This is Not a Time for Political Neutrality

I have been writing essays at this blog for over seven years, and throughout that time, through perhaps 100 more-or-less-monthly essays, I have tried very hard to keep politics at bay, and to view each and every issue I discussed from a politically neutral, yet analytical economic perspective.  But I find it difficult to remain neutral in the current U.S. Presidential election cycle.

Since before the summer, I had resolved to write today’s essay, but I decided to wait until one month before the November U.S. election to post it, simply because I thought this was the point in time when people would be paying most attention to the upcoming election but would not yet have completely made up their minds.  In particular, I want to address this message to people who – like me – are political independents.


I have been teaching at Harvard for close to 30 years, and every year I take pride in the fact that at the conclusion of my 13-week course in environmental economics and policy, my students cannot say – on the basis of what I have said in lectures or what they have read in the assigned readings – whether I am a tree-hugging environmental advocate from the political left, or an industry apologist from the political right (actually, I am neither, although hostile voices in the blogosphere have sometimes wanted to peg me as being on the opposite of whatever extreme they occupy).

Likewise, I have remained bipartisan in politics, ever since I directed Project 88 more than 25 years ago for the bipartisan coalition of former Democratic Senator Timothy Wirth and the late Republican Senator John Heinz.  Starting with the White House of President George H. W. Bush, and continuing with every administration – of both political parties – since then, I have worked on substantive matters of environmental and energy policy, in some cases closely and intensively, and in some cases indirectly and on the periphery.

Such professional bipartisanship and political neutrality have been important to me, and have been consistent with my voter registration, as I am officially registered as an independent (in Massachusetts, this goes by the designation of “unenrolled”).

So, over the years, I have voted for Democrats and I have voted for Republicans, for various offices ranging from the Mayor of my town to the President of my country.  And in each and every one of those elections, although I preferred one of the two principal candidates (sometimes very strongly), in no case did I fear for the future of my community, my state, or my country if my candidate lost and the other candidate won.

This time is different.  In all honesty, I fear for the United States and I fear for the world if Donald Trump is elected President.  The time for my professional bipartisanship and political neutrality has ended – at least temporarily.  And so I apologize to my readers for using this platform – An Economic View of the Environment – to express my broader, personal views on the upcoming election.  This is a departure that I hope never again will be necessary.

I am not part of a campaign, and I am not recommending a candidate.  Rather, I am recommending that everyone vote!  Of course, today’s essay, like all my posts at this blog, expresses only my personal views, and is not written on behalf of my employer, nor in my capacity as a faculty member of the Harvard Kennedy School.

What Drives My Fear of a Trump Presidency?  His Views on the Environment?

My fear of the consequences of a Trump victory in the Presidential election is not simply because of Mr. Trump’s misleading, (consistently) inconsistent, and fundamentally incorrect statements in the realm of environmental and energy policy.

Let me be clear.  I do find Mrs. Clinton’s policy positions in my area of expertise – environmental and energy economics and policy – to be superior to Mr. Trump’s positions.  I will not repeat here my views of Trump’s environmental and energy positions, because I have frequently been quoted in the press as critical of his pronouncements and positions in this realm (Climate Central, E&E News, Scientific American, New York Times, Washington Post, The Verge, New York Times, The Week, Law Street, Climate Central, New York Times, The Hill, Newsmax, Climate Central, Grist, and National Public Radio).  And a few times I have been quoted as criticizing Hillary Clinton’s policy prescriptions in the environmental and energy realm (New York Times, Denver Post, and High Country News).  (For that matter, I have been quoted perhaps hundreds of times over the past seven and a half years as sometimes supportive and sometimes critical of Obama administration environmental and energy policies.)

So, yes, I believe that the world would be worse off with what I anticipate would be a Trump administration’s environmental and energy policies.  But that is not what really frightens me.

What Really Does Scare me about a Trump Presidency?

What frightens me is much broader and more profound.  I worry about what a Trump presidency would mean for my country and for the world in realms ranging from economic progress to national security to personal liberty.  This comes not from any analysis of policy proposals, but from Trump’s own words in a campaign in which he has substituted impulse and pandering for thoughtful politics.  From the first day – his June 16, 2015 announcement of his Presidential bid (in which he described Mexican immigrants as drug smugglers, criminals, and rapists, and promised to “build a great wall”) – until today, Mr. Trump has built his populist campaign on false allegations about others, personal insults of anyone who disagrees with him, and displays of breathtaking xenophobia, veiled racism, and unapologetic sexism.

As disturbing as Trump’s stated positions are in economic policy, national security, and personal liberties, possibly even worse is the reality that Donald Trump, if elected President, would – intentionally or unintentionally – provide cover and support for the ignorant, racist, and xenophobic tendencies that sadly inhabit a substantial fraction of the U.S. population.  In many ways, Trump represents not the best that my country has to offer, but rather the worst excesses of American culture.

Trump is clearly a politician who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument.  That is the definition – word for word – of a demagogue.

The Bottom Line

If you are an independent, like me, please do not sit on the sidelines of the upcoming election, condemning both candidates for their failings.

It has been said many times by many people that Hillary Clinton is not an ideal candidate for President.  I do not disagree with that sentiment.  Nor can I dispute the fact that her primary campaign against Senator Bernie Sanders pushed her to adopt positions of the left, including her unfortunate reversal regarding the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.

But Mrs. Clinton would bring significant, positive experience to the presidency from four decades of public life, including as a member of the U.S. Senate and as Secretary of State.  In contrast with Mr. Trump, she has surrounded herself with legions of smart and experienced advisers in dozens of key policy realms.  Her campaign has produced detailed proposals on the most important challenges facing the country (although I do question some of her environmental positions).  But she is, if anything, a realist – not an ideologue, and certainly not a demagogue, which is precisely how I would characterize Mr. Trump.

I recognize that many people harbor very negative feelings about Mrs. Clinton.  The low approval ratings (of both candidates) validate that.  I respect those voters who have serious concerns about a Clinton presidency.

My core argument is that there are great differences between the two major candidates.  I disagree strongly with those of my fellow political independents (and others) who say that because both candidates are flawed, they will not vote.

In my view, that would be a mistake.  The fate of the United States and the fate of the world are really in our hands.  If you are an independent, please do not sit out this election.  It is much too important.

Misleading Talk about Decoupling CO2 Emissions and Economic Growth

You can call it my pet peeve or even my obsession, but whenever I read about the claimed “decoupling” of CO2 emissions and economic growth, I get annoyed.  Webster’s Dictionary defines decoupling as “eliminating the interrelationship” between two processes.  But the interrelationship between CO2 emissions and economic growth has certainly not been eliminated.

Decoupling is the wrong word and metaphor to describe what has been happening.  When a caboose is decoupled from a train, it stops moving altogether.  A better metaphor, although less linguistically appealing, would be a “slipping clutch.”  The engine continues to transmit power, and as a result the driveshaft continues to rotate, but with less velocity than when the clutch was new.

What Has Been Happening

True enough, the carbon intensities of many economies in the world, particularly those of the industrialized nations, have – for many years – been falling, as those economies have become less energy intensive (less energy use per unit of economic activity – Gross Domestic Product or GDP), and therefore less carbon intensive.  For each dollar of economic activity, CO2 emissions are less than they used to be.  For each unit of economic growth, there is less growth in CO2 emissions than previously.

Furthermore, in some cases, as economies grow, CO2 emissions can actually fall.  First, picture an economy which is growing exclusively in its services sector.  In this case, economic growth might be accompanied by no change in CO2 emissions.  Now picture an economy which is growing in its services sector, while shrinking in its manufacturing sector (sound familiar?).  In this case, economic growth might be accompanied by reduced CO2 emissions.  Now add to this picture the presence of some public policies, such as those that cause the closure of coal-fired electric generation plants, as well as greater dispatch of electricity from natural gas-fired plants.  The result:  economic growth continues, with falling CO2 emissions.  But there has been no decoupling.

Confusion Due to Failure to Employ Appropriate Counterfactual

The problem and the confusion arises from a very common mistake in the popular press and, for that matter, in many casual conversations:  failure to use the right counterfactual for analysis.  The fact that GDP is rising while emissions are falling does not mean that GDP is not affecting emissions.  The appropriate counterfactual for comparison is how much would emissions have fallen had there been no growth in GDP.  Presumably, emissions would have fallen even more.  The excess of emissions in the factual case, compared with the counterfactual case, is the magnitude of emissions growth due to (actually, “associated with”) economic growth.  There has been no elimination of the relationship between the two, although the nature and the magnitude of that relationship has changed.

What Factors Affect CO2 Emissions?

So, why have CO2 emissions been declining in some countries?  Or, more broadly and more to the point, what factors have affected CO2 emissions?  Four stand out (although there are others).

First, energy comes at a cost in all economies, and so economic incentives exist to economize on energy use through technological change.  The energy-intensity of the U.S. economy has gradually fallen – almost monotonically – since early in the twentieth century.

Second, putting aside energy-intensity and focusing on carbon intensity, some technological change has worked against the use of carbon-intensive sources of energy.  The most dramatic example, specific to the United States, has been the combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking), which has caused a significant increase in supply and dramatic fall in the market price of natural gas, which has thereby led to a massive shift of investment and electricity dispatch from coal to natural gas.

Third, in the richer countries of the world, including this one, the process of economic growth has led to changing sectoral composition:  heavy industry to light manufacturing to services.  The deindustrialization of California is a graphic example.  Does the fact that California’s economy has grown while emissions have fallen mean that decoupling has occurred?  Of course not.  And, in the California case, there has also been a fourth factor …

Fourth, public policies have in some jurisdictions of the world (Europe, the United States, and most of the other OECD countries) discouraged carbon intensity.  In the USA, this has happened both through climate policies and other, non-climate policies.  Some non-climate policies, such as EPA’s Mercury Rule, discourage investment, encourage retirement, and discourage dispatch of coal-fired electricity, while other non-climate policies, such as CAFE standards for motor vehicles, bring about greater fuel efficiency of the fleet of cars and trucks over time.  Climate-specific policies have also mattered, such as in California, where the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (AB-32) has brought down emissions through a portfolio of policies, including an economy-wide CO2 cap-and-trade system.

The Bottom Line

So, yes, the carbon intensity of many economies continues to fall – for a variety of reasons, including but by no means limited to public policies.  And, in some cases, the combination of energy price changes, technological change, changes in sectoral composition, and climate and other public policies has meant that emissions have fallen in years when economic growth has continued.  But don’t be fooled.  Economic growth does affect CO2 emissions.  There has been no decoupling; just some (desirable) slipping of the clutch.

Of course, this is not an anti-environment message.  On the contrary, a belief in decoupling per se could lead to a misguided laissez-faire attitude about the path of CO2 emissions.  Being honest and accurate about the links between (desirable) economic growth and (desirable) CO2 emissions reductions puts our focus and emphasis where it ought to be:  finding better ways to have both.

Can the WTO Take a Lesson from the Paris Climate Playbook?

As readers will know from my previous entry at this blog (“Paris Agreement — A Good Foundation for Meaningful Progress”, December 12, 2015), I was busy with presentations and meetings during the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP-21) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris last December. However, I did have time to reflect on the process that was leading to the then-emerging Paris Agreement, including a series of discussions with my Harvard colleague – Professor Robert Lawrence, a leading international trade economist –who was back in Cambridge.

He and I realized that negotiators in a very different realm – international trade – could benefit from observing the progress that was being made in the international climate policy realm in Paris. This led to a co-authored op-ed that appeared in the Boston Globe on December 7, 2015 (“What the WTO Can Learn from the Paris Climate Talks”).

For many years, climate negotiators have looked longingly at how the World Trade Organization (WTO) was able to negotiate effective international agreements. But ironically, the Paris climate talks and the WTO negotiations, which were set to take place the following week in Nairobi, lead to the opposite conclusion. Trade negotiators can now emulate the progress made in the climate change agreements by moving away from a simplistic division between developed and developing countries.

For years, global climate change policy was hobbled by this division. Readers of this blog will be familiar with this issue. In the Kyoto Protocol, only developed countries committed to emissions reductions. Developing countries had no obligations. The stark demarcation made meaningful progress impossible, partly because the growth in emissions since the Protocol came into force in 2005 has been entirely in the large developing countries. Even if developed countries were to eliminate their CO2 emissions completely, the world cannot reduce the pace of climate change unless countries such as China, India, Brazil, Korea, South Africa, Mexico, and Indonesia take meaningful action.

The WTO negotiations, launched in 2001 in Doha, have remained at an impasse because of similar problems. They are tied up because nearly all the obligations assumed by WTO members depend upon whether they claim to be developed or developing. And since countries are allowed to self-designate, countries such as Singapore, South Korea, and the Gulf oil states seek to be treated the same as Ghana, Zambia, and Pakistan.

When developing countries accounted for a relatively small share of world trade, it was easy to grant all of them special treatment. But it has become impossible for developed countries to agree to additional liberalization without meaningful market-opening concessions by the large emerging economies, which will account for the majority of world trade growth in the future. Even though some have already liberalized unilaterally, many of these countries avoid making concessions at the WTO by claiming treatment as developing nations.

In the climate arena, the big break came in Durban, South Africa, in 2011, when countries agreed to achieve an outcome that was applicable to all parties. In Paris, the countries of the world adopted the Paris Agreement, which includes: bottom-up elements in the form of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) – national targets and actions that arise from domestic policies and circumstances; and top-down elements for oversight, guidance, and coordination. Now all countries are involved in protecting the climate system “on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.”

Whereas the current commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol covers countries (Europe and New Zealand) that account for no more than 14 percent of global emissions (and zero percent of global emissions growth), INDCs submitted for the Paris agreement cover 186 countries, representing 96 percent of global emissions. This dramatic, path-breaking expansion of the scope of participation is the key reason for optimism about the Paris Agreement.

In the trade sphere, a similarly nuanced approach with differentiated responsibilities that reflect different capabilities could be adopted by the WTO. Instead of all countries having to subscribe as either developed or developing countries, the WTO could finally move beyond the North-South divide that is embodied in almost every draft proposed in the current Doha round.

The climate talks have shown that simplistic classifications of countries are a prescription for impasse. Robert Lawrence and I concluded that unless the WTO learns this lesson, it may become increasingly irrelevant, as coalitions of the willing turn to regional agreements to make what progress they can on international trade liberalization.