This week, host Daniel Raimi talks with Daniel Esty, a professor of environmental law at Yale University and a board member at RFF. Esty talks about a book he recently edited, A Better Planet: Forty Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future, which asks environmental leaders from diverse backgrounds to offer their best ideas for resolving our climate challenges. Reflecting on best practices from history and envisioning novel ideas for the future, Esty describes how a wide range of solutions—from innovation in clean energy to carbon pricing—is needed.
Listen to the Podcast
- A suggested approach to crossing party lines: “There is a little bit of a wish in this book to think about how to get back to that point where we could get the parties to work together, where we saw protection of the environment not as an issue of left or right, but as an American issue … one where we really all have a common interest in moving toward a sustainable future.” (8:37)
- The issue most likely to mobilize bipartisan support: “I actually think that carbon pricing in one form or another will be part of the bipartisan pathway forward that emerges, probably not in the year 2020, but in 2021 … There’s a growing recognition that broad-based price signals are the ultimate green light.” (18:08)
- The need for an all-hands-on-deck strategy for climate change: “The response to environmental challenges is likely not to come from any one direction, but more likely to reflect a portfolio approach, where we draw from the best of thinking, from a range of underlying disciplines, a range of political perspectives, and a range of visions about what is important in life and how to get there.” (6:52)
Top of the Stack
- A Better Planet: 40 Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future, edited by Daniel Esty
- Hearing on "Building a 100 Percent Clean Economy: Solutions for Economy-Wide Deep Decarbonization" with Daniel Esty, Noah Kaufman, David K. Gattie, and Tim Profeta
- "Decarbonizing Space Heating with Air Source Heat Pumps" by Noah Kaufman, David Sandalow, Chotilde Rossi di Schio, and Jake Higdon
The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your host, Daniel Raimi. This week, we talk with Dan Esty, the Hillhouse Professor of Environmental Law and Policy at the Yale University School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, and Clinical Professor of Environmental Law & Policy at Yale Law School. Dan is also a board member at RFF. I'll talk with Dan about a new book that he edited called A Better Planet: Forty Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future. As its title suggests, the book covers a wide range of topics, but we'll focus on an essay that Dan wrote, focused on how to design environmental policy in a way that fosters innovation and new technology. We'll also touch on the role that finance, politics and more play in shaping environmental outcomes. Stay with us. Okay, Dan Esty of Yale University, thank you so much for joining us today on Resources Radio.
Daniel Esty: It's a pleasure to be with you.
Daniel Raimi: So Dan, we're going to talk today about a new book that you have put together, that you've edited. The book is called A Better Planet: Forty Ideas for a Sustainable Future, and we're going to talk about a few subjects related to that book, but first we always like to ask our guests how they got interested in working on environmental topics. So what brought you into this field?
Daniel Esty: Well, I spent a lot of time as a kid camping and swimming, boating, fishing, living particularly in the summers outdoors and really up close with nature. And I think that created a lifelong interest in what it takes to protect and preserve and promote our world of nature, and I guess that spilled over into now a professional life that's been very much focused on thinking about issues of environmental protection, of our energy future, of what it's going to take to create a sustainable future.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, and you've worked in the public sector, private sector, universities. You've been all over the place.
Daniel Esty: I feel very lucky. I've been able to sort of run three careers in parallel. I am, of course, by profession, an academic. So I spend my time lecturing at Yale and researching and writing on environmental topics, but I have spent a good bit of time in and out of government as well. I was, in the late '80s and early 1990s for four years at the US Environmental Protection Agency, and in that time, I spent a good bit of my focus on climate change. I was one of the negotiators of the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change. And then in my, intervening now more than 25 years at Yale, I've spent time on climate change, but a good bit of time more broadly on the elements of how we're going to make 21st century environmental protection different and better from what was done in the 20th century.
And one of the critical changes that I've identified, and that really leads to the third area of focus for me, has been the role of business. In the 20th century, people perceived business to be the problem and really to be the enemy of the environment. I've come to understand that if one can harness the capacity of business, you actually get a good bit more done by getting business to support and not oppose environmental efforts. And particularly, as I believe that one of the keys to progress is innovation, it turns out the business community is really pretty good at innovation. So if you can give them the right signals, the right price signals in particular, the incentives to become part of the problem-solving group, the business world can actually be a very big ally in delivering on what's needed to create a more sustainable future.
Daniel Raimi: Right, and so many of those different themes are explored, as I mentioned, in the book, A Better Planet. There are 40 different essays from a really wide range of folks looking at all sorts of different topics. Those topics really span the gamut. They focus—some of them on biodiversity, some of them on innovation policy, some on agriculture, some on hip hop and environmental communication. It's really great. So how did you get the... Actually, before I ask you how you decided to include all these topics in one place, can you tell us a little bit about the goal of the book, what you're trying to accomplish with it?
Daniel Esty: Sure, this book—and it really is an attempt to think big about what's required for a better planet—and the subtitle, “Forty Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future,” really tells it all. We're thinking about how to approach the challenge of sustainability, which of course [has] got to focus on climate change, but also issues like air pollution, water quality and water quantity. How we regulate chemicals, what we do with our waste, how we manage open spaces, how we ensure that natural resources are managed on a sustainable basis.
All of that is part of this overarching concept of sustainability. And the goal of this book, growing out of what we call the Yale Environmental Dialogue—and that was an effort launched by the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies under a new dean, Indy Burke, who came to Yale from the University of Wyoming. And I think what she argued in suggesting to the faculty there was an opportunity to really use Yale as a platform for engaging the public broadly, not just in our own academic world, but across the country and around the world—the idea was that there needs to be a more thoughtful focus on these environmental challenges, beyond the partisanship of the moment, beyond the bitter divides that often keep people from digging into the substance of issues.
There is an opportunity to lay out pathways forward, to debate options, to look at the possibilities. So this book is both an attempt to get beyond the politics, to the substance of our environmental challenges, but also frankly, to provide a process argument that there are ways to think together about the challenges, to explore alternatives, to debate what works and what doesn't work, to bring to bear evidence to really look at the data. And with all of that, we hope to identify some common grounds, some places that people can, across whatever divides that do separate us, really rally and find ways to move towards a sustainable future across a pretty broad consensus, as opposed to on a narrow partisan basis.
Daniel Raimi: All right, certainly a very worthy goal. And when I was talking earlier about the wide range of topics that are covered in the book, I wonder if including that wide range of topics was part of that inclusivity that you're going for. And I'm wondering how you went about gathering these essays and soliciting them from different experts, from different walks of life, and different parts of the environmental community.
Daniel Esty: So certainly, the design of the book was meant to be inclusive, to be broad gauge, and it reflects by the way, an underlying thesis of the entire book and more broadly this Yale Environmental Dialogue project. And that is that diversity is a good thing, and that the response to environmental challenges is likely not to come from any one direction, but more likely to reflect a portfolio approach where we draw from the best of thinking, from a range of underlying disciplines, a range of political perspectives, and a range, frankly, of visions about what is important in life and how to get there.
And I think we try to be respectful of those different points of view. And I do think one of the goals of this book, and more broadly, our effort at Yale, is to say that we really need to be more thoughtful about how we pursue environmental conversations. We need to be more respectful, and really try to bring together a range of points of view, and to do it in a way that is likely to find common ground as opposed to drive people into their political corners. I think one of the other elements that is underlying this book is my own experience, now 30 years ago, in Washington at a moment when environmental protection was seen as a bipartisan issue.
Democrats and Republicans came together to launch our Clean Air Act, to create the Environmental Protection Agency. And when I was in Washington in the late '80s, early '90s, to put forward the 1990 Clean Air Act, the last big environmental statute adopted in the United States—to frankly launch the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was negotiated with a Democratic Congress in power, a Republican president, and the treaty that was put together in 1992 was presented to the Senate for ratification, and went through on a voice vote, every Republican as well as every Democrat in effect saying yes to responding to the problem of climate change.
There is a little bit of a wish in this book, to think about how to get back to that point where we could get the parties to work together, where we saw protection of the environment not as an issue of left or right, but as an American issue, and one where we really all have a common interest in moving towards a sustainable future, and thinking about how to get that done in a way that reflects the spirit of America as opposed to one party.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that's really nicely said and I think, certainly for myself and I think most of my colleagues at RFF, I think we're certainly cheering you on in promoting that goal, and are behind you all the way. So let's move from this broad lens and focus now on one particular essay that's in the book, which is an essay that you wrote called “Red Lights and Green Lights: Toward an Innovation-Oriented Sustainability Strategy.” So the chapters or the essay focuses on this idea of red lights and green lights. Can you give us an idea about what those terms mean in the context of environmental policy and why they matter?
Daniel Esty: Sure, my view is that the 20th century approach to environmental protection, really the whole range of laws that were framed out beginning in 1970 and running through the 1990 Clean Air Act, largely were addressed in the following form; Don't do this, don't do that. Stop. Red light. You can't go there. So it was really government mandating that people don't do, industry doesn't do, certain things. And I think we actually made a lot of progress with that framework, which we now, in a more formal academic sense, often called “command-and-control regulation,” where the government, particularly the federal government, did the work of analyzing environmental problems, understanding pollution levels, trying to map out what was a safe level of harm to permit, and all of that then allowed us to define what could be and couldn't be done. And the government then mandated outcome—sometimes in the form of an admissions level, sometimes in a prohibition or not being able to do certain things, sometimes in defining a best available technology that every company in a particular industry had to adopt.
And all of that, again, did produce some progress, some significant progress. The air today is much cleaner, our water is much more drinkable, we have a much better control over waste, and chemical exposures are not nearly as severe as they were back 50 years ago. But that system did come with some downsides. It's expensive, it's slow, it generated a lot of litigation, it was not very flexible, and from my point of view, most critically, it did too little to promote innovation. And I do think the goal here is not just environmental gain, but it's to produce an environmental system that is faster, stronger, but also lighter and more flexible. And I think that's what innovation does. It allows us to get a higher quality at lower cost. That's innovation broadly across society, and it's frankly a virtue that's been underappreciated in the environmental domain.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that makes sense. And so you described nicely some examples of red light types of policies. Can you give us some examples of what green light policies tend to look like and how they might apply in the current context?
Daniel Esty: Sure, so the idea is that just as a road that has an intersection with a traffic light, you can't simply tell people when not to go with a red light. You also have to provide a signal of when to go, that is a green light. And what the green lights theory is, that if we have certain problems that we as a society need to solve, what we want to do is to signal to those who are in a position to provide solutions, to drive innovation, to invest in new technologies as to what kinds of things we'd like to have them do. And so what the green light is really an emblem for is incentives to get people to take on certain problems. And I think what we need as a society is to signal to the business community in particular, but really to the entrepreneurial talent all across the country and the world, to the creative spirits that can bring to bear new thinking, and invest in new technologies, that we do have problems we need help with.
And frankly again, the red lights approach, the telling people what not to do, was quite good at getting the worst problems of pollution taken care of or at least reduced. What the system didn't do was to produce breakthroughs on things like clean energy. We're basically stuck today with the same structure of electricity, largely from the same sources of energy that we had 80 or 100 years ago. And what we really need now is big breakthroughs, big and fresh thinking around solar power or wind power or for that matter, any number of other possible sources of renewable energy. Maybe it's wave power or tidal power or fuel cells. And my view is it shouldn't be the government guessing which of those is going to work out best, but rather creating a platform with incentives that encourages anyone with fresh thinking and new ideas to come forward.
And the green lights need to go beyond simply pushing clean energy technologies. They need to provide support and encouragement for investment and research on supporting technologies, better batteries, better storage, smart grids, smart appliances, how to create a smart home for the future that's much more energy efficient, and even beyond that. We need incentives for a broader support of finance, of investing in sustainability solutions, broader engagement of the public, new partnerships. So green lights are really meant to say what we need in society, our incentives for fresh thinking, for innovation, for breakthroughs that will help us deliver a variety of pathways to this sustainable future that we know we need and want.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, and as you're describing this approach, which is really an incentives-based approach, I wonder what kind of reception you've gotten from some of the modern environmentalists who, in my view—and we've talked about this quite a bit on the podcast in the past in the context of the Green New Deal and other policies—you get the sense that some folks in the environmental community are moving away from the market-based, incentives-based approach, and moving more towards a government focused approach. I'm curious what kind of reactions you've gotten from folks who might take that view to the red light green light approach. Do you see them as working together, being complementary, or do you see them as potentially different?
Daniel Esty: Well, I said earlier and I would repeat that I think the path forward is almost certainly going to be a portfolio of policies and approaches. So I'm a big believer in using whatever tools are available, and trying to get whatever you can rally political support behind as the pathway towards sustainability. My own view is that in order to really make transformative change happen, and I think we do need transformative change, we need to move from where we are today to a clean energy future in quite a short period of time. It doesn't need to be five or 10 years, but over 10 or 20, and at the most 30 years, we're going to need to move quite dramatically from where we are. And frankly, that kind of broad based change, transformative change, doesn't ever happen, as far as I can tell as a student of environmental protection over 30 and 40 years, it really doesn't happen except on a bipartisan basis.
And not just bipartisan, but one really needs not a bare minimum support, not a majority or 51 percent, but frankly 70 percent or even 80 percent of the public and political arena has to be with you. So I'm very focused on finding ways to rally people to an agenda that can get really broad political support. And I don't think a system of government mandates, of kind of old school 20th century approaches, is going to bring Republicans along.
So as much as the Green New Deal and other environmental positions that have recently come forward are big in their thinking and ambitious in their push, I think the challenge is, how do you get a Republican party that guards very carefully individual liberty, business freedom, to come along. And I think the innovation agenda that I'm laying out, a much more market-oriented approach, is much easier to see how you get the 70 percent plus behind it that I think is necessary, as opposed to a new structure of government commands, which I think are going to be hard to sell across half the political spectrum.
Daniel Raimi: Right, and we've actually seen in recent weeks in Congress, new legislation that does provide additional support for R&D in the energy sector and extending some tax breaks. So it seems like there is at least some appetite for that thinking in the current political climate, but one other question on green lights in the context of climate change policy would be, how do you see carbon pricing and other market-based tools that don't just incentivize new technologies but also penalize the polluting activity, which probably doesn't have as much, well, certainly doesn't have as much bipartisan support at least at the federal level. How do you see that playing a role in the context of thinking about green lights and red lights?
Daniel Esty: I actually think that carbon pricing in one form or another will be part of the bipartisan pathway forward that emerges, probably not in the year 2020, but in 2021. I think that you're starting to see changes. You see signals of it already in various congressional hearings, and the kind of testimony that's being provided, and the give and take that Republicans are now part of as well as Democrats, that there's a growing recognition that broad-based price signals are the ultimate green light. It's not just that they make people pay for the harm they're causing, which is a valuable thing to do in terms of incentives, but it also ensures that there's a big incentive for innovation, so that in any field where there is a price to be paid because there's harm being caused, pollution of any kind, you will have an incentive for those making products to try to produce new versions of them that are less polluting.
So in a world with carbon pricing, every automaker will scramble to produce a low-carbon vehicle. And that's why you already see such a push towards developing the next generation of electric vehicles. Likewise, every home builder will be scrambling to build the energy efficient home, perhaps even the zero-carbon emitting home of the future, so that the homeowner doesn't have carbon charges to pay. So I do think that what you're going to find is that the Republicans are enthusiastic about innovation-orientation, they're enthusiastic about programs that don't dictate to people specifically and precisely what they have to do, and they're willing to bring economic incentives to bear. And I think they much prefer that to some structure of mandates that tells you you can't do a whole lot of things, that frankly a significant percent of the population wants some choice about.
Daniel Raimi: And as you're talking, it makes me think about the history you have had, which you referenced earlier in our conversation, in the public sector, particularly in proposing and largely developing Connecticut's Green Bank which aims to leverage public dollars to encourage larger scale private investment in projects that contribute to improving the environment in a variety of ways. Can you talk a little bit about how that experience with the Green Bank has informed your views on these issues related to innovation or other issues that we've been talking about?
Daniel Esty: Sure, well I have a particularly unusual policy background for someone that's working on these issues, in that I've served in both Republican administrations in the past, in particular the George H. W. Bush administration when I was at the EPA in the late '80s and early '90s, and then more recently in a Democratic governance administration in Connecticut. And it's given me an appreciation for the opportunity to try to bring people together and to do things in new and creative ways. And I think new ways are often the path to getting people to pull together. And I was very pleased in Connecticut to be able to not only pull together a Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, unifying, I think, the world of energy with the world of environment. Recognizing that so many of our environmental challenges are derived from energy problems and the need for clean energy is a huge part of the pathway to environmental success over time, but also to recognize that it's not just innovation required, it's creativity and things like how you finance investments in energy efficiency or renewable power.
And the Connecticut Green Bank really provided a breakthrough in this regard. The governor had told me that in Connecticut, we had a serious budget issue and therefore my department could get no new funds, but I could reprogram existing resources. So we took a limited supply of money that had been available and been used in what I call the 20th century approach to clean energy, which is where the government subsidizes a certain amount of effort and a certain number of projects, often putting up a dollar of government money to match a dollar of private capital being put forward. So if you put a solar array on your roof and it costs $30,000, the government would write you a check for $15,000. Instead, what the Connecticut Green Bank said was, "Let's not do subsidies, but rather use limited public resources to leverage private capital."
And in effect, what Connecticut turned to was getting private funding, private banks to put up the money for both energy efficiency and renewable power, and used limited government money to help de-risk that flow of private capital. And that turned out to be a huge success. We ended up with banks and all kinds of funders coming forward with clean energy loan programs, and the government money simply was used to reduce the default risk, to help protect those that were putting up the money from having to bear excessive losses. And it's turned out in practice that the loan losses on clean energy projects, on clean energy loans, are very, very low. So in fact, the Connecticut Green Bank has had to pay out very little. There's been a huge increase in the number of projects funded. Something like $1.6 billion of new projects in the eight years since the Connecticut Green Bank was set up, and each dollar of government resources is leveraging something like $7 of private capital. So a much better model for expanded and wider deployment of the critical clean energies that are part of the pathway to a sustainable future.
Daniel Raimi: Right, yeah, that's great experience. And so there are so many things I could ask you about based on your career and this whole red light green light approach, but I do want to zoom out a little bit and think about some other essays that are in the book. So the book, again, A Better Planet: Forty Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future. There are 39 other essays in the book. Are there any one or two that you maybe want to flag and talk about a little bit that you think our listeners might be interested in?
Daniel Esty: Sure, I would highlight that this book has got a whole set of ideas that are based around new frameworks for policy, new concepts, new technologies, but there are also a number of essays about the process of moving towards a sustainable future, of getting people to come together. So one of my favorite essays is from Brad Gentry, who talks about the need for conversations across differences, how you get people to collaborate when they don't have the same starting points, when they don't even have the same values. And I think that kind of a conversation is critical to our path forward as a country and to getting people to work across partisan divides.
Likewise, I really find Thomas Easley's essay called “Hip-Hop Sustainability,” to be a critical element of what I think would be required for success. And his point in Hip-Hop Sustainability is that we need to reach out to communities that haven't been part of the environmental conversation, that haven't felt included in how we move forward as a nation, and bring them into the discussion on their own terms and in their own language. And I think finding ways to reach beyond the usual suspects who've been involved in environmental debates for years is absolutely essential if we're going to get ourselves to this broad base of political support for a new approach to sustainability.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that's great. And yeah, Hip-Hop Sustainability is such a cool term and it's so memorable. And it's heartening to see that there has been more effort in that direction over the last few years. I've been doing a little bit of work recently looking at the Illinois Clean Energy—I think it's called Clean Energy Futures Act, and it certainly takes a similar approach. Are there any other examples that come to mind of people actually applying any of these ideas in the policy context?
Daniel Esty: Well, I think what you're starting to see is a real focus on borrowing ideas from one part of the policy arena and moving them to another. So another of the essays that I really like is from Ken Gillingham, and he talks about the huge success that we've seen in recent years with what are known as TIGER grants in the transportation arena. And these are grants that have now gone to every state in the country to help support new projects that build on and enhance transportation investments and do so in a way that bridges divides, gets Democrats and Republicans to pull together, and Ken Gillingham's idea is to take that successful project from the transportation world and bring it to climate change.
And I'm a big believer in exactly that kind of thing. We might even call it a policy arbitrage, taking success from one place and transfusing it into another place where you've got a big need. And I think we're starting to see a lot of that type of thinking across the country as we realize that the sustainability challenge broadly, the climate change challenge in particular, are big and that success will probably require us to do things differently and better than we've done them in the past. So I'm a big believer in any number of ways to get to this future that brings fresh thinking to bear.
Daniel Raimi: Great, so we're running out of time, so I want to, once again, encourage people to check out the book, which is called A Better Planet, edited by my guest, Dan Esty of Yale University. And we're going to close it out today by asking you the same question that we ask all of our guests, which is to recommend something to our listeners that you've read or watched or heard recently related to the environment that you think is really interesting and that you'd recommend. And I'll just briefly get us started with a recent report that I enjoyed from the Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy.
It's a report by Noah Kaufman and several other authors from Columbia, and it's called “Decarbonizing Space Heating With Air Source Heat Pumps.” So this is definitely getting at one of those new technologies that's out there to some extent but hasn't really been scaled rapidly, and the report explores the potential for air source heat pumps to help with heating and other home energy needs in the context of rapid decarbonization. So it's something that I hadn't thought much about before, and the report really gave me some new insight. So I recommend that people check it out. And so how about you Dan? Aside from the book of course, what would you recommend that people checkout?
Daniel Esty: It's funny that you mentioned that because Noah and I just testified recently before the US House of Representatives on strategies for deep decarbonization. So I think he's actually one of the folks who's really thinking big about new ways to do the work we need to do. And the podcast that emerged from our testimony, we were two of four witnesses before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change, and that deep decarbonization hearing, I thought, was a great example of the range of ideas being put forward, both new technologies and new policy approaches. And frankly, the way the conversation flowed, and in particular the engagement of Republicans and not just Democrats on trying to figure out how we get to this clean energy future that we increasing across party lines recognize as essential, I found very stimulating and very excitng.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that certainly is heartening. And did you say that there was a podcast of it out there that people could find?
Daniel Esty: Yes, there is a podcast of this hearing that took place on the 5th of December in front of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change.
Daniel Raimi: All right, great. Well, we'll dig up a link to it and make sure to put it in the show notes so people can listen to that as soon as they're done listening to this. So once again, Dan Esty from Yale University, thank you so much for joining us today on Resources Radio.
Daniel Esty: Really a pleasure. Thanks so much for pushing the conversation forward.
Daniel Raimi: You've been listening to Resources Radio. If you have a minute, we'd really appreciate you leaving us a rating or a comment on your podcast platform of choice. Also, feel free to send us your suggestions for future episodes. Resources Radio is a podcast from Resources for the Future. RFF is an independent nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Our mission is to improve environmental, energy and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. Learn more about us at rff.org. The views expressed on this podcast are solely those of the participants. They do not necessarily represent the views of Resources for the Future, which does not take institutional positions on public policies. Resources Radio is produced by Elizabeth Wason with music by me, Daniel Raimi. Join us next week for another episode.