Environmental Economics – A Personal Perspective

Today, I wish to take a brief hiatus from reflecting on the current status of climate change policy, whether in the often traumatic context of policy pronouncements – or rather, Twitter messages – from U.S. President Trump and his administration, or in the broader, longer-term context of global actions.  Rather, I want to seize on this mid-summer opportunity to think about the past rather than the present.  In particular, I would like to reflect on the four decades in which I have been engaged in the world of environmental policy, most recently – for the past 30 years – as a scholar, from my professorial perch at Harvard.

This reflection is facilitated by the fact that two years ago, I was asked by the editor of the Singapore Economic Review, Professor Euston Quah, to write about the evolution of the field of environmental economics.  I was pleased to do so, and I decided to take a quite personal approach to summarizing what otherwise would have required a rather Herculean effort.  The result was published earlier this year:  “The Evolution of Environmental Economics:  A View from the Inside,” Singapore Economic Review, volume 62, number 2, 2017, pages 251-274.

[By coincidence, in just a few days, I am travelling to Singapore to make two presentations – on August 4th at the 2017 Singapore Economic Review Conference, and on August 6th at the 7th Congress of the East Asian Association of Environmental and Resource Economics.]

Evolution of the Field of Environmental Economics

Over the past three to four decades, environmental and resource economics has evolved from what was once a relatively obscure application of welfare economics to a prominent field of economics in its own right.  The number of articles on the natural environment appearing in mainstream economics periodicals has continued to increase, as has the number of economics journals dedicated exclusively to environmental and resource topics.  Likewise, the influence of environmental economics on public policy has increased significantly, particularly as greater use has been made of market-based instruments for environmental protection.

My article this year in the Singapore Economic Review provides one economist’s perspective on this twenty-year evolution, first by tracing it through personal reflections on the professional path that has led to my research and writing, and then by summarizing some highlights of my research.  That article was itself rendered feasible because of two previous book projects.

In 1998, my tenth year on the Harvard faculty, I was asked by the British publisher, Edward Elgar Publishing Limited, if I would be willing to assemble my selected papers for a book.  I responded with enthusiasm, and selected 23 articles from the 80 (published and unpublished) papers I had produced as of then – frequently with co-authors – from the time I received my Ph.D. in 1988 through 1999.  Making the selection was not any easy task, but it was a rewarding one.  I categorized my research into seven topic areas:  generic issues in environmental economics; benefits and costs of environmental regulation, and the potential use of efficiency and other criteria for evaluating environmental goals; normative analysis of policy instruments; positive analysis of policy instruments; environmental technology innovation and diffusion; land-use change; and global climate change policy. The resulting volume, Environmental Economics and Public Policy:  Selected Papers of Robert N. Stavins, 1988-1999, was published in 2000.

In 2011, ten years after the publication of my first set of selected papers (1988-1999), Edward Elgar Publishing Limited suggested a second volume.  I selected 26 articles from the many more (published and unpublished) papers I wrote over the decade.  The papers again fell into seven (somewhat different) categories:  generic issues in environmental economics; methods of environmental policy analysis; economic analysis of alternative environmental policy instruments; the economics of technological change; natural resource economics; domestic (national and sub-national) climate change policy; and international dimensions of climate change policy. This led to the publication in 2013 of Economics of Climate Change and Environmental Policy:  Selected Papers of Robert N. Stavins, 2000-2011.

In those two volumes and in the recent article in the Singapore Economic Review, I not only summarized highlights of my research, but I also provided a description of the professional path I have taken.  In this blog essay, I am pleased to offer an abridged version below (with the addition of some relevant hyperlinks).

A Professional Path

In retrospect, my professional path may appear somewhat direct, if not altogether linear, but it hardly seemed so as I travelled along it.  The path I describe took me back and forth across the United States and to several continents, and it took me from physics to philosophy, to agricultural extension, to international development studies, to agricultural economics, and eventually to environmental economics.  During this time, much has changed in the profession.

The early ascendency of the field of environmental economics, during the period from 1970 to 1990, was centered within departments of agricultural and resource economics, mainly at U.S. universities, and at Resources for the Future (RFF), the Washington research institution.  Within most economics departments, environmental studies remained a relatively minor area of applied welfare economics.  So, when I enrolled in the Ph.D. program in Harvard’s Department of Economics in 1983, and when I received my degree five years later, no field of study was offered in the field of environmental or resource economics.

Fortunately, Harvard permitted its graduate students to develop an optional, self-designed field as one of two fields on which they were to be examined orally before proceeding to dissertation research.  Without a resident environmental economist in the Department of Economics (Martin Weitzman had yet to move to Harvard from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), I developed an outline and reading list of the field through correspondence with leading scholars from other institutions, most prominently Kerry Smith, then at North Carolina State University.  My proposal to prepare for and be examined in the field of environmental and resource economics (along with my other field, econometrics) was approved by the Department’s director of graduate study, Dale Jorgenson.  So began my entry into the scholarly literature of the field.

But my interest in environmental economics pre-dated by a considerable number of years my matriculation at Harvard.  Like many others before and since, I came to the field because of a personal interest in the natural environment (the origin of which I describe below).  This personal interest evolved into a professional one while I was studying for an M.S. degree in agricultural economics at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, in the late 1970’s, where my thesis advisor and mentor was Kenneth Robinson.  I had originally gone to Cornell to study for a professional degree in international development, but found agricultural economics more appealing, largely because of the opportunity to examine social questions with quantitative methods within a disciplinary framework.

The faculty at Cornell and the care given to graduate students (including masters students like myself) were outstanding.  Kenneth Robinson, my first mentor within the economics profession, became my ongoing role model for intellectual integrity.  It was a sad day many years later, in 2010, when Professor Robinson passed away.

A course in linear algebra, brilliantly taught by S. R. Searle, inspired me to pursue quantitative methods of analysis, and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to study econometrics with Timothy Mount.  One summer I had the privilege of learning about comparative economic systems in a small workshop setting from George Staller of the Cornell Department of Economics.   Working with Bud Stanton, I had my first experience teaching at the university level, and with Olan Forker, I had my first try at serious writing.  All of this led to my research and writing of an M.S. thesis, “Forecasting the Size Distribution of Farms:  A Methodological Analysis of the Dairy Industry in New York State.”  The methodology in question was a variable Markov transition probability matrix, the cells of which were estimated econometrically in a multinomial logit framework.  Much to my surprise, this work subsequently received the Outstanding Master’s Thesis Award in the national competition of the American Agricultural Economics Association.

Armed with my M.S. degree, I moved from Ithaca to Berkeley, California, where I eventually met up with Phillip LeVeen, who had until shortly before that time been a faculty member in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California, Berkeley.  Phil was another superb mentor, and from him I learned the power of using simple models — by which I mean a set of supply and demand curves hastily drawn on a piece of scrap paper — to develop insights into real-world policy problems.  He introduced me to a topic that was to occupy me for the next few years — California’s perpetual concerns with water allocation.  I remember many afternoons spent working with Phil at his dining room table on questions of water supply and demand.

This work with Phil LeVeen led to a consultancy and then a staff position with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the national advocacy group consisting of lawyers, natural scientists, and — then almost unique among environmental advocacy organizations — economists. This marked the beginning of what became an ongoing professional relationship with this rather remarkable organization.  At EDF, I was able to experience for the first time the use of economic analysis in pursuit of better environmental policy.  With W. R. Zach Willey, EDF’s senior economist in California, as a role model, and Thomas Graff, EDF’s senior attorney, as my mentor, I thrived in EDF’s collegial atmosphere, while thoroughly enjoying life in Berkeley’s “gourmet ghetto,” as my neighborhood was called.  Sadly, Tom Graff — without whose passionate and wise mentorship I would not be where I am today — passed away in 2009 after a heroic battle with cancer.

Although I found the work at EDF rewarding, I worried that I would eventually be constrained — either within the organization or outside it — by my limited education.  So, like many others in similar situations, I considered a law degree as the next logical step.  In fact, I came very close to enrolling at Stanford Law School, but instead, in 1983, I accepted an offer of admission to the Department of Economics at Harvard, moved back east to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and began what has turned out to be a long-term relationship with the University.

But where did my interest in the natural environment begin?  Not at Cornell; it was present long before those days.  But it had not yet arisen when I was studying earlier at Northwestern University, from which I received a B.A. degree in philosophy, having departed from my first scholarly interest, astronomy and astrophysics.

Rather, the origins of my affinity for the natural environment and my interest in resource issues are to be found in the four years I spent in a small, remote village in Sierra Leone, West Africa, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, working in agricultural extension (in particular, paddy rice development).  It was there that I was first exposed both to the qualities of a pristine natural environment and the trade-offs associated with economic development.

So, I had begun in astrophysics, moved to philosophy (both at Northwestern), then to agricultural extension in a developing country (Sierra Leone), then to international development studies and subsequently to agricultural economics (both at Cornell), then to environmental economics and policy (EDF), and eventually to graduate study in economics at Harvard.

My dissertation research at Harvard was directed by a committee of three faculty members:  Joseph Kalt, Zvi Griliches, and Adam Jaffe.  Joseph Kalt was the first faculty member at the Department of Economics to validate my interest in environmental and resource issues, and he was unfailingly generous to me and many other graduate students in making his office (and personal computer, then a rather scarce resource) available at all hours.  Later a colleague at the Kennedy School, Joe provided examples never to be forgotten — that economics could be a meaningful and enjoyable pursuit, and that excellence in teaching was a laudable goal.

Zvi Griliches was not only my advisor and mentor, but my spiritual father as well.  Generations of Harvard graduate students would offer similar testimony.  My own father had died only a year before I entered Harvard, and Zvi soon filled for me many paternal needs.  It is now approaching two decades since Zvi himself passed away.  I felt as if I had lost my father a second time.

If Zvi Griliches provided caring and inspiration, Adam Jaffe provided invaluable day-to-day guidance.  It was Adam who convinced me not to go on the job market in my fourth year with what would have been a mediocre dissertation, but to put in another year and do it right.  That turned out to be some of the best professional advice I have ever received.  Our intensive faculty-student relationship from dissertation days subsequently evolved into a very productive professional (and personal) one that continues to this day.  The name of Adam Jaffe appears frequently in my curriculum vitae as a co-author; he has been and continues to be much more than that.

Although they were not members of my thesis committee, I should acknowledge two other faculty members at the Harvard Department of Economics who played important roles in my education.  I was fortunate to take two courses in economic history (a department requirement) from Jeffrey Williamson, who had recently arrived from the University of Wisconsin.  Williamson’s class sessions were as close as anything I have seen to being economic research laboratories.  In class after class, we would carefully dissect one or more articles — examining hypothesis, theoretical model, data, estimation method, results, and conclusions.  If there was any place where I actually learned how to carry out economic research, it was in those classes.

The other name that is important to highlight is that of Lawrence Goulder, then a faculty member at Harvard, and now a professor at Stanford.  I say this not simply because he was willing to be my examiner in my chosen field of environmental and resource economics, nor because he subsequently became such a close friend.  Rather, what is striking about my professional relationship with Larry is the degree to which he has been an unnamed collaborator on so many projects of mine.  Although he and I have co-authored no more than a few articles, his name probably appears more frequently than anyone else’s in the acknowledgments of papers I have written.  There is no one whose overall judgement in matters of economics I trust more, and no one who has been more helpful.

When I began graduate school at Harvard in 1983, it was my intention to return to EDF as soon as I received my degree.  But by my third year in the program, I had decided to pursue an academic career, although one that was heavily flavored with involvement in the real world of public policy.  Within the context of this professional objective, it was not a difficult decision to accept the offer I received in February, 1988, to become an Assistant Professor at the Kennedy School.  Although some of the other offers I received at that time were also very attractive, the choice for me was obvious, and I have never regretted it — not for a moment.

I remain at the Kennedy School today, where I was promoted to Associate Professor in 1992 (an untenured rank at Harvard), and to a tenured position as Professor of Public Policy in 1997.   In 1998, I accepted an appointment as the Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government, and in 2017, I was appointed the A. J. Meyer Professor of Energy and Economic Development.

In the year 2000, I launched the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, which today brings together — from across the University — thirty-two Faculty Fellows and twenty-seven Pre-Doctoral Fellows, who are graduate students studying for the Ph.D. degree in economics, political economy and government, public policy, or health policy.  The Program, which I continue to direct, forms links among faculty and graduate students engaged in research, teaching, and outreach in environmental, natural resource, and energy economics and related public policy, by sponsoring research projects, convening workshops, and supporting graduate (and undergraduate) education.

A key reason why the Program — and its various projects, including the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements — have been so successful is the marvelous administrative leadership and staff support it enjoys.  Everyone who has been involved in virtually any way has come away impressed by our Executive Director, Robert Stowe, Program Manager, Jason Chapman, and Bryan Galcik, Communications Coordinator.

At the Kennedy School, I have had an excellent mentor, William Hogan, and a superb advisor and friend, Richard Zeckhauser.  Over the years, six successive deans have provided leadership, guidance, and support (including abundant time for my research and writing) — Graham Allison, Robert Putnam, Albert Carnesale, Joseph Nye, David Ellwood, and Douglas Elmendorf.  At Harvard more broadly, I have benefitted from regular interactions with Daniel Schrag, director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment, and Martin Weitzman of the Department of Economics.  For two decades, Marty and I have co-directed a bi-weekly Seminar in Environmental Economics and Policy, which has provided me with frequent opportunities to learn both from seminar speakers and from Marty’s questions and comments.

I will also note that Harvard President Drew Faust has provided superb leadership of Harvard’s increasing research, teaching, and outreach activity on global climate change, and has been exceptionally supportive of my work on climate change policy.  I will refrain from naming the many others at Harvard and elsewhere from whom I continue to learn — including my many co-authors — only because the list of such valued colleagues and friends is so long.  Included have been a most remarkable set of Ph.D. students, many of whom have gone on to productive — indeed illustrious — careers.

Along the way, I have had my share of administrative responsibilities at Harvard, including serving as Director of Graduate Studies for the Doctoral Program in Public Policy and the Doctoral Program in Political Economy and Government, and Co-Chair of the Harvard Business School-Harvard Kennedy School Joint Degree Programs.  Outside of Harvard, I have had the privilege of being a University Fellow of Resources for the Future, a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and the founding Editor of the Review of Environmental Economics and Policy, as well as a member of the Board of Directors of Resources for the Future, the Scientific Advisory Board of the Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei, and numerous editorial boards. I must also note that I serve as an editor of the Journal of Wine Economics.  In 2009, I was elected a Fellow of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists.

What originally attracted me to the Kennedy School was the possibility of combining an academic career with extensive involvement in the development of public policy.  I have not been disappointed.  Indeed, a theme that emerges from my professional engagements over the past twenty-five years is the interplay between scholarly economic research and implementation in real-world political contexts.  This is a two-way street.   In some cases, my policy involvement has come from expertise I developed through research, following a path well worn by academics.  But, in many other cases, my participation in policy matters has stimulated for me entirely new lines of research activity.

Finally, what I have characterized as involvement in policy matters is described at the Kennedy School as faculty outreach, recognized to be of great institutional and social value, along with the two other components of our three-legged professional stool — research and teaching.  I should note that my outreach efforts have fallen into five broad categories:  advisory work with members of Congress and the White House (for example, Project 88, a bipartisan effort co-chaired by former Senator Timothy Wirth and the late Senator John Heinz, to develop innovative approaches to environmental and resource problems); service on federal government panels (for example, my role as Chairman of the Environmental Economics Advisory Committee of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Science Advisory Board); on-going consulting — often on an informal basis — with environmental NGOs (most frequently, the Environmental Defense Fund) and private firms; advisory work with state governments; and professional interventions in the international sphere, such as service as a Lead Author for the Second and the Third Assessment Reports and a Coordinating Lead Author for the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, professional roles with the World Bank and other international organizations, and advisory work with foreign governments.

Reflections on Common Themes

Preparing the brief professional autobiography for the 2000 and 2013 books and for the 2017 SER article caused me to review many of the several hundred articles, book chapters, and essays I have written over the years.  This allowed me to identify some common themes that emerge from these more than two decades of research and writing.

First, there is the value — or at least, the potential value — of economic analysis of environmental policy.  The cause of virtually all environmental problems in a market economy is economic behavior (that is, imperfect markets affected by externalities), and so economics offers a powerful lens through which to view environmental problems, and therefore a potentially effective set of analytical tools for designing and evaluating environmental policies.

A second message, connected with the first, is the specific value of benefit-cost analysis for helping to promote efficient policies.  Economic efficiency ought to be one of the key criteria for evaluating proposed and existing environmental policies.  Despite its limitations, benefit-cost analysis can be useful for consistently assimilating the disparate information that is pertinent to sound decision making.  If properly done, it can be of considerable help to public officials when they seek to establish or assess environmental policies.

Third, the means governments use to achieve environmental objectives matter greatly, because different policy instruments have very different implications along a number of dimensions, including abatement costs in both the short and the long term.  Market-based instruments are particularly attractive in this regard.

Fourth, an economic perspective is also of value when reflecting on the use of natural resources, whether land, water, fisheries, or forests.  Excessive rates of depletion are frequently due to the nature of the respective property-rights regimes, in particular, common property and open-access.  Economic instruments — such as ITQ systems in the case of fisheries — can and have been employed to bring harvesting rates down to socially efficient levels.

Fifth and finally, policies for addressing global climate change — linked with emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases — can benefit greatly from the application of economic thinking.  On the one hand, the long time-horizon of climate change, the profound uncertainty in links between emissions and actual damages, and the possibility of catastrophic climate change present significant challenges to conventional economic analysis.  But, at the same time, the ubiquity of energy generation and use in modern economies means that only market-based policies — essentially carbon pricing regimes — are feasible instruments for achieving truly meaningful emissions reductions.  Hence, despite the challenges, an economic perspective on this greatest of environmental threats is essential.

 A Personal Message

On a personal level, the professional path I have taken offers confirmation that research can influence public policy, and that involvement in public policy can stimulate new research.  The quest — both professional and personal — that took me from Evanston, Illinois, to Sierra Leone, West Africa, to Ithaca, New York, to Berkeley, California, and finally to Cambridge, Massachusetts suggests some consistency of purpose and even function.  I find myself doing similar things, but in different contexts.  It is fair to say that my professional life has taken me along a path that has brought me home.  The words of T. S. Eliot (1943) ring true:

                        We shall not cease from exploration

                        And the end of all our exploring

                        Will be to arrive where we started

                        And know the place for the first time.

Writing these essays, this year’s article, and today’s blog post have forced me to reflect on the past, and think about the future.  The twenty-two articles that comprised the first book of my selected papers and the twenty-six essays that comprised the second volume were the product of twenty-three years on the Harvard faculty (now almost 30 years).  I continue to learn about environmental economics and related public policy from colleagues, collaborators, students, friends, and inhabitants of the ”real world” of public policy – individuals from government, private industry, advocacy groups, and the press.  I hope my learning will continue.

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The Papal Encyclical and Climate Change Policy

On June 18, 2015, Coral Davenport, writing in the New York Times, was the first in the press to note that the encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, released by Pope Francis that same day, with tremendous praise from diverse quarters, “is as much an indictment of the global economic order as it is an argument for the world to confront climate change.”

The New York Times and a Couple of Asia Trips

The Times article included the following: “…environmental economists criticized the encyclical’s condemnation of carbon trading, seeing it as part of a radical critique of market economies. ‘I respect what the pope says about the need for action, but this is out of step with the thinking and the work of informed policy analysts around the world, who recognize that we can do more, faster, and better with the use of market-based policy instruments — carbon taxes and/or cap-and-trade systems,’ Robert N. Stavins, the director of the environmental economics program at Harvard, said in an email. The approach by the pope, an Argentine who is the first pontiff from the developing world, is similar to that of a ‘small set of socialist Latin American countries that are opposed to the world economic order, fearful of free markets, and have been utterly dismissive and uncooperative in the international climate negotiations, Dr. Stavins said.”

Those are accurate quotes from an email I sent to Coral Davenport in response to her inquiry the same day. The reason why I sent an email, rather than calling was that I was, at that moment, approximately 37,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean, flying from Seoul (where I had spoken at the third annual Future Energy Forum) to San Francisco, on my way home to Boston.

The following week, I was flying back to Asia (this time to Beijing for a workshop jointly sponsored by the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements and China’s National Development and Reform Commission – a topic for a future blog post, but not for today). As I sat in the departure lounge at Chicago’s O’Hare International, I began to see on my iPhone a small flood of hostile commentary from the blogosphere, indicating that I had unfairly “attacked the Pope.”

Well, writing an email rather than chatting on the phone with a reporter may eliminate some spontaneity, but it does have the advantage of preserving a record. So, I’m pleased to be able to share with readers today the views I offered on June 18th, long before the Pope’s recent visit to Cuba and the United States. My views have not changed.

Why Write About This Now?

That’s a reasonable question. In part, I’m inspired by a marvelous essay by Yale professor William Nordhaus, “The Pope & the Market,” which appears in the October 8, 2015 issue of The New York Review of Books. However, my thoughts are completely independent from his, and so he should not be indicted for anything I have to say. But I do heartily recommend his essay, and urge readers to take a look at his commentary (as well as mine).

With that preamble out of the way, here are the reactions of one environmental economist, yours truly, to Laudato Si’, nearly verbatim from my June 18th message from 37,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean, with some additional text and links for this blog essay.

An Environmental Economist Reflects on the Papal Encyclical

The Pope is to be commended for taking global climate change seriously, and for drawing more world attention to the issue. There is much about the encyclical that is commendable, but where it drifts into matters of public policy, I fear that it is – unfortunately – not helpful.

The long encyclical ignores the causes of global climate change: it is an externality, an unintended negative consequence of otherwise meritorious activity by producers producing the goods and services people want, and consumers using those goods and services. That’s why the problem exists in the first place. There may well be ethical dimensions of the problem, but it is much more than a simple consequence of some immoral actions by corrupt capitalists.

The document also ignores the global commons nature of the problem, which is why international cooperation is necessary. If the causes of the problem are not recognized, it is very difficult – or impossible – to come up with truly meaningful and feasible policy solutions.

So, yes, the problem is indeed caused by a failure of markets, as the Pope might say, or – in the language of economics – a “market failure”. But that is precisely why sound economic analysis of the problem is important and can be very helpful. Such analysis points the way to working through the market for solutions, rather than condemning global capitalism per se.

Should Carbon Markets be Condemned?

In surprisingly specific and unambiguous language, the encyclical rejects outright “carbon credits” as part of a solution to the problem. It says they “could give rise to a new form of speculation and would not help to reduce the overall emission of polluting gases”. The encyclical asserts that such an approach would help “support the super-consumption of certain countries and sectors”.

That misleading and fundamentally misguided rhetoric is straight out of the playbook of the ALBA countries, the small set of socialist Latin American countries that are opposed to the world economic order, fearful of free markets, and have been utterly dismissive and uncooperative in the international climate negotiations. Those countries have been strongly opposed to any market-based approaches to climate change, including carbon taxes, cap-and-trade, and offset systems, as well as any approaches that would allow – through appropriate linkage – the financing by one country of emissions reductions in another country (see my previous essay at this blog on A Key Element for the Forthcoming Paris Climate Agreement).

If the references to “carbon credits” were intended to refer only to offset systems (such as the Clean Development Mechanism) and not to cap-and-trade systems, then I would be much less concerned about the Pope’s complaints. However, the encyclical does not make the distinction. Indeed, I doubt that the authors of the encyclical recognize the difference, and unfortunately, readers of the encyclical will likewise lump together all carbon markets, which is what some policy makers also do, unfortunately.

Out of Step

I respect what the Pope says about the need for action, but his unfortunate attack on the use of the market to address climate change is out of step with the thinking and the work of informed policy analysts and policy makers around the world, who recognize that we can do more, faster, and better with the use of market-based policy instruments – carbon taxes and/or cap-and-trade systems. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has been outspoken in precisely this regard.

Furthermore, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change itself (Article 3.3) explicitly states that “policies and measures to deal with climate change should be cost-effective so as to ensure global benefits at the lowest possible cost” and thereby be more ambitious. That is why market-based climate policy instruments are an important option for many countries. Keeping costs down will help inspire greater action.

Concluding Thoughts

The Papacy is to be commended for having drawn attention to climate change as a major issue. But, sadly, the encyclical fails to recognize that because externalities (such as CO2 emissions) are a type of market failure and because the global commons nature of the problem and consequent free riding are also a profound market failure, it is for these reasons that working through the market is absolutely necessary – in order to address the climate problem in ways that are scientifically meaningful, economically sensible, and ultimately politically pragmatic.

By incorporating the anti-market rhetoric of the ALBA countries, the encyclical unfortunately goes beyond these errors of omission to incorporate significant errors of commission by emphasizing a perspective that is not progressive and enlightened, and would – I fear – ultimately work against meaningful climate policy at the international, regional, national, and sub-national levels.

That is why I said that although there is much about the encyclical that is commendable, where it drifts into matters of public policy it is – unfortunately – not helpful.

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When Reasonable Policy Discussions Become Unreasonable Personal Attacks

Recently I was reminded of the controversy that erupted late in 2014 about remarks made by the distinguished health economist, Jonathan Gruber, professor at MIT for two decades. Professor Gruber, one of the country’s leading experts on health policy, had played an important role in the construction of the Obama administration’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, subsequently derided by its political opponents as “Obamacare.”

A brief but intense political controversy and media feeding-frenzy erupted when videos surfaced in which Professor Gruber – largely in a series of academic seminars and conferences – explained how the Act was crafted and marketed in ways that would make it easier to develop political support. For example, he noted that insurance companies were taxed instead of patients, fundamentally the same thing economically, but vastly more palatable politically. He went on to note that this was possible because of “the lack of economic understanding of the American voter.” His key point was that the program’s “lack of transparency is a huge political advantage.” Is that a controversial or even unique observation?

A Truism of Political Economy

Any economist who has worked on the development or analysis of public policy – in areas ranging from health care policy to environmental policy to financial regulation – recognizes the truth of the key insight Gruber was communicating to his audiences. It is inevitably in the interests of the advocates of a policy to make the policy’s benefits transparent and to make its costs vague, even unobservable; just as it is in the interests of the opponents of a policy to make that policy’s benefits obscure and its costs as clear as the light of day.

The specific construction of hundreds of public policies are explained by this truism. In the United States, Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards (or “CAFE standards”) have been a bipartisan Congressional success, despite the fact that the costs they place on the American public per unit of fuel savings are vastly greater than the costs of a commensurate increase in gasoline taxes. Likewise, when conservative opponents of CO2 cap-and-trade wanted to stop the House-passed bill in its tracks, they resorted to demonizing it as “cap-and-tax.”

So, the central lesson Professor Gruber was offering is hardly controversial, and its enunciation ought not lead to the terrible attacks that he suffered. He doesn’t need me to defend him, but he was unfairly demonized, simply because people disagreed with him politically regarding the merits of the public policy he had helped develop and support.

Unfortunately, I was reminded of this recently when I found myself subject to attempted demonization, because someone did not agree with a policy I supported. What happened to me is trivial compared with what Professor Gruber has gone through, but it prompts me to write about it today.

Can We Agree to Disagree?

I have written before at this blog about the reasons why I support my university’s decision not to divest its endowment of its fossil-fuel company holdings. I won’t repeat those arguments here, but will note that I have gone out of my way not to draw conclusions or make recommendations about what other universities or other institutions ought to do in this regard, including when I agreed to write an essay on the subject for Yale Environment 360. My analysis and conclusions were not developed in spite of my decades of research, teaching, and outreach on global climate change policy; rather, they were developed because of my years of work in this area.

There are people, some of whom I greatly respect, who have different perspectives on this issue, and have come to very different conclusions than have I. We have essentially agreed to disagree. They haven’t cast aspersions on me, nor I on them. As my writings on this topic have illustrated, there are many facets to the issue, including economics, politics, ethics, and even religion. No one has cornered the market on wisdom.

And What About the Keystone XL Pipeline?

Likewise, on a quite different topic, on January 8, 2015, Coral Davenport wrote a story in the New York Times about the political debates in Washington regarding the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, and stated that “… most energy and policy experts say the battle over Keystone overshadows the importance of the project as an environmental threat or an engine of the economy. The pipeline will have little effect, they say, on climate change, production of the Canadian oil sands, gasoline prices and the overall job market in the United States.” She went on to quote me (accurately) as having said, “The political fight about Keystone is vastly greater than the economic, environmental or energy impact of the pipeline itself. It doesn’t make a big difference in energy prices, employment or climate change either way.” What I said was consistent with the evidence at the time (note, however, that as oil prices fall, the possibility increases that the Canadian oil sands would be uneconomic to develop without the pipeline). Once again, the analysis is not one-dimensional, and reasonable people can respectfully disagree.

When Policy Debates Become Personal Attacks

But these two topics – the Keystone XL pipeline and fossil-fuel divestment – have increasingly become engulfed in highly-charged campaigns and exceptionally heated political debates. As part of this, my integrity was recently attacked, because of my views.  A young and – I’m sure – well-intentioned climate activist and journalist, writing in the Huffington Post, implied that my assessment in the New York Times of the Washington political debates regarding Keystone XL and my support for Harvard’s divestment policy, are because “Stavins has done consulting work for Chevron, Exelon, Duke Energy and the Western States Petroleum Association.”

The author of the Huffington Post piece selected those three companies and one trade association from a list of 92 “Outside Activities” that I voluntarily provide as a means of public disclosure. The author chose not to note that the vast majority of my outside engagements are with universities, think tanks, environmental advocacy NGOs, foundations, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, other federal agencies and departments, international organizations, and environment ministries around the world (not to mention a set of Major League Baseball teams, but that’s another story altogether).

But what about the four he did choose to highlight? First, I am very proud of my work supported by Chevron and the closely-related Western States Petroleum Association, in which I have carried out a series of analyses studying how to strengthen and improve California’s climate policy under AB-32. That’s right – developing and assessing ways to make the AB-32 cap-and-trade system and the related suite of “complementary policies” more environmentally effective, more cost-effective, and more equitable (I’ve written about this work several times at this blog).

Likewise, my work supported by Duke Energy began a decade ago when I helped the former CEO bring home to his senior management the importance of climate change and the importance of well-designed public policies (in particular, carbon cap-and-trade) to address it. All of my subsequent work supported by Duke Energy likewise has focused on the design of better market-based instruments – cap-and-trade – to reduce CO2 emissions.

And, finally, what about Exelon? This was interesting and important work I carried out with my friend and colleague, MIT Professor Richard Schmalensee, Dean Emeritus of the Sloan School of Management (I wrote about this work at this blog and at the Huffington Post). In 2011, with support from Exelon, Professor Schmalensee and I analyzed EPA’s proposals for new rules to regulate the interstate transport of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides emitted from electric power generation facilities. You can read in detail about our multi-faceted assessment, but the bottom-line is that we provided strong support for a stringent rule. Our brief summary at the University of Pennsylvania’s RegBlog concludes: “In sum, while imposing incremental costs to achieve reductions in SO2 and NOX emissions, the Transport Rule would produce significant benefits in terms of improved health outcomes, and better environmental amenities and services, which studies estimate significantly outweigh the costs.”

Sadness and Empathy

It is nothing less than absurd – and, frankly, quite sad – that someone would suggest that my views on divestment and my New York Times quote on the politics of Keystone XL were somehow due to my having received previous support for analytical work for an oil company, a trade association, and two electric utilities. This was an unfortunate move to question my credibility and damage my reputation in a misguided attempt to demonize me, rather than engage in reasonable discussion and debate. Unfortunately, most of those who have read the activist/journalist’s original commentary and have possibly repeated his claims to others will not see the essay you have just read.

This is surely nothing compared with what Professor Gruber has gone through, but it has certainly increased my empathy for him, as well as my admiration.

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Personal Attacks: An Even Sadder Epilogue

It’s nearly two months since I wrote the essay above, but a series of recent events prompts me to add this sad epilogue.  My family and I have recently been subject to cyber-bullying, harassment, and threats, because of my public stance in support of Harvard’s decision not to divest from its endowment portfolio its holdings of fossil-fuel company stocks.

In particular, the most recent message sent to me said in part: “You may be assured that I will have a lot to say about your vocal public support of Harvard’s fossil fuel investments, … and that I have a particular interest in making sure that [your] financial connections to the fossil fuel industry are made fully public …” This threat to tarnish my reputation by publicizing a supposed conflict of interest is striking for a number of reasons:

  • In several essays at this blog and elsewhere, I have carefully explained my reasons for supporting Harvard’s decision not to divest;
  • In several essays at this blog and elsewhere, I have been completely up front about receiving support for (publically available) analytical work I’ve carried out for private-sector companies (and have long provided a list of all outside engagements at my website);
  • In the essay above, I documented the fundamentally pro-environment, policy-analytic work I had done for the specific companies mentioned; and
  • The claim that my position regarding Harvard divestment has somehow been influenced by my work with an oil company and an industry trade association defies logic.

The last item on this list – the fundamental illogic of such a claim – merits explanation. People on all sides of the divestment issue (including leaders of the student movement, and including the person who wrote the threat I quoted above) acknowledge that divestment will have no direct financial impacts on the respective companies. Rather, the merit of divestment that is most frequently cited by supporters is its symbolic value. Because divestment has no financial impacts on the fossil-fuel companies, those companies don’t care much about it. They would not care one way or the other what I might have to say on the topic. Hence, even if I did want to curry favor with those companies, that would not lead me (or anyone else) to take a particular position on the divestment issue.

The more important question to ask is whether my research, teaching, and outreach initiatives on climate change economics and policy have been biased by my having carried out consulting assignments for an oil company and trade association (two of a hundred outside engagements over the past several years)? That is, if there really was a conflict of interest, then in an effort to make those companies happy, I would presumably pull my punches regarding recommendations of what does matter to those companies – public policies that will reduce their profits by increasing their costs of doing business and/or by reducing demand for their products. But nothing could be further from the truth!

For a decade or more, my research, teaching, and outreach have focused on more enlightened, stronger, and better climate change policies. I have been outspoken in regard to the pressing need for well-designed carbon-price instruments at the national and sub-national levels, and for the need for better, more effective international climate policies, both under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and through other venues. This is reflected in my published research, my teaching, and my outreach efforts, including through this blog.

It is ironic, offensive, and sad that anyone would suggest that my support of Harvard’s divestment position is somehow tied to my outside engagements. That suggestion – and the recent threats I have received – defies logic and is contradicted by the record.

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