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.

A Key Moment for California Climate Policy

The past year has been a crucial time in international climate negotiations.  In December, 2015, in Paris, negotiators established an agreement on the next round of targets and actions to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, which was signed in 1997 and will effectively close down in 2020.  In Paris, negotiators set up a new and meaningful agreement for multinational action through individual country “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs).  The Paris round was crucial, because it expanded the coalition of contributions from countries responsible for 14% of global emissions under Kyoto (Europe and New Zealand) to 187 countries responsible for 96% of emissions under the Paris Agreement.

California’s Role in Global Climate Change Policy

California sent a delegation to the Paris talks. While not officially a party to the negotiations, California government officials attended to show support for broad and meaningful action.  For many years, spurring action beyond California’s borders has been the key rationale for developing a California-based climate policy.  This began with Assembly Bill 32 (AB 32), the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006.  Initially, the focus was on encouraging action within the United States, including federal legislation, state-level actions, and multi-state compacts, but subsequent domestic action turned out to be much less than originally anticipated. As a result, California’s focus shifted to the international domain.

This is a good time to consider how the State can best demonstrate leadership on this global stage.  Action by all key countries, including the large emerging economies – China, India, Brazil, Korea, and South Africa – will be necessary to meaningfully address the climate problem.  Significant multinational contributions will be necessary to avoid having California’s aggressive in-state actions be for naught.  Absent such multilateral action, ambitious California policies do little or nothing to address the real problem.

But California can play a very important role by showing leadership – in two key ways.  One is to demonstrate a commitment to meaningful reductions in (greenhouse gas) GHG emissions.  In this regard, California has more than met the bar, with policies that are as aggressive as – if not more aggressive than – those of most countries.

The other way is to show leadership regarding how reductions of GHG emissions can best be accomplished – that is, in regard to progressive policy design.  California has a sophisticated GHG cap-and-trade system in place, which while not perfect, has many excellent design elements.  Countries around the world are now planning or implementing cap-and-trade systems, including in Europe, China, and Korea.  These countries are carefully watching decisions made in California, with particular attention to the design and implementation of its cap-and-trade system.  California’s system, possibly with a few improvements, could eventually be a model for even larger systems in other countries.

Can California Provide a Good Model of Progressive Policy?

Unfortunately, California’s climate policy has not relied heavily on its cap-and-trade system to achieve state targets.  Furthermore, rather than increasing reliance on this innovative market-based climate policy over time, recent proposals have doubled-down on the use of less efficient conventional policies to achieve GHG reductions. While some of these so-called “complementary policies” can be valuable under particular circumstances, they can also create severe problems.

One example of this is the attempt to employ aggressive sector-based targets through technology-driven policies, such as the Low Carbon Fuels Standard (LCFS).  In the presence of a binding cap-and-trade regime, the LCFS has the perverse effect of relocating carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to other sectors but not reducing net emissions, while driving up statewide abatement costs, and suppressing allowance prices in the cap-and-trade market, thereby reducing incentives for technological change.  That is bad news all around.  These perverse outcomes render such policies of little interest or value to other regions of the world.

The magnitude of the economic distortion is illustrated by the fact that allowances in the California cap-and-trade market have recently been trading in the range of $12 to $13 per ton of CO2, while LCFS credits have traded this summer for about $80 per ton of CO2.

While reduction in transportation sector GHG emissions is clearly an important long-run objective of an effective climate policy, if the approach taken to achieving such reductions is unnecessarily costly, it will be of little use to most of the world, which has much less financial wealth than California and the United States, and will therefore be much less inclined to follow the lead on such costly policies.

The Path Ahead

With China now the largest emitter in the world, and India and other large developing countries not very far behind, California policies that achieve emission reductions through excessively costly means will fail to encourage other countries to follow, or even recognize, California’s leadership.  On the other hand, by increasing reliance on its progressive market-based system, California can succeed at home and be influential around the world.

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.