Editor’s note: This story is one in a series, #PolicyForward, that spotlights how faculty, students and alumni at the Harris School of Public Policy are driving impact for the next generation. Leading up to the May 3 grand opening of Harris' new home at the Keller Center, these stories will examine three of the most critical issues facing our world: strengthening democracy, fighting poverty and inequality, and confronting the global energy challenge.

Jeff McMahon advises writing for UChicago's Master of Arts in the Humanities program and covers green energy for Forbes.

Why is the problem of climate change so important to effectively address?

I think the term popularized by Elizabeth Kolbert, the Sixth Great Extinction, conveys the impact of the change we’re facing. According to a recent study, we’ve already wiped out 83 percent of wild mammals and half of all plant life. I don’t think we can get away with that. That degree of extinction is not all from climate change, but climate change will make it much worse. We tend to focus on human impacts—what will happen to property values, for example—but the impacts on other species will be—have already been—much worse, and that’s going to bring unforeseen consequences for humans and teach us a lot about how embedded we really are in the web of nature. The problem with climate change is its lag time. By the time we fully realize its effects, it will be too late to mitigate them.

What advice would you give the "next generation" of young people eager to combat climate change?

When I was a member of the next generation of young people, I invested a lot of my attention in electoral politics and underestimated the reach of economics. Now I wish I had studied economics. Putting my faith in electoral politics meant putting my faith in collective conscious decision making, but economics can alter the course of decision making in millions of people without having to persuade them consciously.

What policies would make the most impact to combat climate change?

In more than a decade now of really focused coverage of climate change, I’ve seen progress come less from activist politics, although that pressure remains important, than from the intersection of economics and public policy. Those forces combined can motivate people in directions they don’t consciously realize. Take, for example, Germany’s decision to let its electric rates rise to invest in solar energy. That choice vitalized China’s solar-panel manufacturing industry, bringing the price of panels down worldwide and enabling solar energy to compete on its own footing with fossil fuels. Those events made it more possible for people, companies, and institutions to deploy solar, regardless of how they view solar energy. Sometimes, now, it just makes more economic sense. It’s cheaper. That’s not necessarily a model policy—I doubt it would work outside of Germany—but policies, such as a carbon tax and dividend, that more subtly shift the economic playing field could change people’s choices regardless of what they think or believe. Look also at the 45Q tax credit for carbon capture. That was a bipartisan initiative that slipped past Trump, and we’ve seen it motivate polluters to care about capturing their pollution. That kind of policy can turn enemies into friends. I agree with the economists, though, who say individual incentives for individual technologies will be less effective than a sweeping price on carbon.

About Jeff McMahon

Jeff McMahon has been an environmental reporter for 35 years. He covers climate change for Forbes and teaches writing at The University of Chicago.

Read more #PolicyForward stories that spotlight how faculty, staff, students and alumni at the Harris School of Public Policy are driving impact for the next generation.