental protections that were in that agreement, and then build the issues around workers and inequality over time.
RS: And it didn’t apply to China anyway, right?
DE: Well, that was the real key here. It was going to be the engagement across the Pacific on American terms, and now we have the Chinese stepping into the void.
RS: OK, but let me get to that. What right–OK, and this is not your fault, I’m not holding you responsible. Where in the world do we get the right to tell people that they have to proceed on American terms, when America–and I think this is an accurate and measured statement–America has raped the resources of the world with an abandon not exhibited by any other culture in human history. We have consumed a vastly disproportionate amount of the world, during a short period of history. And now we’re going to lecture people there have to be American terms?
DE: So I don’t think that’s the way this is actually unfolding at all. I think in fact, let’s look at the climate change agreement of–the Paris agreement of 2015. And that is a very interesting agreement, because it invites each country on their own terms to address the problem of climate change within their own territory. And I think that’s one of the ways that we’ve moved forward. So it gives each country a chance to assess and then put forward their own climate change action plan, and to make a commitment to action, which is called their nationally determined contribution. And each country is invited to do that on their own. The United States made a commitment, which by the way President Trump is now pulling back from. But one of the things that’s interesting is the United States, if not quite on track, remains moving towards that decarbonization goal, because there’s so much being done at the state and local level across the country. And so many companies have said, we’re not interested in falling back from that commitment.
And then you do have places like China that have stepped up in a very significant way. China’s made a major commitment to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. And they are, as you were hinting at, leaders in terms of developing renewable energy. They’ve got some of the leading technology of wind power, of solar arrays, of batteries, of electric vehicles. So China has actually decided that it wants to be a leader in this decarbonization future, and that they want to be part of a clean energy economy. Frankly, the U.S. would do well to make sure that we aren’t left behind as others run off with some of the opportunities to build this new economy around clean energy that’s coming, around renewable power, and frankly, around much greater energy efficiency.
RS: But I want to get to what I think is the biggest idea needed, which is that we’re all in this together.
RS: The haves and the have-nots. And if you don’t introduce the notion of social justice and fairness–or take the wisdom of our current Pope, you know, who has told us we have to worry about the least among us. If we don’t think of a sustainable future, one that allows these billions of people in India and China to have a comparable standard of living to our own, which we have advertised to the whole world through our main exportable product, which is culture and Hollywood, and an image of the good lives–you can’t keep them back on the farm anymore. They know how we live. And if you tell the rest of the world that you’re going to destroy the planet unless you change your patterns of consumption and production in ways that we never were willing to while we had this joyride of corruption, right? That is the big issue.
DE: Well, you’ve highlighted several issues.
RS: To what degree do these 40 solutions get to this question of equity, and the right of human beings around the world to say, hey, I’m not staying down on the farm, plowing in the mud–I want to live the way they do in New York and Boston.
DE: So a number of these essays actually take up the question of environmental justice in a number of respects, both within societies and across societies. And I think this is one of the issues of our time, is how do we make sure that environmental progress doesn’t come, ah, run a cross current against issues like inequality. And I think there is a recognition that if we’re going to make progress, move towards a sustainable future, there has to be a social as well as environmental agenda for that. And I think that is part of the conversation.
And frankly, Pope Francis gets credit not only saying we have to take care of the least among us, but he also is the first pope in history to have issued a papal encyclical on the environment. And I would encourage all of your listeners to look at Laudato Si, that encyclical. And it is a remarkable piece of work in suggesting that we all share a planet. And it’s also a reminder of all of us needing to be reminded, and perhaps thinking about being part of something bigger than ourselves. We’re part of a human planet, and we need to make sure that we’re in it together, and thinking about that. So I think the pope gets credit not only for reminding us of the social dimension, but of the environmental issues, right front and center.
And so I think that is part of what’s animating new interest in the environment, is a recognition that we can do things differently and better in the 21st century. And that’s really the answer to your concern about what the American trajectory of the 20th century looked like. It was not always a pathway that left us on a sustainable way forward. And I think others have now learned that they can do things in new and different and better ways. And if you ask me what’s the big, critical takeaway from this book and from the various essays, it’s that we do need to continuously improve. We do need innovation. And by innovation I’m thinking not just technology development, which is what a lot of people think about, but frankly innovation in how we engage the public, innovation in how we finance the sustainable future, innovation in how we steer companies towards being more sustainable. Innovation in just a wide range of areas, so that we really can get much more of society pulling towards solutions to climate change, to this decarbonization agenda, and then more broadly addressing air and water and waste, and all the elements of what needs to be taken up to be part of a sustainable future.
RS: Yeah, and I welcome, I would like it if you would talk more about the Pope’s vision on this issue. But let me just say, the use of the “we” is what disturbs me. Not–not you; obviously your intentions are admirable, and I’ve read enough of your work, and in this book, to feel that this is a case of good people, in a serious way, trying to wrestle with the issues. And yes, we can’t just scream about global climate change, we have to talk in pragmatic ways about how you address it. But it seems to me the sticking point is the “we.” And if we think of our future, sustainable future, as a gated community for privileged Westerners–and even the privileged people in China or India who can take resources and then buy their homes in England or the United States. We got a lot of development here in Los Angeles from money coming outside of the country, whether it’s from Saudi Arabia or China or what have you. We got high-rise buildings going up and so forth, all over the place. So this gated community can be a gated community for the privilege of the world, whatever their ethnic background or religious background. But it seems to me the Pope has suggested the notion of the “we” cannot be fouled by confusing the “we” with the privileged. The “we” has to be all of those folks that have been left out before. They didn’t pollute the environment. They went along plowing the way they had done for a long time.
DE: Well, it turns out in many cases that was not very good as an environmental practice, either, so.
RS: No, but they didn’t have–to use a word we like here a lot at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, they didn’t have agency. They weren’t–you know, it’s like we talk about terrorism, and we were right to drop the bomb on Hiroshima, Nagasaki. Why? Because, well, they were on the wrong side. But they didn’t have agency. Nobody asked Japanese fishermen whether they wanted to go to war or not, they didn’t have a vote or anything else. So the people plowing those fields, using maybe the wrong fertilizer or what have you, that’s not really the issue. The real issue is that the people who controlled what happened to the world economy–including, by the way, in China, which was divided by basically Western powers. That’s where communism came from, it was a response to the destruction of Chinese nationalism by the enlightened West.
The real issue here–and I think, you know, this is why I bring up somebody like Ralph Nader or Elizabeth Warren. They have the rudeness to suggest that, wait a minute, there are moral questions involved. And by the way, going to your lawyer expertise, that you have to sometimes force people to do the right thing, particularly large corporations, which are very happy to have their way with China as a factory floor. Will they be happy to have China be real competitors? After all, right now, four of the top internet companies or, you know, wired world companies, out of the top 10, are Chinese. You know, and those are the ones being attacked by Donald Trump.
DE: So let’s dig in to that for a moment. Because I think the real issue here–
RS: You know what, take even five minutes or the remaining time we have, because I do want you to–I know that you’re well-intentioned. So if you can help me understand how we go from the “we” being an America-centric idea, to really caring about what happens to people in India or China, those billions of people, we will make progress through this podcast.
DE: Well, let’s start with the question you raised about what the pathway forward is within the United States. And I think the challenge here is that there is no evidence–no evidence in the last 40 years–of substantial, transformative change being delivered in our society on a one-party basis. So then you have to say, given that we need transformative change to get to a decarbonized future, to get to a sustainable future, how are we going to do that within our own United States? And I would argue it’s going to have to be a bipartisan strategy. And therefore the challenge is for those, Ralph Nader and others, who advance agendas that have no possibility of getting a majority support in the United States Congress, are not helpful. It’s useful, perhaps, to articulate a vision, and some people will be motivated by the fact there’s a big agenda that needs to be taken up. But there’s a separate, and I would argue, more important work to be done of figuring out how you pull people together. How you find an agenda that not 50%, but you need 60 or 70% to deliver transformative change. And where you’re going to find that requires that you get republicans and democrats to work together. And that’s where this book really tries to go. Of these 40 big ideas, a number are written by republicans; a number offer ideas that both democrats and republicans could rally to.
RS: Why don’t you give us a few?
DE: Well, I think the idea that we are going to make people pay for the harm they cause, and put a charge on greenhouse gas emissions–that’s an idea that I think more than the old model of sort of command-and-control regulatory framework, where we’re going to have the government decide what’s right and dictate, simply to say we’re going to–and this is an ancient idea, it goes back in Anglo-American legal history 500 years. The idea that if you cause harm, you either have to stop it or pay for it. And that strikes me as something you could get democrats and republicans to rally to, framed in the right way. And with the right agenda, in terms of where that money goes, I think you could get people to say, let’s do that. That makes sense. It is protecting, in some regards, the fundamental property rights of each and every one of us–including, as you’re suggesting, the poor, who often haven’t been part of these conversations. But we would want a society that takes the impact on every person seriously. And I think that’s why there is, in this book, a significant number of authors writing about the equity issues that are attached to and inseparable from environmental progress.
RS: Okay, so give me–that’s one takeaway. Give me a couple more.
RS: The book, again, I’ll remind people, is A Better Planet: Forty Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future. We’re going to get at least five out of you now. So we got one.
DE: Sure. So another idea is a more integrated approach to thinking about these issues. And we in the 20th century separated problems out; it was probably a good way to get started on the challenges. But I think we now know we need to be more coherent, more integrated, in the systems analysis that’s required. A great chapter by Julie Zimmerman and Paul Anastas lays out how we can do that in new and different ways, across every level of environmental protection. From what industry does, to what communities do, to even how in our homes we can be more integrated in how we think about these things.
And I think, you know, another–one of my favorite chapters is to recognize we have to reach different participants in our communities in different ways. And so a great chapter written by Thomas Easley is called “Hip Hop Sustainability,” and it basically recognizes that the language of environment has often been kind of an upper-middle-class conversation for the urban elite or the suburban world, and it hasn’t reached inner cities, it hasn’t reached to certain communities of color. And so you know, using as Thomas Easley does, hip-hop music to reach people may be very critical in getting them into the conversation and making them feel that they do have, as you were saying earlier, agency. That they can be part of thinking the way forward, and identifying what their communities need and want to make this work in their local areas.
RS: OK, we’re going to wrap this up. But I, you know, I do think we should acknowledge legitimate disagreements. Is that OK?
RS: OK. And so what I find here–and I did want to talk to you, and I’m persuaded that your intentions are good, and I’m not going to challenge these people who come up with 40 big ideas for a sustainable future, they’re all worthy of consideration. However, I think we’re up against a big issue that interests a lot of people in this world. And that is, is this–first of all, there’s two elements to it. One is the time frame–how much time do we have? And there are people who present quite alarming views of where we’re headed and how fast we have to move. And in this discussion, and in your writing, there’s less of that, you know–
DE: Right. And there’s overwhelming social science evidence now that if you are raising an alarm, there are a lot of people that are turned off, and they would say that less gets done. So that’s the evidence now. That if it’s, if the discussion is raised in terms that are considered alarmist, it actually is counterproductive.
RS: I’m not trying to be alarmist. I’m just saying one question is whether we’re moving in a sufficiently rapid fashion commensurate with the issue. We happen to be here in California, where you have applauded the state for its great progress, but the state is burning. And people are frightened legitimately. And whether this climate change that we’re talking about, it’s not something 30 years away, it’s something maybe 30 months away here in California, if we keep having these climatic problems. Like where people are checking their phone to see–you know, I’m doing this right now. Wait a minute, let me just explain it as a reality check. We’re having this abstract discussion–the office of the publication that I happen to edit happens to be in this fire zone in Los Angeles. I’m going to say goodbye to you, get into my car, and try to get in to a very large area of Los Angeles where the police will undoubtedly tell me I can’t go in, or I’ll have to prove that I actually work there, and that the files of this publication and its server may be in question.
So I just want to say, where I see the disagreement–and I don’t think it should be buried, it doesn’t mean you’re wrong and I’m right. I’m not, this is not my time for editorializing. But it seems to me that progress was made in this area when there was a greater sense of urgency. Maybe there is, possibly now. But the other big concern–and it came up in the last podcast I did about saving the surviving 15 porpoises in the Sea of Cortez. If you don’t worry about how this impacts ordinary people–and you want to talk about alarmist rhetoric, turning people off, what also turns people off is if they think environmental concerns are elitist concerns. If it doesn’t, as you say, you have a book here, 40 big ideas–if those big ideas don’t zero in on job security, or who–you know, a guaranteed standard of living–and if they’re not worldwide, for India, for China, and they don’t address–and I think maybe we could agree on this. The next book that you could bring out from Yale, suggestions for an equitable future. Because if it’s not equitable, in a basic sense, it’s not sustainable.
DE: So I think we do agree that there is going to need to be an equitable transition to this decarbonized, sustainable future. And I think it’s very clear that the economic issues that are connected to environmental choices–the energy issues, the jobs impacts–are all part of the conversation. So I think that is one of the themes that runs through this book. I think it has been under-attended to in recent years. But I think we do know that we’re going to have to think about how we go forward in quite different ways than we’ve done in the past.
RS: Yeah. And then I’m only going to stick in my editorial note that Ralph Nader, for my money, is one of the more exemplary and effective human beings we’ve had. I can’t think of anyone who’s–this is an editorial, a little tiny one, since we—[Laughs] I’m not going to edit out the part where you attack him so severely. But I can’t think of a single more effective citizen in the, actually, in the–certainly the last 50 years of this country, in terms of getting things done in a progressive way, then Ralph Nader.
DE: We’ll have to disagree about that one.
RS: Yeah, I know. Well, we have a right–well, as you say, he inspired you to be here and to get involved in the first place. Otherwise you might have just been–well, I’ll say a Wall Street lawyer or something. OK, that’s it for this edition of “Scheer Intelligence.” We’ve been discussing this really important book, A Better Planet: Forty Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future. They are seriously crafted. The editor of that book is Daniel C. Esty, a man of considerable experience legally and in the practical world of environmental progress. Our producer at KCRW is Christopher Ho. Overall, the producer of “Scheer Intelligence” is Joshua Scheer. We could not be doing these shows without the cooperation of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. And here today it’s been Victor Figueroa, who has been the engineer making this work and getting it up, and so hopefully you’ll be able to hear it. And we’ll be back next week with another edition of “Scheer Intelligence.”