Recalling the Past and Looking to the Future

Sometimes it’s helpful to recall the past as an aid to thinking carefully about the future.  The development of scientifically sound, economically sensible, and politically feasible climate-change policies would seem to be a case in point.  Such an approach is well illustrated by the thinking of Jonathan Wiener, the William and Thomas Perkins Professor of Law at Duke Law School, who shares his thoughts on the prospects for federal legislative and regulatory policy in the latest episode of my podcast, “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.”  Our full conversation is here.

As you probably know, in these podcasts, I converse with leading experts from academia, government, industry, and NGOs.  Jonathan Wiener certainly belongs in this group.  Wiener, who also holds appointments at the Nicholas School of the Environment, the Sanford School of Public Policy, and Resources for the Future, has focused his research and writings for thirty years on a broad range of environmental policy issues, often from an economic perspective (once quite rare among environmental law scholars). 

Before launching his academic career, he served as a clerk for Judge (now U.S. Supreme Court Justice) Stephen Breyer on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston from 1988 to 1989. He also served at the White House Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ/ENRD), during the George H. W. Bush and Clinton Administrations.

Reflecting on his time in Washington, Professor Wiener recounts in our conversation the sense of bipartisanship that permeated environmental policy discussions on Capitol Hill during the Bush 41 and Clinton years. “On the issue, for example, of designing an economic incentive-based policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, there was, I would say, substantial agreement among all of those involved,” he says.

Wiener explains how there have also been significant changes in the scholarly world of environmental law in recent decades, including more mainstream support for economic incentive instruments, and for the use of economic analysis to evaluate the costs and benefits of laws and regulations.

“The advocacy of cost benefit analysis has shifted over time so that now one sees a lot more advocacy [on behalf of] economic analysis and cost benefit analysis to demonstrate the large social gains from environmental policy,” he remarks.

Jonathan also addresses the prospects for the Biden Administration to make headway on climate policy, saying that it started on the right foot. “President Biden issued a memorandum on modernizing regulatory review on his first day in office, which reaffirmed the executive orders from the Clinton and Obama Administrations.” Yet Wiener goes on to acknowledge that the administration’s promise to issue a revised estimate of the social cost of carbon has yet to be fulfilled.

At the end of our conversation, Jonathan Wiener offers – as a contrast with the slow pace of government action – his optimism that youth movements of climate advocacy which have become prominent in recent years hold great promise for advancing policy in the years ahead.

“On campuses across the country and around the world, one sees enthusiasm, energy, some sense of impatience and indignation, that the earlier generations didn’t address these problems adequately,” he says. “I think we anticipated, when you and I and …others were working on climate change policy design back 30 years ago, that we needed to design the institutions well so that we would not face a crunch time later of trying to address climate change in a big hurry. Unfortunately to some extent, we are in that crunch time right now.”

For this and much more, I hope you will listen to my compete conversation with Jonathan Wiener, which is the 35th episode in the Environmental Insights series, with future episodes scheduled to drop each month.  You can find a transcript of our conversation at the website of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.  Previous episodes have featured conversations with:

“Environmental Insights” is hosted on SoundCloud, and is also available on iTunes, Pocket Casts, Spotify, and Stitcher.

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The Social Cost of Carbon Redux

We find ourselves in a period when concerns about climate change impacts are increasing (see the report just released of the IPCC’s AR6 WG3 Summary for Policymakers), federal climate legislation seems less and less likely, the U.S. Supreme Court may significantly restrict EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases, and other U.S. courts are at least temporarily preventing the administration from using the Social Cost of Carbon.  In the midst of all this, it’s worthwhile thinking critically and dispassionately about the benefits and costs of environmental protection.  There is no one better to reflect on this than my podcast guest, Maureen Cropper, Distinguished University Professor of Economics at the University of Maryland.  You can listen to our conversation in the latest episode of my podcast, “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.”  Our full conversation is here.

In these podcasts, I converse with leading experts from academia, government, industry, and NGOs.  Maureen Cropper fits well in this group.  In addition to her professorship at the University of Maryland, she is a Senior Fellow with Resources for the Future, a (very active) member of the National Academy of Sciences, and a Fellow of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists

She has long focused her research on valuing environmental amenities (particularly in regard to environmental health effects), the discounting of future health benefits, and the tradeoffs implicit in environmental regulations. Her current research focuses primarily on the costs and benefits of air pollution control efforts in India, and on the valuation of climate amenities.  

When I ask Maureen Cropper to assess the Biden Administration’s environmental and resource policies, she remarks that it seems to be heading in the right direction, at least on one important component.

“I do think that there has been momentum to further the cause of estimating and using the social cost of carbon. After all, on Biden’s first day [in office], he actually reinstated the Interagency Working Group, which had been disbanded by President Trump and … announced that we were going to make progress in revising the social cost of carbon. I do think that a lot has been done along those lines,” she says. “Although … what we see and how it’s used may be affected, is likely to be affected … by recent [court] rulings.”

Current estimates of the social cost of carbon range between 50 and 60 dollars a ton, but Cropper notes that it could be increased to 100 dollars per ton or more if the discount rate is changed from three percent to two percent.

She goes on to express some doubt about the effectiveness of current U.S. climate policies, noting that she is “not particularly optimistic about the rate at which greenhouse gas emissions are being reduced.” But she also expresses her admiration for recent youth movements of climate activism.

“I actually do see the attitudes that they have which really are very encouraging to me in terms of what’s happening in the country as a whole,” she says.  “It does seem like a very good indicator perhaps, or bellwether one hopes of things to come.”

For this and much more, I hope you will listen to my compete conversation with Maureen Cropper, the 33rd episode in the Environmental Insights series, with future episodes scheduled to drop each month.  You can find a transcript of our conversation at the website of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.  Previous episodes have featured conversations with:

“Environmental Insights” is hosted on SoundCloud, and is also available on iTunes, Pocket Casts, Spotify, and Stitcher.

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Reflecting on Trump’s Record and Anticipating Biden’s Performance

On January 20th, a bit more than two weeks from today, Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States, along with Kamala Harris as Vice President.  Changes from one U.S. administration to another are always significant, but sometimes the anticipated changes are not dramatic when the same political party retains the White House, although the last time that happened was the transition in 1988 from Ronald Reagan to George H.W. Bush.  That said, I do not recall a transition that has represented anticipated changes – in terms both of style and substance – as great as the transition from President Trump to President-Elect Biden.

            One of the areas – among others – where that is the case is the realm of environmental, energy, and natural resource policy.  And there is no one better qualified to reflect on the environmental record of the Trump administration and the prospects of the forthcoming Biden administration that Richard Revesz, my long-time colleague, co-author, and friend.  He is my guest in the latest episode of my podcast, released today, January 5th, on the day a pair of Senate runoff elections in Georgia are taking place (which will determine which political party controls the Senate for at least the next two years).

            As readers of this blog know, in these podcasts – “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program – I talk with well-informed people from academia, government, industry, and NGOs.  Ricky fits the bill as the Lawrence King Professor of Law at New York University, where he was previously Dean, and was the co-founder of the Institute for Policy Integrity.  He is also the co-author with Michael Livermore of a new and important book, Reviving Rationality: Saving Cost-Benefit Analysis for the Sake of the Environment and Our Health.

            You can hear our complete conversation in the Podcast here.

First of all, reflecting on the past four years of the Trump Administration, Revesz points to the decisions to:  roll back motor vehicle energy efficiency (or CAFE) standards; repeal the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan; and pursue what the Trump administration termed “strengthening” regulation – all as examples of bad policies with negative consequences.

“On virtually any significant environmental issue, the Trump Administration was on the wrong side. It was on the wrong side of the legal issues; it was in the wrong side of the economic issues; it was in the wrong side of the scientific issues. And it was really on the wrong side of history,” he remarks.  Revesz also implies that the administration’s disrespect for science and economics might have very deep and injurious impacts on environmental policy going forward. 

However, Revesz expresses optimism that the incoming administration may be able to undo some of the damage done over the past four years.

“I am extremely hopeful and very optimistic that the Biden Administration will restore confidence in science and economics, and that these will be taken as serious analytical frameworks, and not as tools to be bent at will to justify the political preferences of the moment,” he says. “And that is extremely important because I don’t think our country could take another four years of the bending of truth without it having very serious long-term repercussions.”

Revesz also says he expects the Biden-Harris Administration to hold true on its campaign promises to push forward with tough greenhouse gas emission policies. 

“I expect we’ll see a continued significant ratcheting down of automobile emissions, including much greater penetration of zero emitting vehicles.  And we will see very significant work, I assume and hope, on the stationary source side. Even in the Obama Administration, where we ended up with regulations for new oil and gas facilities, we didn’t have regulations for existing facilities, which is where a lot of the emissions are. The electric sector will have to be looked at. And then other industrial sectors that have not yet been being gotten attention, like refinery cement plants, will need to get significant attention. So, I see a lot happening on the regulatory side.”

Despite the challenges the Biden-Harris Administration may face from legal challenges to new regulatory actions because of the 220 judges appointed by President Trump as well as the new 6-3 conservative majority in the Supreme Court, Ricky Revesz maintains that the new administration will be much more successful in defending its regulatory actions in the courts than was the Trump administration, which lost an astonishingly high 83 percent of challenges against its regulatory actions.

All of this and more is found in the latest episode of “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.”  I hope you will listen to this latest discussion here.  You can find a complete transcript of our conversation at the website of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.

My conversation with Professor Revesz is the 19th episode in the Environmental Insights series, with future episodes scheduled to drop each month.  Previous episodes have featured conversations with:

“Environmental Insights” is hosted on SoundCloud, and is also available on iTunes, Pocket Casts, Spotify, and Stitcher.

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