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Planetary Thinking

As policymakers, academics, and activists prepare for next month's United Nations climate summit in New York, they should consider precisely what it will take to build a truly sustainable global economy. First and foremost, the world needs a new multidisciplinary approach that is broad enough to tackle the challenge.

LONDON – The Swedish climate truthsayer Greta Thunberg has set sail for the United States in a zero-emissions racing yacht to generate waves in a different part of the world – including at next month’s United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York. She will arrive in America at a time of growing transatlantic awareness of the threat posed by climate change. But whether shifts in public opinion will translate into concrete action remains to be seen.

Taking sustainability seriously means that we can no longer ignore our planetary boundaries. We need to start designing tools and policies to make all aspects of society more sustainable, before the costs of doing so become so large as to impoverish us. This has increasingly become a task not just for academics who specialize in the field, but for scholars and researchers generally. Sustainability should now be the lens through which we approach all policy-related empirical questions. We need challenge-driven, mission-oriented research, and that calls for a broad multidisciplinary effort.

To that end, Michael Grubb of the University of Cambridge, along with two co-authors, made a monumental contribution with his 2014 book Planetary Economics: Energy, Climate Change, and the Three Domains of Sustainable Development. Grubb marshals a broad range of tools from within the economics discipline to chart the way to a sustainable society. That framework will need to be broadened beyond economics, but it provides a useful starting point.

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