On the Origins of Research

In response to my last essay at this web site, “On Becoming an Environmental Economist,” several readers suggested that someday I should write about the origins of my various research initiatives over the past 25 years.  Today, I’m doing that sooner than anyone might have expected!

This is feasible because — also quite recently — I was asked by my colleague, Hannah Riley Bowles, the instructor in the Harvard Kennedy School’s Doctoral Research Seminar, to make a presentation to the first-year students in the Ph.D. program in public policy on how research programs develop.  To prepare for this, I reflected on my research projects over the past 25 years since receiving my PhD in economics at Harvard and joining the Kennedy School faculty, and as I began to write some notes for my presentation, a flow chart of research origins, subjects, and products started to emerge.  You can view my PowerPoint presentation (you need to use Slide Show mode to see the animation) here.

In this essay, I describe the elements of that flow chart of research sources, topics, and selected publications (and provide some screen shots of the PowerPoint deck).

As will probably be apparent, I found the process of preparing for Professor Bowles’s seminar valuable, because it forced me – for the first time in 25 years – to step back and reflect systematically on the origins of my research projects and the connections among them.  So, I recommend this process to other researchers, as I think you may find it rewarding.  And, for would-be researchers, that is, PhD students, I hope the results below will be informative.

An Ex Post Exploration of How Research Programs Develop

In carrying out this ex post exploration of how research programs may develop, I identified eleven types of sources of research ideas and projects.  In approximate chronological order (but not necessarily in order of importance), these are:

      • Dissertation
      • Involvement with the Policy World
      • Picking Up on Someone Else’s Work
      • Conferences
      • Funders
      • Student Interest
      • Responding to Others’ Work
      • Teaching
      • Consulting
      • Class Assignment
      • Invitation

I begin with how my dissertation research subsequently led to several avenues of further research and writing.

Dissertation — Analyzing Land Use

My 1988 Ph.D. thesis examined econometrically the factors that had led to the dramatic depletion of forested wetlands in the southern United States over the previous five decades.  Before commenting on how my dissertation stimulated my subsequent research, I should acknowledge that my dissertation topic itself grew of out of some consulting work I was doing at the time for the Environmental Defense Fund, in particular an analysis for James T. B. Tripp of how U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood control projects were providing economic incentives for landowners to convert their forested wetlands to agricultural croplands.

My dissertation led directly to a pair of journal articles published in 1990 in the American Economic Review (with Adam Jaffe) and the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management.  But more striking – given the theme of this essay – is that several years later I realized that the general econometric approach and simulation model could be applied to a very different question, namely, analyzing the anticipated costs of biological carbon sequestration as a means of reducing net concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, linked with global climate change.  That recognition led to another article in the American Economic Review (1999), and then to a series of other, related projects on carbon sequestration (with Richard Newell 2000, and with Ruben Lubowski and Andrew Plantinga 2006, both in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management), as well as a broader research initiative on factors affecting land-use decisions (with Plantinga and Lubowski in the Journal of Urban Economics in 2002 and Land Economics in 2008).  More recent work with Andrew Plantinga and Robin Cross (that does not appear in the schematic below) has involved an econometric analysis of the concept and reality of “terroir” associated with the production of premium wines (American Economic Review 2011, Journal of Wine Economics 2011).

A Less Direct Legacy of Dissertation:  Economics of Technological Change

A fundamental aspect of the econometric modeling involved in some of the land-use models above, including my dissertation research, was the estimation of the parameters of an empirical distribution of some heterogeneous attribute of land parcels, such as potential crop revenue (due to varying land quality, for example).  As costs of production fall, for example, that distribution would be swept, with various parcels going into production at various points in time.  Adam Jaffe and I hoped that this same sort of model could be applied to the process of technological diffusion, that is, the process of gradual adoption of some new technology over time.

As it turned out, however, the model was less useful than we first thought it would be for analyzing the factors affecting technology diffusion, and so we abandoned it for that purpose.  But this led us to explore other conceptual and empirical approaches to assessing the factors that lead to the diffusion of environmental technologies.  We developed a new framework for comparing empirically the effects of alternative environmental policy instruments on the diffusion of new technology, including Pigouvian taxes, technology adoption subsidies, and technology standards, with an empirical application to the diffusion of thermal insulation in new home construction, comparing the effects of energy prices, insulation cost, and building codes (Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 1995).  Related work with Nolan Miller and Lori (Snyder) Bennear followed in 2003 (American Economic Review).

Given our interest in the diffusion (adoption) of energy-efficiency technologies, it was natural to think about exploring the factors that affect the innovation (commercialization) of such technologies.  A very different model was developed — with Richard Newell taking the lead as part of his Harvard dissertation research — and an empirical application was made to analyzing the innovation of specific household energy-consuming durable goods (such as water heaters and air conditioners).  This work appeared in the Quarterly Journal of Economics in 1999.

More broadly, our interest in the innovation and diffusion energy efficiency technologies led us to explore in a series of articles the so-called “energy paradox” of apparently slow diffusion of technologies that appear to pay for themselves, as well as other issues related to energy-efficiency technological change (Energy Journal 1994, Resource and Energy Economics 1994, Energy Policy 1994, Elsevier Handbook of Economics 2003, Ecological Economics 2005, Energy Economics 2006, and many others).  And, recently, with a resurgence of interest in the energy paradox in the context of global climate change, Richard Newell and I have launched a new research initiative, with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Because I’ve sought to describe the origins of my research somewhat chronologically, I began with my dissertation research.  The fact that several strands of research — some directly related and some indirectly related to my dissertation — subsequently emerged will surely not surprise academic readers of this essay.  However, a considerably greater influence (indeed, the most important influence) on my research portfolio has come from my involvement — not with fellow scholars — but with practitioners in the world of public policy.  That may come as a surprise to some readers, and it is to this illustration of the two-way street between research and practice to which I now turn.

Involvement with the Policy World

A phone call I received in the late spring of 1988 — a week before my Harvard graduation — from Senator Timothy Wirth (D-Colorado), and a meeting shortly thereafter in Washington with Senator Wirth and his long-time friend and colleague, Senator John Heinz (R-Pennsylvania) led to an agreement that I would direct for them a study intended to inform the Presidential debates on environmental policy in that election year — Project 88:  Harnessing Market Forces to Protect the Environment (and a follow-up study in 1991, Project 88 — Round II, Incentives for Action: Designing Market-Based Environmental Strategies).

Many pages could be written — and, indeed, many have been written — about the influence that Project 88, sponsored by Senators Wirth and Heinz, subsequently had on policy developments at the federal level in Washington (including the path-breaking SO2 allowance trading program in the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments), within many states, and internationally in locations ranging from the European Union to China.  But my purpose in this essay is to examine the origins of my research portfolio, and so I will turn instead to reflect on the ways my experience with Project 88 (and related policy engagements with the White House, the Congress, and others) stimulated new paths of my scholarly research.

One path of research activity soon focused on normative analysis of alternative policy instruments, including work on:  transaction costs in cap-and-trade markets (Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 1995), the effects of correlated uncertainty on the choice between price and quantity instruments (Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 1996), vintage-differentiated regulations (Stanford Environmental Law Journal 2006), and policy instruments in second-best settings (with Lori Bennear, Environmental and Resource Economics 2007).  [The work on correlated uncertainty also illustrates an example of another source of research ideas, namely picking up on research by someone else, because this work was directly inspired by a footnote in Professor Martin Weitzman‘s classic work on “Prices vs. Quantities” (Review of Economic Studies 1974).]

Another area of work on normative analysis of policy instruments focused broadly on market-based instruments (with Robert Hahn, American Economic Review 1992; with Richard Newell, Journal of Regulatory Economics 2003; and the Elsevier Handbook of Environmental Economics 2003).  Other work focused more specifically on cap-and-trade systems (Journal of Economic Perspectives 1998; with Robert Hahn, Journal of Law and Economics 2011; and with Richard Schmalensee, Journal of Economic Perspectives 2013).

A conceptually distinct path of research that also found its origins in my work on Project 88 has involved examinations of the positive political economy of environmental policy (with Robert Hahn, Ecology Law Quarterly 1991; with Nathaniel Keohane and Richard Revesz, Harvard Environmental Law Review 1998; with Robert Hahn and Sheila Olmstead, Harvard Environmental Law Review 2003).

Even this extensive set of research projects and publications that derive from my work on Project 88 — depicted in the figure above — understates the influence that my work on Project 88 with Senators Wirth and Heinz has had on my scholarly research over the years.  This is because much of my work on global climate change policy, for example, has in fact focused on the potential use of market-based instruments in that realm, but for purposes of this essay, I associate that later work on climate policy with two other origins, namely, conferences and funders.

Conferences and Funders

Gradually over the 25 years since receipt of my PhD, my research has evolved from diverse work across environmental and natural resources economics, to more and more focus each year on various aspects of global climate change and related public policies.

“Climate skeptics” and other opponents of action to address climate change have sometimes accused the research community of focusing on climate change because “that is where the money is.”  Although there are sound reasons for focusing on climate change other than the availability of funds (such as the importance of the problem, and the methodological challenges it poses), there is some partial truth to the accusation.  Indeed, numerous national governments and major philanthropic foundations have made it their goal to stimulate research (and action) on climate change.

One part of my work in this realm has been research on national and sub-national climate policy instruments, often focused on the design of market-based instruments, including but not limited to cap-and-trade mechanisms (Brookings Institution 2007; Harvard Environmental Law Review 2008; Oxford Review of Economic Policy 2008; and my work on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Second, 1995, and Third, 2001, and Fifth Assessment Reports.

An invitation from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to propose and eventually direct an international research and outreach project on international climate policy architecture led to much (but not all) of my work on international climate policy cooperation (with Joseph Aldy and Scott Barrett, Climate Policy 2003; with Scott Barrett, International Environmental Agreements 2003: with Sheila Olmstead, American Economic Review 2006; three books with Joseph Aldy published by Cambridge University Press 2007, 2009, 2010; an article with Judson Jaffe and Matthew Ranson, Ecology Law Quarterly 2010; and ongoing work on the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report 2010-2014; and much more).

Student Interest

Many professors who are reading this essay will not be the least bit surprised to learn that another origin of research ideas has been interest expressed by graduate students.  Three important examples stand out in my case.

One I have already written about above.  When Richard Newell (my very first PhD student) came to Harvard for graduate school in 1993, he brought with him an abiding interest in the relationship between science, technology, and policy.  At the time, Adam Jaffe and I were continuing our work on the diffusion of energy-efficiency technologies, and then the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) solicited proposals for research that could improve the modeling of technological change in integrated assessment models of climate change (so this covers two other origins — involvement with the policy world, and potential funding).  All of this came together in a joint research initiative, funded by DOE, which supported Newell’s dissertation research on factors affecting the pace and direction of energy-efficiency technology innovation.  This led to a subsequent publication with Jaffe and Newell (Quarterly Journal of Economics 1999), as well as series of other collaborations with Newell, which are on-going to this day.

In 1999, Sheila (Cavanagh) Olmstead came to the Harvard PhD program in public policy with a strong background and keen interests in water resources and water policy.  I brought on board Michael Hanemann, then a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, as a collaborator, and together we applied (successfully) to the National Science Foundation for a grant that supported Sheila’s dissertation research on econometrically estimating demand for municipal water in the presence of block-rate pricing schedules.  Not only did that lead directly to some published work (with Olmstead and Hanemann, Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 2007), but led indirectly to other research on water pricing(with Olmstead, Water Resources Research 2009).

The work on carbon sequestration and land use described above with Ruben Lubowski and Andrew Plantinga (Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 2006; Journal of Urban Economics 2002; Land Economics 2008) also deserves mention in this part of the essay, because it all grew out of Ruben Lubowski‘s PhD dissertation research at Harvard.

Responding to Others’ Work

I mentioned above an example of picking up on someone else’s work (in a positive sense), namely a footnote in Marty Weitzman’s classic 1974 article on “Prices vs Quantities” in which he noted that he was assuming statistical independence between marginal benefits and marginal costs, which stimulated me to relax that assumption and pursue the analysis (which led to my article on the effects of correlated uncertainty in 1996 in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management).

By contrast, sometimes researchers can be stimulated to do work in order to question others’ previous work (and related conventional wisdom).  This was the case with my collaborative work examining the topic of “corporate social responsibility,” an area of scholarship that some colleagues and I believed was populated by research and writing that generated more heat than light.  A conference we organized at Harvard led to a subsequent book that examined Environmental Protection and the Social Responsibility of Firms:  Perspectives from Law, Economics, and Business (with Harvard Law School professor, Bruce Hay, and Harvard Business School professor, Richard Vietor, 2005).  Later, I took the next step with a follow-up article with Vietor and his Harvard Business School colleague, Forest Reinhardt (Review of Environmental Economics and Policy 2008), and another with Reinhardt (Oxford Review of Economic Policy 2010).

Teaching

Classroom teaching can itself provide inspiration for research.  In 2002, I was teaching a small “reading and research course” for PhD students interested in environmental economics, and lamented one day that the increasingly popular concept of “sustainability” seemed to lack a clear definition or interpretation that made sense in economic terms.  I offered a possible economic interpretation in class, and within a week, two students — Gernot Wagner and Alexander Wagner (unrelated) — had written out a mathematically formalized version of my interpretation.  We collaborated on writing a brief article that provided background as well as further exploration (Economic Letters 2003).

Consulting

It may (or may not) come as a surprise that consulting (work I do outside of my Harvard responsibilities, sometimes for compensation, sometimes not) can also lead to interesting research ideas.  In my case, this has led to my thinking more carefully — with collaborators — about the analytical methods that surround net present value analysis (also called, benefit-cost analysis).

This has led to a series of papers on various dimensions of net present value analysis in the environmental realm, including such topics as:  the meaning, limits, and value of the Kaldor-Hicks criterion (with Kenneth Arrow and others, Science 1996); the role of discounting (with Lawrence Goulder, Nature 2002); new benefit-estimation methods (with Paul Portney, Journal of Risk and Uncertainty 1994; and with Lori Bennear and Alexander Wagner, Journal of Regulatory Economics 2005); and the use of Monte Carlo analysis to incorporate uncertainty in regulatory impact analysis (with Judson Jaffe, Regulation and Governance 2007).

Also, as I mentioned at the outset, my 1988 dissertation topic had grown out of some consulting work I was doing at the time for the Environmental Defense Fund.

Class Assignments

Many of my PhD students over the years have written term papers for courses that led to manuscript that were eventually published in academic journals.  But in my own case, because my PhD training in economics at Harvard did not include any courses in environmental economics (none existed at the time, as you may have noted in my previous essay, “On Becoming an Environmental Economist”), the only example I can provide of this origin of research is in a different area, namely economic history.  This is an area in which I took two wonderful courses from Professor Jeffrey Williamson (about which I wrote in my previous post).  An econometric analysis I carried out for one of those courses — “A Model of English Demographic Change: 1573-1873” was subsequently published (Explorations in Economic History 1988).

Invitations (and other origins)

There’s a clear positive correlation between the onset of grey hair and the frequency of invitations to write articles (or books) for publication.  These have included:  an article with Don Fullerton on how economists view the environment in Nature (1998); an article on common property resources in the American Economic Review (2011); my ongoing column, “An Economic Perspective” in The Environmental Forum (2006-present); my blog, “An Economic View of the Environment,” which was launched in 2009; two books of my collected works, 1988-1999 and 2000-2011 (Edward Elgar 2001, 2013); and three editions of a book of selected readings in environmental economics (W. W. Norton 2000, 2005, 2012).

Results of an Ex Post Exploration of Research Origins

Putting all of that together in a single flow chart results in the figure below, which is much clearer in a PDF version.  You can also view the entire PowerPoint presentation (you need to use Slide Show mode to see the animation) here.

As I said at the outset, I found the process of preparing this slide deck for Professor Bowles’s seminar valuable, because it enabled me to step back and reflect systematically on the origins of my research initiatives over the years and the relationships among them.  I recommend this process to other academics, because I believe it can be rewarding.  And, for academics in-the-making, that is, PhD students, I hope this essay may be informative.

On Becoming an Environmental Economist

My essay this month represents a departure from my standard blog posts about a contemporary environmental policy issue.  Rather, it is of a more personal nature, and stems from the fact that the second volume of my collected papers has just been published by Edward Elgar, Economics of Climate Change and Environmental Policy:  Selected Papers of Robert N. Stavins, 2000-2011 (2013), a successor to the first volume, published in 2000, Environmental Economics and Public Policy:  Selected Papers of Robert N. Stavins, 1988-1999.

When the publisher invited me to collect my papers in these edited volumes, it was suggested that I write a personal introduction in which I might reflect on the professional path that led to my research and writing.  I did this, and the introductory chapter of the second volume contains my latest reflections on that path.  This essay essentially consists of an abbreviated version.  My hope is that some readers will find it of interest, particularly students and others who aspire to work in this exciting and growing field.

A Professional Path

Over the past two 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.

In retrospect, my own professional path may now appear somewhat direct, if not altogether linear, but it hardly seemed so as I traveled along it.  The path I describe below 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.  It culminated in my receipt in 1988 of a Ph.D. degree in economics at Harvard University, where I have since been a faculty member at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.  During this time, much has changed in the profession.

Early Days at Harvard

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, however, 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 “special fields” on which they were to be examined orally before proceeding to dissertation research.  Without an active environmental economist in the Department of Economics (Robert Dorfman had retired, and 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 special field of environmental and resource economics (along with econometrics) was approved by the Department’s director of graduate study, Dale Jorgenson.  So began my entry into the scholarly literature.

A Nurturing Environment at Cornell

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 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 me) were both outstanding.  Ken Robinson, my first mentor within the economics profession, became my ongoing role model for intellectual integrity.  It was a very sad day 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 then have the opportunity to study econometrics with Tim Mount.  One summer I had the great privilege of learning 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 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.

A Defining Move from Ithaca to Berkeley

Armed with my M.S. degree, I moved from Cornell 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.  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 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 exceptionally 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.

Origins of Interest in Environmental Economics

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.

From Berkeley to Cambridge

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 computer, then a rather scarce resource) available at all hours.  Now 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 more than a decade 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 witnessed to being an economic research laboratory.  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.

First Steps for a Newly-Minted Ph.D. Recipient

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.

Twenty-Five Years on the Harvard Faculty

Two years later, I launched the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, which today brings together — from across the University — thirty Faculty Fellows and twenty-five 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 superb 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, and Program Manager, Jason Chapman.

At the Kennedy School, I have had an excellent mentor, William Hogan, and a superb advisor and friend, Richard Zeckhauser.  Over the years, five successive deans have provided leadership, guidance, and support (including abundant time for my research and writing) — Graham Allison, Robert Putnam, Albert Carnesale, Joseph Nye, and David Ellwood.  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 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 and now Co-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.

Working with the “Real World”

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 collected papers 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 inquiry.

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.  Because they relate to a number of the papers collected in this volume, I should note that my outreach efforts fall 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.

Finally, because my two books of collected papers focus on my articles, not my books, I should note that over the years I have been privileged to be co-editor with Joseph Aldy of Post-Kyoto International Climate Policy:  Implementing Architectures for Agreement (Cambridge University Press, 2010), Post-Kyoto International Climate Policy:  Summary for Policymakers (Cambridge University Press, 2009), and Architectures for Agreement: Addressing Global Climate Change in the Post-Kyoto World (Cambridge University Press, 2007); editor of three editions of Economics of the Environment (W. W. Norton, 2000, 2005, 2012); co-editor with Bruce Hay and Richard Vietor of Environmental Protection and the Social Responsibility of Firms:  Perspectives from Law, Economics, and Business (Resources for the Future, 2005); editor of The Political Economy of Environmental Regulation (Edward Elgar, 2004), co-editor with Paul Portney of Public Policies for Environmental Protection (Resources for the Future, 2000); and author of Environmental Economics and Public Policy: Selected Papers of Robert N. Stavins, 1988-1999 (Edward Elgar, 2000).

The New Volume

That last book is the predecessor of the new volume.  Whereas the first volume (Stavins 2000) included selected papers from the period 1988 through 1999, the second volume covers the period from 2000 through 2011.  To prepare this new book, I selected 26 articles from the (many more) published papers I wrote  — frequently with co-authors — over the past decade.  Making this selection was not an easy task, but it was a rewarding one, because choosing the papers and organizing them has forced me to step back and reflect on the set of research endeavors in which I have been engaged over this decade, and thus to think more clearly about current and possible future directions.

The book is divided into seven parts.  The papers in Part I provide an overview of environmental and resource economics, treating broadly several key topics, including economic views of:  the problem of the commons (Stavins, American Economic Review, 2011); the history of U.S. environmental regulation (Hahn, Olmstead, and Stavins, Harvard Environmental Law Review, 2003); and corporate social responsibility (Reinhardt, Stavins, and Vietor, Review of Environmental Economics and Policy, 2008).

The articles in Part II deal with methods of environmental policy analysis, focusing, respectively, on:  interpreting sustainability in economic terms (Stavins, Wagner, and Wagner, Economic Letters, 2003); the use of discounting in net present value analysis (Goulder and Stavins, Nature, 2002); the development of a new revealed-preference method for inferring environmental benefits (Bennear, Stavins, and Wagner, Journal of Regulatory Economics, 2005); and the value of formal assessment of uncertainty (that is, Monte Carlo analysis) in regulatory impact analysis (Jaffe and Stavins, Regulation and Governance, 2007).

Part III turns to economic analysis of alternative environmental policy instruments, with examinations of: vintage-differentiated environmental regulation (Stavins, Stanford Environmental Law Journal, 2006); cost heterogeneity and the potential savings from employing market-based environmental policies (Newell and Stavins, Journal of Regulatory Economics, 2003); the effects of allowance allocations on the performance of cap-and-trade systems (Hahn and Stavins, Journal of Law and Economics, 2011); and second-best theory and the use of multiple policy instruments (Bennear and Stavins, Environmental and Resource Economics, 2007).

Part IV focuses on a topic that also received considerable treatment in the predecessor to this volume, namely the economics of technological change.  Here the articles include: a survey of the literature on environmental policy and technological change (Jaffe, Newell, and Stavins, Environmental and Resource Economics, 2002); an analysis of the interaction of environmental and technological market failures (Jaffe, Newell, and Stavins, Ecological Economics, 2005); an empirical assessment of the effect of environmental regulation on technology diffusion in the case of chlorine manufacturing (Miller, Snyder, and Stavins, American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings, 2003); and the effects of economic and policy incentives on carbon mitigation technologies (Jaffe, Newell, and Stavins, Energy Economics, 2006).

Part V consists of three articles in the area of natural resource economics dealing with land and water resources:  an analysis of the factors driving land-use change in the United States (Lubowski, Plantinga, and Stavins, Land Economics, 2008); an econometric examination of the significance of terroir, the notion that wine quality is primarily determined by location (Cross, Plantinga, and Stavins, American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings, 2011); and an assessment of urban water demand under alternative pricing structures (Olmstead, Hanemann, and Stavins, Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, 2007).

Part VI consists of four articles on domestic (national and sub-national) climate change policy, beginning with a description and assessment of a comprehensive U.S. cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions (Stavins, Oxford Review of Economic Policy, 2008), and followed by:  an examination of the interactions of national and sub-national climate policies (Goulder and Stavins, American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings, 2011); an econometric study of the carbon-sequestration supply function (Lubowski, Plantinga, and Stavins, Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, 2006); and an assessment of the factors that affect the costs of biological carbon sequestration (Newell and Stavins, Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, 2000).

Finally, Part VII focuses on the international dimensions of climate change policy, and consists of four articles:  a comparison of alternative global climate change policy architectures (Aldy, Barrett, and Stavins, Climate Policy, 2003); an assessment of the Kyoto Protocol (Stavins, Milken Institute Review, 2005); an examination of a promising post-Kyoto international climate regime (Olmstead and Stavins, American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings, 2006); and a detailed examination of a key element of emerging international climate policy architecture, namely the linkage of regional, national, and sub-national tradable permit systems (Ranson, Jaffe, and Stavins, Ecology Law Quarterly, 2010).

Reflections on Common Themes

Selecting the essays for this second volume of my papers permitted me to take note of some common themes that emerge from this decade 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 goals.

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 considerable value when reflecting on the use of natural resources, whether land, water, fisheries, or forests.  Excessive rates of depletion of these resources 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 grandest of environmental threats is essential.

Final Words

On a personal level, the professional path I have taken offers some confirmation that research can influence public policy, and it also illustrates 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 continue to 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.
 

Selecting the papers for this volume forces me to reflect on the past and think more clearly about the future.  The twenty-six articles that comprise this book and the twenty-two essays that comprised the predecessor volume are the product of twenty-three wonderful years on the faculty of the Harvard Kennedy School.  During this time, I have continued 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 that my learning will continue.

Cap-and-Trade, Carbon Taxes, and My Neighbor’s Lovely Lawn

The recent demise of serious political consideration of an economy-wide U.S. CO2 cap-and-trade system and the even more recent resurgence in interest among policy wonks in a U.S. carbon tax should prompt reflection on where we’ve been, where we are, and where we may be going.

Lessons

Almost fifteen years ago, in an article that appeared in 1998 in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, “What Can We Learn from the Grand Policy Experiment?  Lessons from SO2 Allowance Trading,” I examined the implications of what was then the very new emissions trading program set up by the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 to cut acid rain by half over the succeeding decade.  In that article, I attempted to offer some guidance regarding the conditions under which cap-and-trade (then known as “tradable permits”) was likely to work well, or not so well.  Here’s a brief summary of what I wrote at the time:

(1)  SO2 trading was a case where the cost of abating pollution differed widely among sources, and where a market-based system was therefore likely to have greater gains, relative to conventional, command-and-control regulations (Newell and Stavins 2003). It was clear early on that SO2 abatement cost heterogeneity was great, because of differences in ages of plants and their proximity to sources of low-sulfur coal. But where abatement costs are more uniform across sources, the political costs of enacting an allowance trading approach are less likely to be justifiable.

(2)  The greater the degree to which pollutants mix in the receiving airshed or watershed, the more attractive a cap-and-trade (or emission tax) system will be, relative to a conventional uniform standard. This is because taxes or cap-and-trade can – in principle – lead to localized “hot spots” with relatively high levels of ambient pollution. Some states (in particular, New York) tried unsuccessfully to erect barriers to trades they thought might increase deposition within their borders.  This is a significant distributional issue.  It can also be an efficiency issue if damages are nonlinearly related to pollutant concentrations.

(3)  The efficiency of a cap-and-trade system will depend on the pattern of costs and benefits. If uncertainty about marginal abatement costs is significant, and if marginal abatement costs are quite flat and marginal benefits of abatement fall relatively quickly, then a quantity instrument, such as cap-and-trade, will be more efficient than a price instrument, such as an emission tax (Weitzman 1974).  With a stock pollutant (such as CO2), this argument favors a price instrument (Newell and Pizer 2003).  However, when there is also uncertainty about marginal benefits, and marginal benefits are positively correlated with marginal costs (which, it turns out, is a relatively common occurrence for a variety of pollution problems), then there is an additional argument in favor of the relative efficiency of quantity instruments (Stavins 1996).

(4)  Cap-and-trade will work best when transaction costs are low (Stavins 1995), and the S02 experiment showed that if properly designed, private markets will tend to render transaction costs minimal.

5)  Considerations of political feasibility point to the wisdom of proposing trading instruments when they can be used to facilitate emissions reductions, as was done with SO2 allowances and lead rights trading, less so for the purpose of reallocating existing emissions abatement responsibility (Revesz and Stavins 2007).

(6)  National policy instruments that appear impeccable from the vantage point of Cambridge, Massachusetts, Berkeley, California, or Madison, Wisconsin, but consistently prove infeasible in Washington, D.C., can hardly be considered “optimal.”

Implications for CO2 Policy

In the same article, I noted that many of these issues could be illuminated by considering a concrete example:  the “current interest” in applying cap-and-trade to the task of cutting CO2 emissions to reduce the risk of global climate change.  Some of the points I made in this regard in my 1998 article were:

(a)  The number of sources of CO2 emissions are vastly greater than in the case of SO2 emissions as a precursor of acid rain, where the focus could be placed on a few hundred electric utility plants.  Feasibility considerations alone argue for market-based instruments (cap-and-trade or taxes) to achieve meaningful reductions of CO2 emissions.

(b)  The diversity of sources of CO2 in a modern economy and the consequent heterogeneity of emission reduction costs bolster the case for using cost-effective market-based instruments.

(c)  As the ultimate global-commons problem, CO2 is a truly uniformly-mixed pollutant.  With no concern for hot spots, market-based instruments present none of the problems that can arise in the case of localized environmental threats.

(d)  Any pollution-control program must face the possibility of emissions leakage from regulated to unregulated sources. This would be a severe problem for an international CO2 program, where emissions would tend to increase in nonparticipant countries. Furthermore, it raises concerns for the emission-reduction-credit (not cap-and-trade) system in the Kyoto Protocol known as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).  Such an offset system can lower aggregate costs by substituting low-cost for high-cost control, but may also have the unintended effect of increasing aggregate emissions beyond what they would otherwise have been, because there is an incentive for adverse selection: sources in developing countries that would reduce their emissions, opt in, and receive credit for actions they would have taken anyway.

(e)  Although any trading program could potentially serve as a model for the case of global climate change, I argued that the trading system that accomplished the U.S. phaseout of leaded gasoline in the 1980s merited particular attention. The currency of that system was not lead oxide emissions from motor vehicles, but the lead content of gasoline. So too, in the case of global climate, great savings in monitoring and enforcement costs could be had by adopting input trading linked with the carbon content of fossil fuels. This is reasonable in the climate case, since – unlike in the SO2 case – CO2 emissions are roughly proportional to the carbon content of fossil fuels and scrubbing alternatives are largely unavailable, at least at present.

(f)   Natural sequestration of CO2 from the atmosphere by expanding forested areas is available (even in the United States) at reasonable cost (Stavins 1999).  Hence, it could be valuable to combine any carbon trading (or carbon tax) program with a carbon sequestration program, although this will raise significant challenges in regard to monitoring and enforcement.

(g)  In regard to carbon permit allocation mechanisms, auctions would have the advantage that revenues could be used to finance reductions in distortionary taxes.  Free allocation could increase regulatory costs enough that the sign of the efficiency impact could conceivably be reversed from positive to negative net benefits (Parry, Williams, and Goulder 1999).  On the other hand, free allocation of carbon permits would meet with much less political resistance.

The Necessity of Market-Based Instruments:  Cap-and-Trade or Carbon Taxes

I concluded that developing a cap-and-trade system for climate change would bring forth an entirely new set of economic, political, and institutional challenges.  At the same time, I recognized that the diversity of sources of CO2 emissions and the magnitude of likely abatement costs made it equally clear that only a market-based instrument – some form of carbon rights trading or (probably revenue-neutral) carbon taxes – would be capable of achieving the domestic targets that might eventually be forthcoming.

In other words, my conclusion in 1998 strongly favored a market-based carbon policy, but was somewhat neutral between carbon taxes and cap-and-trade.  Indeed, at that time and for the subsequent eight years or so, I remained agnostic regarding what I viewed as the trade-offs between cap-and-trade and carbon taxes.  What happened to change that?  Three words:  The Hamilton Project.

The Making of an Advocate

For those of you who don’t know, the Hamilton Project is an initiative based at the Brookings Institution that – according to its web site – “offers a strategic vision and produces innovative policy proposals on how to create a growing economy that benefits more Americans.”

In 2007, the Project’s leadership asked me to write a paper proposing a U.S. CO2 cap-and-trade system.  I responded that I would prefer to write a paper proposing the use of a market-based CO2 policy, describing the two alternatives of cap-and-trade and carbon taxes.  I explained that I was by no means opposed to the notion of a carbon tax, having written about such approaches for more than twenty years.  Indeed, I noted, both cap-and-trade and carbon taxes would be good approaches to the problem; they have many similarities, some tradeoffs, and a few key differences.

The Hamilton Project leaders said no, they wanted me to make the best case I could for cap-and-trade, not a balanced investigation of the two policy instruments.  Someone else would be commissioned to write a proposal for a carbon tax.  (That turned out to be Professor Gilbert Metcalf of Tufts University – now on leave at the U.S. Department of the Treasury – who did a splendid job!)  Thus, I was made into an advocate for cap-and-trade.  It’s as simple as that.

Giving It My Best Shot

I argued in my Hamilton Project paper (which you can read here) that despite the tradeoffs between the two principal market-based instruments that could target CO2 emissions, the best (and most likely) approach for the short to medium term in the United States was a cap-and-trade system, based on three criteria:  environmental effectiveness, cost effectiveness, and distributional equity.  Although my position was not simple capitulation to politics, I argued that sound assessments of environmental effectiveness, cost effectiveness, and distributional equity should be made in a real-world political context.

I said that the key merits of the cap-and-trade approach were, first, the program could provide cost-effectiveness, while achieving meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions levels.  Second, it offered an easy means of compensating for the inevitably unequal burdens imposed by a climate policy.  Third, it provided a straightforward means to link with other countries’ climate policies.  Fourth, it avoided the political aversion in the United States to taxes.  Fifth, it was unlikely to be degraded – in terms of its environmental performance and cost effectiveness – by political forces. And sixth, this approach had a history of successful adoption and implementation in this country over the past two decades.

I recognized that there were some real differences between taxes and cap-and-trade that needed to be recognized.  First, environmental effectiveness:  a tax does not guarantee achievement of an emissions target, but it does provide greater certainty regarding costs.  This is a fundamental tradeoff.  Taxes provide automatic temporal flexibility, which needs to be built into a cap-and-trade system through provision for banking, borrowing, and possibly cost-containment mechanisms.  On the other hand, political economy forces strongly point to less severe targets if carbon taxes are used, rather than cap-and-trade – this is not a tradeoff, and is why virtually no environmental NGOs have favored the carbon-tax approach.

In principle, both carbon taxes and cap-and-trade can achieve cost-effective reductions, and – depending upon design — the distributional consequences of the two approaches can be the same.  But the key difference is that political pressures on a carbon tax system will most likely lead to exemptions of sectors and firms, which reduces environmental effectiveness and drives up costs, as some low-cost emission reduction opportunities are left off the table.  But political pressures on a cap-and-trade system lead to different allocations of the free allowances, which affect distribution, but not environmental effectiveness, and not cost-effectiveness.

I concluded that proponents of carbon taxes worried about the propensity of political processes under a cap-and-trade system to compensate sectors through free allowance allocations, but a carbon tax would be sensitive to the same political pressures, and should be expected to succumb in ways that are ultimately more harmful:  reducing environmental achievement and driving up costs.

Of course, such positive political economy arguments look much less compelling in the wake of the defeat of cap-and-trade legislation in the U.S. Congress and its successful demonization by conservatives as “cap-and-tax.”

A Political Opening for Carbon Taxes?

Does the defeat of cap-and-trade in the U.S. Congress, the obvious unwillingness of the Obama White House to utter the phrase in public, and the outspoken opposition to cap-and-trade by Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney indicate that there is a new opening for serious consideration of a carbon-tax approach to meaningful CO2 emissions reductions?

First of all, there surely is such an opening in the policy wonk world.  Economists and others in academia, including important Republican economists such as Harvard’s Greg Mankiw and Columbia’s Glenn Hubbard, remain enthusiastic supporters of a national carbon tax.  And a much-publicized meeting in July at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. brought together a broad spectrum of Washington groups – ranging from Public Citizen to the R Street Institute – to talk about alternative paths forward for national climate policy.  Reportedly, much of the discussion focused on carbon taxes.

Clearly, this “opening” is being embraced with enthusiasm in the policy wonk world.  But what about in the real political world?  The good news is that a carbon tax is not “cap-and-trade.”  That presumably helps with the political messaging!  But if conservatives were able to tarnish cap-and-trade as “cap-and-tax,” it surely will be considerably easier to label a tax – as a tax!   Also, note that Romney’s stated opposition and Obama’s silence extend beyond disdain for cap-and-trade per se.  Rather, they cover all carbon-pricing regimes.

So as a possible new front in the climate policy wars, I remain very skeptical that an explicit carbon tax proposal will gain favor in Washington, no matter what the outcome of the election.  Note that the only election outcome that could lead to an aggressive and successful move to a meaningful nationwide carbon pricing regime would be:  the Democrats take back control of the House of Representatives, and the Democrats achieve a 60+ vote margin in the Senate, and the President is reelected.  A quick check at Five Thirty Eight (Nate Silver’s superb election forecast website at the New York Times) and other polling web sites makes it abundantly clear that the probability of such Democratic control of the White House and Congress is so small that it’s hardly worth discussing.

What About Fiscal Policy Reform?

A more promising possibility – though still unlikely – is that if Republicans and Democrats join to cooperate with either a Romney or Obama White House to work together constructively to address not only the short-term fiscal cliff at the end of this calendar year, but also the longer-term budgetary deficits the U.S. government faces, and if as part of this they decide to include not only cuts in government expenditures, but also some significant “revenue enhancements” (the t-word is not allowed), and if (I know, this is getting to be a lot of “if’s”) it turns out to be easier politically to eschew increases in taxes on labor and investment and therefore turn to taxes on consumption, then there could be a political opening for new energy taxes, in particular, (drum roll ….) a carbon tax.

Such a carbon tax – if intended to help alleviate budget deficits – could not be the economist’s favorite, a revenue-neutral tax swap of cutting distortionary taxes in exchange for implementing a carbon tax.  Rather, as a revenue-raising mechanism – like the Obama administration’s February 2009 budget for a 100%-auction of allowances in a cap-and-trade scheme – it would be a new tax, pure and simple.  Those who recall the 1993 failure of the Clinton administration’s BTU-tax proposal – with a less polarized and more cooperative Congress than today’s – are not optimistic.

Nor is it clear that a carbon tax would enjoy more support in budget talks than a value added tax (VAT) or a Federal sales tax.  The key question is whether the phrases “climate policy” or “carbon tax” are likely to expand or narrow the coalition of support for an already tough budgetary reconciliation measure.  The key group to bring on board will presumably be conservative Tea Party Republicans, and it is difficult to picture them being more willing to break their Grover Norquist pledges because it’s for a carbon tax.

Research

Even if the much-ballyhooed political opening for carbon taxes is largely illusory, the opening for policy wonks is real.  And here is where action is happening, and should continue to happen.  At some point the politics will change, and it’s important to be ready.  This is why economic research on carbon taxes is very much needed, particularly in the context of broader fiscal challenges, and it is why I’m pleased to see it happening at Resources for the Future, Harvard University, and elsewhere.

Bottom Line

I would personally be delighted if a carbon tax were politically feasible in the United States, or were to become politically feasible in the future.  But I’m forced to conclude that much of the current enthusiasm about carbon taxes in the academic and broader policy-wonk community in the wake of the defeat of cap-and-trade is – for the time being, at least – largely a manifestation of the grass looking greener across the street.