What’s the Proper Role of Individuals and Institutions in Addressing Climate Change?

This may seem like a trivial question with an obvious answer.  But what really is the proper role for individuals and institutions in addressing climate change?  An immediate and natural response may be that everyone should do their part.  Let’s see what that really means.

Decisions affecting carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, for example, are made primarily by companies and consumers.  This includes decisions by companies about how to produce electricity, as well as thousands of other goods and services; and decisions by consumers regarding what to buy, how to transport themselves, and how to keep their homes warm, cool, and light.

However, despite the fact that these decisions are made by firms and individuals, government action is clearly key, because climate change is an externality, and it is rarely, if ever, in the self-interest of firms or individuals to take unilateral actions.  That’s why the climate problem exists, in the first place.  Voluntary initiatives – no matter how well-intended – will not only be insufficient, but insignificant relative to the magnitude of the problem.

So, the question becomes how to shift decisions by firms and individuals in a climate-friendly direction, such as toward emissions reductions.  Whether conventional standards or market-based instruments are used, meaningful government regulation will be required.

But where does this leave the role and responsibility of individuals and institutions?  Let me use as an example my employer, a university.  A couple of years ago, I met with students advocating for a reduced “carbon foot-print” for the school.  Here is what I told them.

“I was asked by a major oil company to advise on the design of an internal, voluntary tradable permit systems for CO2 emissions.  My response to the company was ‘fine, but the emissions from your production processes — largely refineries — are trivial compared with the emissions from the use of your products (combustion of fossil fuels).  If you really want to do something meaningful about climate change, the focus should be on the use of your products, not your internal production process.’  (My response would have been different had they been a cement producer.)  The oil company proceeded with its internal measures, which – as I anticipated – had trivial, if any impacts on the environment (and they subsequently used the existence of their voluntary program as an argument against government attempts to put in place a meaningful climate policy).”

My view of a university’s responsibilities in the environmental realm is similar.  Our direct impact on the natural environment — such as in terms of CO2 emissions from our heating plants — is absolutely trivial compared with the impacts on the environment (including climate change) of our products:  knowledge produced through research, informed students produced through our teaching, and outreach to the policy world carried out by faculty.

So, I suggested to the students that if they were really concerned with how the university affects climate change, then their greatest attention should be given to priorities and performance in the realms of teaching, research, and outreach.

Of course, it is also true that work on the “greening of the university” can in some cases play a relevant role in research and teaching.  And, more broadly — and more importantly — the university’s actions in regard to its “carbon footprint” can have symbolic value.  And symbolic actions — even when they mean little in terms of real, direct impacts — can have effects in the larger political world.  This is particularly true in the case of a prominent university, such as my own.

But, overall, my institution’s greatest opportunity — indeed, its greatest responsibility — with regard to addressing global climate change is and will be through its research, teaching, and outreach to the policy community.

Why not focus equally on reducing the university’s carbon foot-print while also working to increase and improve relevant research, teaching, and outreach?  The answer brings up a phrase that will be familiar to readers of this blog – opportunity cost.  Faculty, staff, and students all have limited time; indeed, as in many other professional settings, time is the scarcest of scarce resources.  Giving more attention to one issue inevitably means – for some people – giving less time to another.

So my advice to the students was to advocate for more faculty appointments in the environmental realm and to press for more and better courses.  After all, it was student demand at my institution that resulted in the creation of the college’s highly successful concentration (major) in environmental science and public policy.

My bottom line?  Try to focus on actions that can make a real difference, as opposed to actions that may feel good or look good but have relatively little real-world impact, particularly when those feel-good/look-good actions have opportunity costs, that is, divert us from focusing on actions that would make a significant difference.  Climate change is a real and pressing problem.  Strong government actions will be required, as well as enlightened political leadership at the national and international levels.

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Epilogue:  After I posted the above essay, I was reminded of an incident that took place many years ago (before I came to Harvard for graduate school, in fact) when I was working full-time for the Environmental Defense Fund in Berkeley, California, under the inspired leadership of the late (and truly great) Tom Graff, the long-time guru of progressive California water policy.  EDF was very engaged at the time in promoting better water policies in California, including the use of trading mechanisms and appropriate pricing schemes for scarce water supplies.  A prominent national newspaper which was not friendly to EDF’s work sent a reporter to EDF’s office to profile the group’s efforts on water policy in the State.  A staff member found the reporter in the office bathroom examining whether EDF had voluntarily installed various kinds of water conservation devices.  Our reaction at the time was that whether or not EDF had voluntarily installed water conservation devices was simply and purely an (intentional) distraction from the important work the group was carrying out.   After several decades, my view of that incident has not changed.

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Policies Can Work in Strange Ways

Whether the policy domain is global climate change or local hazardous waste, it’s exceptionally important to understand the interaction between public policies and technological change in order to assess the effects of laws and regulations on environmental performance.  Several years ago, my colleagues ­- Professor Lori Bennear of Duke University and Professor Nolan Miller of the University of Illinois – examined with me the effects of regulation on technological change in chlorine manufacturing by focusing on the diffusion of membrane-cell technology, widely viewed as environmentally superior to both mercury-cell and diaphragm-cell technologies.  Our results were both interesting and surprising, and merit thinking about in the context of current policy discussions and debates in Washington.

The chlorine manufacturing industry had experienced a substantial shift over time toward the membrane technology. Two different processes drove this shift:  adoption of cleaner technologies at existing plants (that is, adoption), and the closing of facilities using diaphragm and mercury cells (in other words, exit).  In our study, we considered the effects of both direct regulation of chlorine manufacturing and regulation of downstream uses of chlorine.    (By the way, you can read a more detailed version of this story in our article in the American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings, volume 93, 2003, pp. 431-435.)

In 1972, a widely publicized incident of mercury poisoning in Minamata Bay, Japan, led the Japanese government to prohibit the use of mercury cells for chlorine production. The United States did not follow suit, but it did impose more stringent constraints on mercury-cell units during the early 1970’s. Subsequently, chlorine manufacturing became subject to increased regulation under the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act.  In addition, chlorine manufacturing became subject to public-disclosure requirements under the Toxics Release Inventory.

In addition to regulation of the chlorine manufacturing process, there was also increased environmental pressure on industries that used chlorine as an input. This indirect regulation was potentially important for choices of chlorine manufacturing technology because a large share of chlorine was and is manufactured for onsite use in the production of other products. Changes in regulations in downstream industries can have substantial impacts on the demand for chlorine and thereby affect the rate of entry and exit of chlorine production plants.

Two major indirect regulations altered the demand for chlorine. One was the Montreal Protocol, which regulated the production of ozone-depleting chemicals, such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), for which chlorine is a key ingredient. The other important indirect regulation was the “Cluster Rule,” which tightened restrictions on the release of chlorinated compounds from pulp and paper mills to both water and air. This led to increased interest by the industry in non-chlorine bleaching agents, which in turn affected the economic viability of some chlorine plants.

In our econometric (statistical) analysis, we analyzed the effects of economic and regulatory factors on adoption and exit decisions by chlorine manufacturing plants from 1976 to 2001.  For our analysis of adoption, we employed data on 51 facilities, eight of which had adopted the membrane technology during the period we investigated.

We found that the effects of the regulations on the likelihood of adopting membrane technology were not statistically significant.  Mercury plants, which were subject to stringent regulation for water, air, and hazardous-waste removal, were no more likely to switch to the membrane technology than diaphragm plants. Similarly, TRI reporting appeared to have had no significant effect on adoption decisions.

We also examined what caused plants to exit the industry, with data on 55 facilities, 21 of which ceased operations between 1976 and 2001. Some interesting and quite striking patterns emerged. Regulations clearly explained some of the exit behavior.  In particular, indirect regulations of the end-uses of chlorine accelerated shutdowns in some industries. Facilities affected by the pulp and paper cluster rule and the Montreal Protocol were substantially more likely to shut down than were other facilities.

It is good to remember that the diffusion of new technology is the result of a combination of adoption at existing facilities and entry and exit of facilities with various technologies in place. In the case of chlorine manufacturing, our results indicated that regulatory factors did not have a significant effect on the decision to adopt the greener technology at existing plants. On the other hand, indirect regulation of the end-uses of chlorine accelerated facility closures significantly, and thereby increased the share of plants using the cleaner, membrane technology for chlorine production.

Environmental regulation did affect technological change, but not in the way many people assume it does. It did so not by encouraging the adoption of some technology by existing facilities, but by reducing the demand for a product and hence encouraging the shutdown of facilities using environmentally inferior options.  This is a legitimate way for policies to operate, although it’s one most politicians would probably prefer not to recognize.

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Straight Talk about Corporate Social Responsibility

Critical thinking about “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) is needed, because there are few topics where discussions feature greater ratios of heat to light.  With this in mind, two of my Harvard colleagues – law professor Bruce Hay and business school professor Richard Vietor – and I co-edited a book, Environmental Protection and the Social Responsibility of Firms: Perspectives from Law, Economics, and Business.

At issue is the appropriate role of business with regard to environmental protection.  Everyone agrees that firms should obey the law. But beyond the law – beyond compliance with regulations – do firms have additional responsibilities to commit resources to environmental protection?  How should we think about the notion of firms sacrificing profits in the social interest?

Much of what has been written on this question has been both confused and confusing.  Advocates, as well as academics, have entangled what ought to be four distinct questions about corporate social responsibility:  may they, can they, should they, and do they.

First, may firms sacrifice profits in the social interest – given their fiduciary responsibilities to shareholders?  Does management have a fiduciary duty to maximize corporate profits in the interest of shareholders, or can it sacrifice profits by voluntarily exceeding the requirements of environmental law?  Einer Elhauge, a professor at Harvard Law School, challenges the conventional wisdom that managers have a simple legal duty to maximize corporate profits.  He argues that managers have freedom to diverge from the goal of profit maximization, partly because their legal duties to shareholders are governed by the “business judgment rule,” which gives them broad discretion to use corporate resources as they see fit.

If a company’s managers decide, for example, to use “green” inputs, devise cleaner production technologies, or dispose of their waste more safely, courts will not stop them from doing so, no matter how disgruntled shareholders may be at such acts of public charity.  The reason is that for all a judge knows, such measures – particularly when they are well publicized – will add to the firm’s bottom line in the long run by increasing public goodwill.  But this line of argument contradicts the very premise, since it is based upon the notion that the actions are not sacrificing profits, but contributing to them.

This leads directly to the second question.  Can firms sacrifice profits in the social interest on a sustainable basis, or will the forces of a competitive market render such efforts transient at best?  Paul Portney, Dean of the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona, notes that for firms that enjoy monopoly positions or produce products for well-defined niche markets, such extra costs can well be passed on to customers.  But for the majority of firms in competitive industries – particularly firms that produce commodities – it is difficult or impossible to pass on such voluntarily incurred costs to customers.  Such firms have to absorb those extra costs in the form of reduced profits, reduced shareholder dividends, and/or reduced compensation, suggesting that, in the face of competition, such behavior is not sustainable.

This leads to the third question of CSR:  even if firms may carry out such profit-sacrificing activities, and can do so, should they – from society’s perspective?  Is this likely to lead to an efficient use of social resources?  To be more specific, under what conditions are firms’ CSR activities likely to be welfare-enhancing?  Portney finds that this is most likely to be the case if firms pursuing CSR strategies are doing so because it is good business – that is, profitable.  Once again, a positive response violates the premise of the question.  But for more costly CSR investments, concern exists about the opportunity costs that will be involved for firms. Further, in the case of companies that behave strategically with CSR to anticipate and shape future regulations, welfare may be reduced if the result is less stringent standards (that would have been justified).

Finally, do firms behave this way?  Do some firms reduce their earnings by voluntarily engaging in environmental stewardship?  Forest Reinhardt of the Harvard Business School addresses this question by surveying the performance of a broad cross-section of firms, and finds that only rarely does it pay to be green.  That said, situations do exist in which it does pay. Where one can increase customers’ willingness to pay, reduce one’s costs, manage future risk, or anticipate and defer costly governmental regulation, then it may pay to be green.  Overall, Reinhardt acknowledges the existence of these opportunities for some firms – examples such as Patagonia and DuPont stand out – but the empirical evidence does not support broad claims of pervasive opportunities.

So, where does this leave us?  May firms engage in CSR, beyond the law? An affirmative though conditional answer seems appropriate.  Can firms do so on a sustainable basis?  Outside of monopolies and limited niche markets, the answer is probably negative.  Should they carry out such beyond-compliance efforts, even when doing so is not profitable?  Here – if the alternative is sound and effective government policy – the answer may not be encouraging.  And the last question – do firms generally carry out such activities – seems to lead to a negative assessment, at least if we restrict our attention to real cases of “sacrificing profits in the social interest.”

But definitive answers to these questions await the results of rigorous, empirical research.  In the meantime, we ought to prevent muddled thinking by keeping separate these four questions of corporation social responsibility.

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