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.


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.


What to Expect at COP-20 in Lima

On Monday, December 1st, the Twentieth Conference of the Parties (COP-20) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) commences in Lima, Peru. Over the next two weeks, delegations from 195 countries will discuss and debate the next major international climate agreement, which – under the auspices of the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action – is to be finalized and signed one year from now at COP-21 in Paris, France.

What to Expect in Lima

Because of the promise made in the Durban Platform to include all parties (countries) under a common legal framework, this is a significant departure from the past two decades of international climate policy, which – since the 1995 Berlin Mandate and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol – have featured coverage of only a small subset of countries, namely the so-called Annex I countries (more or less the industrialized nations, as of twenty years ago).

The expanded geographic scope of the incipient Paris agreement – combined with its emerging architecture in the form of a pragmatic hybrid of bottom-up nationally determined contributions (NDCs) plus top-down elements for monitoring, reporting, verification, and comparison of contributions – represents the greatest promise in many years of a future international climate agreement that is truly meaningful.

A Diplomatic Breakthrough:  The Key Role of the China-USA Announcement

If that confluence of policy developments offers the promise, then it is fair to say that the recent joint announcement of national targets by China and the United States (under the future Paris agreement) represents the beginning of the realization of that promise. From the 14% of global CO2 emissions covered by nations participating (a subset of the Annex I countries) in the Kyoto Protocol’s current commitment period, the future Paris agreement with the announced China and USA NDCs covers more than 40% of global CO2 emissions. With Europe, already on board, the total amounts to more than 50% of emissions.

It will not be long before the other industrialized countries announce their own contributions – some quite possibly in Lima over the next two weeks. More importantly, the pressure is now on the other large, emerging economies – India, Brazil, Korea, South Africa, Mexico, and Indonesia – to step up. Some (Brazil, Korea, Mexico?) may well announce their contributions in Lima, but all countries are due to announce their NDCs by the end of the first quarter of 2015.

The announced China-USA quantitative contributions are themselves significant. For China, capping its emissions by 2030 (at the latest) plus increasing its non-fossil energy generation to 20% by the same year will require very aggressive measures, according to a recent MIT analysis. For the USA, cutting its emissions by 26-28% below the 2005 level by 2025 means doubling the pace of cuts under the country’s previous international commitment.

Thus, the China-USA announcement begins the fulfillment of the promise of the Durban Platform. A sufficient foundation is being established for meaningful future steps, and thereby the likelihood of a successful outcome in Paris has been greatly increased.  The talks in Lima over the next two weeks will produce at least a rough draft of the the Paris agreement, which can then be elaborated and finalized over the coming year, and signed (with abundant photo opportunities for heads of state) in Paris in December, 2015.

Keeping Our Eyes on the Prize

There will be — indeed, already have been — pronouncements of failure of the Lima/Paris talks from some green groups, primarily because the talks will not lead to an immediate decrease in emissions and will not prevent atmospheric temperatures from rising by more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), which has become an accepted, but essentially unachievable political goal. These well-intentioned advocates mistakenly focus on the short-term change in emissions among participating countries (for example, the much-heralded 5.2% cut by the Annex I countries in the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period), when it is the long-term change in global emissions that matters.

In other words, they ignore the geographic scope of participation, and do not recognize that — given the stock nature of the problem — what is most important is long-term action.  Each agreement is no more than one step to be followed by others.  And most important now for ultimate success later is a sound foundation, which is precisely what may finally be provided by the China-USA announced contributions under the Durban Platform structure of a hybrid international policy architecture.

All in all, this may turn out to be among the most important moments in two decades of international climate negotiations. And this means – at a minimum – that the next two weeks in Lima should be very interesting indeed.

Upcoming Events at COP-20 in Lima

As with previous Conferences of the Parties, we – the Harvard Environmental Economics Program and the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements (HPCA) – will be at the Lima talks for their second week, December 7-12. We will be participating in a number of events, and will be holding bilateral meetings with key national delegations.

In all cases, our contributions to the discussions will draw on our compendium of knowledge from our 70 research initiatives in Argentina, Australia, China, Europe, India, Japan, and the United States. Our purpose continues to be to help identify and advance scientifically sound, economically sensible, and politically pragmatic policy options for addressing global climate change.

For those of you who will be in Lima (as well as the rest of you), here is the schedule of COP-20 events that are co-sponsored by HPCA or in which I am participating as HPCA Director. It is going to be a very busy week, but I will try to blog – or at least tweet – about these events and other developments. After I return from Lima, I will follow up with an assessment.


Monday, December 8, 4:45 – 6:15 pm, Room: Machu Picchu

Sponsors: Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, Centre for European Economic Research (ZEW), and Enel Foundation

“Implications of the energy-efficiency gap for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions”

The discussion will be based on our Duke-Harvard research project (sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation) on the “energy-efficiency gap”—the apparent difference between predicted and measured rates of adoption of energy-efficiency technology. Panelists will explore the implications of this gap for climate-change mitigation.


Daniele Agostini, Head of Low Carbon Policies and Carbon Regulation, Enel Group

Andreas Löschel, Chair of Microeconomics, and Energy and Resource Economics, University of Münster, and Research Associate, ZEW

Richard Newell, Gendell Professor of Energy and Environmental Economics, Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, and Director, Duke University Energy Initiative

Robert Stavins, Director, Harvard Project on Climate Agreements and Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government, Harvard Kennedy School

Jesus Tamayo Pacheco, President of the Supervisory Body for investment in energy and mines of Peru

See also background paperhttp://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/24749


Tuesday, December 9, 12:00 – 2:00 pm, China Pavilion

Sponsors: National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation (NCSC), National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), People’s Republic of China

“International Cooperation: Towards the 2015 Agreement –A perspective from international think tanks”

This event aims at exchanging ideas from various international think tanks on the design of the 2015 Agreement with consideration of interaction and cooperation of parties on bilateral and multilateral basis, with a view to provide for inputs to the debates of the negotiation of the 2015 Agreement.


H.E. Minister Xie Zhenhua, Head of Chinese Delegation to COP-20 and Vice Chairman, NDRC

Li Junfeng, Director General, NCSC

Zou Ji, Deputy Director, NCSC

Robert Stavins, Director, Harvard Project on Climate Agreements

Du Xiangwan, Former Vice President, Chinese Academy of Engineering

Martin Kohl, President, South Center

Jennifer Morgan, Global Director of Climate Program, World Resources Institute

Teresa Ribera, President, Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations


Tuesday, December 9, 4:30 – 6:10 pm, International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) Pavilion

“What Role will Markets Play in the 2015 Climate Agreement? How can the Agreement Facilitate Linkage of Carbon Pricing Policies?”


Dirk Forrister, President & CEO, IETA

Robert Stavins, Director, Harvard Project on Climate Agreements

David Hone, Chief Climate Change Adviser, Shell Research

Anna Lindstedt, Ambassador for Climate Change, Government of Sweden

Mary Nichols, Chair, California Air Resources Board

Amber Rudd, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, Government of the United Kingdom

See also background paperhttp://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/24568


Thursday, December 11, 11:30 am – 1:00 pm, Room: Caral

Sponsors: International Emissions Trading Association, Arizona State University, Harvard Project on Climate Agreements

“Linkage among climate policies in the 2015 Paris agreement”

Panelists will discuss how the Paris agreement might facilitate or impede linkage among cap-and-trade, carbon tax, and non-market regulatory systems. Panelists will also address related issues involving market mechanisms in the new agreement.


Daniel Bodansky, Foundation Professor of Law, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University

Dirk Forrister, President & CEO, IETA

Robert Stavins, Director, Harvard Project on Climate Agreements

Alexia Kelley, Senior Climate Change Advisor, U.S. Department of State

Nathaniel Keohane, Vice President for International Climate, Environmental Defense Fund

Ulrika Raab, Senior Advisor Climate Change, Swedish Energy Agency

See also background paperhttp://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/24568



The UN Climate Summit and a Key Issue for the 2015 Paris Agreement

World leaders converged at the United Nations in New York City this past week for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s much anticipated Climate Summit, a lead-up to global negotiations that will take place in Lima, Peru, in December of this year, and culminate a year later in Paris.  The challenge before negotiators is great, because there are significant obstacles to reaching a meaningful agreement, as I describe in an Op-Ed that appeared in The New York Times on Sunday, September 21st, “Climate Realities.”

However, partly because of the new path that is being taken under the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, in which all countries will be included under a common legal framework in a politically realistic hybrid policy architecture, the prognosis for a meaningful international agreement is better now than it has been in decades.  I discuss this briefly at the end of the Times article, and emphasize it in a follow-up Op-Ed that appeared in The Boston Globe on September 23rd, “UN summit can accelerate momentum to a new approach to climate change.”  (Also, for my overall assessment of the UN Climate Summit, see this interview carried out by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Doug Gavel.)

A New Development at the UN Climate Summit

The most significant development at the UN Climate Summit this past week was the degree to which carbon pricing became central to so many discussions, including with leaders from the business community.  As carbon pricing – in particular, cap-and-trade systems – have emerged as the policy instrument of choice in many parts of the world, interest in linking these systems together has grown.  Linkage (unilateral or bilateral recognition of allowances) among carbon markets — and, for that matter links with non-market-based systems — can reduce the aggregate cost of achieving climate targets.  And lower compliance costs can in turn encourage countries to increase the ambition of their contributions under the 2015 Paris agreement.

New Research from Harvard

Because of this, the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements has been collaborating with the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) to explore the role of linkage in the new international climate change agreement to be completed in Paris.  In this new research, my co-authors (Daniel Bodansky of Arizona State University, Seth Hoedl of Harvard Law School, and Gilbert Metcalf of Tufts University) and I examine linkage — not only among cap-and-trade systems, but among cap-and-trade, carbon tax, and non-market regulatory systems — and the role that linkage should play in the 2015 agreement.  We look both at what would inhibit or even prevent linkage and should therefore be avoided in the 2015 agreement, and what – in a positive sense – should be included in the agreement to facilitate effective linkage of regional, national, and sub-national climate policies.

We released an Executive Summary of our research paper (“Facilitating Linkage of Heterogeneous Regional, National, and Sub-National Policies Through a Future International Agreement”) in New York City on September 22nd at an event co-sponsored by IETA and the Harvard Project, on the sidelines of UN Climate Summit, “Carbon Pricing and the 2015 Agreement” (the agenda of the event is available here).

In the executive summary (which can be downloaded in full here), we conclude that among the design elements the 2015 agreement should avoid because they would inhibit linkage are so-called “supplementarity requirements” that require parties to accomplish all (or a large, specified share) of their emissions-reduction commitments within their national borders. The 2015 agreement also should avoid including detailed linkage rules in the core agreement; an agreement with more flexibility would allow rules to evolve on the basis of experience.

Importantly, we also find that, to advance linkage, the 2015 agreement should:  define key terms, in particular the units that are used for compliance purposes; establish registries and tracking mechanisms; and include default or model rules, from which nations are free to deviate at their discretion.  Overall, the most valuable outcome of the Paris Agreement regarding linkage may simply be including an explicit statement that parties may transfer portions of their emissions-reduction contributions to other parties — and that these transferred units may be used by the transferees to implement their own commitments.

Looking Forward

We will release the complete research paper in November of this year, prior to the Twentieth Conference of the Parties (COP-20) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Lima, Peru, in December 2014, where the Harvard Project and IETA plan to conduct a side-event that will focus on this work.

When the full paper is released in November, I will provide a more complete description at this blog of our research methods and our findings.

[Additional press coverage is here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.]