A Key Moment is Coming for the IPCC’s Future

About six month ago, I posted an essay at this blog (The IPCC at a Crossroads, February 26, 2015) highlighting some of the challenges faced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which plays an important role in global climate change policy around the world. [In previous essays at this blog, I wrote about problems with the IPCC process (Is the IPCC Government Approval Process Broken?, April 25, 2014) and about its significant merits (Understanding the IPCC: An Important Follow-Up, May 3, 2014; The Final Stage of IPCC AR5 – Last Week’s Outcome in Copenhagen, November 4, 2014)].

A Key Moment to Think About the Future of the IPCC

Now is an important moment to think carefully about the path ahead for this much-maligned and much-celebrated organization, because in early October of this year, the 195 member countries of the IPCC (who together constitute this “intergovernmental panel”) will meet in plenary in Dubrovnik, Croatia, to elect a new Chair, who will lead the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report (AR6). There are some excellent candidates for the chairmanship. I hope they see (and read) today’s essay.

As I’ve said before, the IPCC is at a crossroads. Despite its many accomplishments, this institution, like many large institutions, has experienced severe growing pains. Its size has increased to the point that it has become cumbersome, it sometimes fails to address the most important issues, and – most striking of all – it is now at risk of losing the participation of the world’s best scientists, due to the massive burdens that participation entails.

In February of this year, we (Harvard) co-sponsored a three-day workshop on the future of international climate-assessment processes in Berlin, Germany, to take stock and reflect on lessons learned in past assessments – including those of the IPCC – as a means to identify options for improving future assessments. The workshop (titled “Assessment and Communication of the Social Science of Climate Change: Bridging Research and Policy”) was co-organized by: Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei (FEEM, Italy), the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements (USA), the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC, Germany), and the Stanford Environmental and Energy Policy Analysis Center (USA).  The workshop was funded, in part, by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

How Can the IPCC and its Procedures be Improved?

In an essay published in the Review of Environment, Energy and Economics (“Assessment and Communication of the Social Science of Climate Change: Bridging Research and Policy.”), Carlo Carraro (FEEM), Charles Kolstad (Stanford), and I offered our thoughts on the path ahead, drawing on our reflections on the Berlin workshop. We described a set of challenges and opportunities facing the IPCC, and provided options for future improvements. Here are some excerpts in five key areas.

1.  The IPCC could better integrate and coordinate across IPCC Working Groups, as well as enhance interaction between scientists and governments.

The scoping process could include more interaction between governments and scientists, driven by policy questions governments want answered and issues scientists feel need addressing. More experts could be involved in the process leading up to scoping meetings so that draft outlines going into scoping meetings might better reflect broad scientific consensus.

Feedback among policymakers, scientists, and other stakeholders during the assessment process could be improved. A lack of coordination and discussion between policymakers and scientists during the scoping and writing process has sometimes led to controversies and misunderstanding at the Summary for Policymakers (SPM) government approval sessions, which might have been avoided through earlier consultation

The Chair of the IPCC could enhance coordination among Working Groups. The Chair could improve coordination between Working Groups at multiple stages of the assessment process, including in the preparation of the Synthesis Report (SYR).

Special Reports could be developed to more flexibly target emerging issues, develop closer interactions between Working Groups, and inform future Assessment Reports. Shorter reports would be easier to produce and involve shorter turnaround times.

2.  The IPCC could enhance its interface with social scientific disciplines and communities.

Involving experts from a more diverse set of social-scientific communities in the scoping process, prior to scoping meetings, could enhance the quality of the Working-Group outlines and reports. Scholars from a wider range of fields might contribute to the scoping process by suggesting policy-relevant questions and by indicating which questions from policymakers are most amenable to response.

The IPCC leadership could strengthen engagement with relevant research communities that may initiate research projects and consortia to address gaps of knowledge identified in the IPCC scoping or assessment processes. Such recommended research might then be evaluated and incorporated as appropriate into Assessment Reports.

Consider establishing more formal interfaces with professional societies and national academies of sciences to facilitate identification of authors from various scientific disciplines, including social sciences, during the author selection process. This could facilitate the task of the Bureau, Coordinating Lead Authors (CLAs), Technical Support Units (TSUs), and governments in identifying and recruiting the most appropriate disciplinary mix of scientists for the IPCC.

3.  The IPCC could increase its efforts to facilitate the contributions of expertise from developing countries.

Selecting CLAs and LAs on the basis of scientific skills, capability, and reputation is paramount, but it is also important to reflect the perspectives of both developed and developing countries. Today, excellent scholars are available from all regions of the world.

The IPCC could invite authors from developing countries with less regard to where they are currently based. There are a significant number of scholars of international repute from the developing world living and working outside their countries of origin. These scholars could contribute significantly to IPCC reports

New partnerships, including with national, regional, and international academies of sciences, could support the author-nomination process. The academies might support CLAs, TSUs, and national focal points in identifying excellent researchers from a diverse set of geographic regions.

The IPCC could facilitate efforts of other organizations to build scientific expertise in developing countries. While the IPCC does not have the mandate to finance or execute such capacity-building efforts, the IPCC could recognize and support other international organizations that help develop stronger developing-country scientific expertise.

4.  The IPCC could increase the efficiency of its operations and ensure scientific integrity through organizational improvements.

 Preparing IPCC Reports is a complex management operation. Operational aspects of the Assessment-Report process could be improved significantly in a number of ways:

The IPCC should ensure that Chair and Co-Chairs of the Working Groups are selected early in the assessment cycle, and particularly before the scoping meetings, in order to enable careful preparation of the overall assessment process. Having the Chair and Co-Chairs engaged in the process from the beginning would also help foster a more deeply-shared vision between IPCC leadership and governments of the ultimate assessment products.

The IPCC could improve the efficiency of TSUs, which is essential for effectively managing the Assessment-Report process. The functioning of the TSUs requires frequent and intense face-to-face collaboration among staff and with the Co-Chairs. This requires maintaining a single TSU for each Working Group, physically located in a single geographic location under the authority of the Working Group Co-Chairs, with clearly assigned responsibilities. Geographic balance can be increased via global searches for qualified professionals, including from developing countries, to serve on the TSU staff.

Work organization, in particular of Lead Author (LA) meetings, could be greatly improved. Inefficient organization and high workload significantly reduce the incentives for researchers to contribute to the IPCC process. Frequent LA meetings are putting a high travel burden on authors, and the IPCC could reduce the number and length of LA Meetings (LAMs) and use means of remote collaboration, communication, and organization. Chapter Science Assistants (CSAs) provide critical support for chapter teams, facilitating the functioning and organization of work between and during LAMs. The IPCC could allow them to participate in all meetings and provide dedicated funding streams for CSAs for all chapters. The money saved by holding fewer and briefer LAMs could partly be dedicated to this purpose.

Consider expanding the definition of conflict of interest to include not only economic conflicts, but also conflicts due to institutional affiliation. For example, authors, Bureau members, Working Group leadership, and other IPCC personnel with dual roles as national negotiators could be identified as having a potential conflict of interest. Also, authors who work for an organization that aims to influence climate policy might be defined as having a potential conflict of interest. While this expanded definition need not preclude these individuals from working with the IPCC, public disclosure of the potential conflict of interest should help assure the integrity of the IPCC process. It could be valuable to have such an expanded definition in effect early in the AR6 process.

5.  Outreach and communications could be strengthened.

The SPMs, as well as the Technical Summaries (TS), are widely considered by non-experts to be difficult to access and understand. It would be difficult to change the SPM process, given its negotiated character. However, the IPCC could consider engaging expert science communicators to help produce more concise TSs, making them more accessible to policymakers and the general public. In addition, re-naming the TS as “Executive Summary” could more accurately characterize this component of the Assessment Reports and draw the interest of a broader readership.

The impact of IPCC publications on the UNFCCC process may have suffered from not being more closely aligned in terms of timing. The IPCC could consider synchronizing the IPCC Assessment cycle with the UNFCCC negotiation schedule.

Next Steps

My co-authors and I are continuing to develop our thinking on these and other issues associated with the functioning of the IPCC. Whereas some commentators have argued that the IPCC has outlived its usefulness (or is irreparably broken), I prefer to resist the temptation to “throw out the baby with the bathwater.” Instead, I welcome your thoughts on how the IPCC and its procedures can be improved.

Crude Oil Prices, Climate Change, and Global Welfare

A few weeks ago, I participated in a panel session titled, “The Remarkable Transformation of the Energy Sector: Does it Also Transform Our World.” The motivating question was: “Is the dramatic decline in oil prices a complete gift to the West because of the enormous funds being saved, or is it an unintended Trojan horse because development of renewable energy as well as new fossil-fuel sources will decline in the West, posing longer new challenges?”

The other members of the panel – from private industry – had vastly more expertise (and relevant insights) on fossil-fuel markets, but here’s what I had to say. This is hardly at the sweet spot of my professional competence, so I welcome your comments and corrections! In general, how would you answer that question?

Causes

I start (and started) from the premise that the dramatic decline in crude oil prices that took place from August, 2014 ($96/barrel), to March, 2015 ($44/barrel), was due – on the one hand – to decreased demand, a function of slow economic growth in Asia, Europe, and elsewhere, endogenous, price-driven technological change leading to greater fuel efficiency, and policy-driven technological change that also has been leading to greater fuel efficiency, such as more stringent Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards in the United States; and – on the other hand – was due to increased supply, partly a function of the growth of unconventional (tight) U.S. oil production (a product of the combination of two technologies – horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing).  And, in the presence of all of this, Saudi Arabia decided not to restrict its output to prop up prices.

[Before proceeding, I should note that since May of this year, crude oil prices have increased by about 30% from their March low, but as of May ($60/barrel) are still far below their August 2014 level.]

Consequences

When one examines virtually any significant price change from an economic perspective, there inevitably seems to be both good news and bad news. So with the fall in crude oil prices.

The Bad News

First of all, I assume that low crude oil prices are problematic for the economic and political stability of some of the oil-producing/exporting countries, including Saudi Arabia, Russia, Venezuela, and Nigeria.  (For details, see Bordoff and Losz 2015, below.)

Second, it’s frequently been asserted that low oil prices are bad news for the development of alternative forms of energy, including renewable sources. Of course, in the United States, there isn’t much effect on electricity generation from renewable (wind and solar), because in the U.S. electricity sector, renewable supplies compete with coal and natural gas, not with fuel oil (but in other countries, which use more fuel oil for electricity generation than we do, there can be a disincentive for renewable dispatch – and hence development).

Third, there can be – indeed, has been – a major impact in the U.S. motor fuels sector, where the market for biofuels (mainly ethanol) is negatively affected by low conventional gasoline prices. However, these impacts must be somewhat muted by public policies, which directly or indirectly subsidize (or, in fact, require) the use of biofuels.

Fourth, low gasoline prices have resulted in decreased demand by consumers for motor vehicles with high fuel efficiency, and SUV and pickup truck sales have rebounded from previous lows. But these effects are also muted, to some degree, by public policies, including U.S. CAFE standards.   Finally, low gasoline prices also have short-term effects in the form of more driving and fuel use by the existing fleet of motor vehicles, which is bad news in terms of emissions (and congestion).

Differences across Sectors

Before turning to the “good news” about low crude oil prices (and there surely is good news), it’s worthwhile noting that whether individual businesses find these low prices to be good or bad depends largely upon the economic sector in which they operate. For example, whereas commercial airlines are finally making profits, due to the low price of jet fuel (their most important variable operating cost), manufacturers of commercial aircraft will see lower demand for new planes if low jet fuel prices become the long-term norm. The primary factor driving the larger airlines to replace aircraft in their fleets is the lower operating costs due to the much greater fuel efficiency of new models.

And, of course, low oil prices are systematically bad news for oil producers, including the major U.S. companies.

The Good News

Finally, here is the upside of these significant changes in crude oil markets.

Low oil prices are unambiguously good for aggregate global welfare. This includes consumers in the United States, Europe, Japan, and South Korea. And, at least temporarily, OPEC seems to have lost its ability to set a price floor.

Low oil prices mean an increase in consumers’ disposable income, amounting to nearly $2,500 per U.S. household annually, according to Stephen Brown (see below).  If we subtract the income losses to U.S. oil producers, the net gain per U.S. household amounts to a bit more than $800 per year, with gains accruing disproportionately to low-income households.

Turning to the environmental realm, there is also good news, or at least the possibility of good news. An opportunity for new, sensible energy and climate change policies has emerged with these low oil prices.

First, now is the time to reduce – or better yet, phase out – costly and inefficient fuel subsidies, which exist in many parts of the world, particularly in developing countries.

Second, with gasoline prices relatively low – and natural gas supplies holding down electricity prices, at least in the United States – there has never been a better time to introduce progressive climate policies in the form of carbon-pricing, whether via carbon taxes or through carbon cap-and-trade. Unfortunately, none of us should hold our breath waiting for that to happen.

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For further reading, I recommend:

Bordoff, Jason, and Akos Losz.  “Oil Shock: Decoding the Causes and Consequences of the 2014 Oil Price Drop.”  Horizons, Spring 2015, Issue No. 3, pp. 190-206.

Brown, Stephen P. A.  “Falling Oil Prices: Implications in the United States.” Resources, Number 189.  Washington:  Resources for the Future, 2015, pp. 40-44.

When Reasonable Policy Discussions Become Unreasonable Personal Attacks

Recently I was reminded of the controversy that erupted late in 2014 about remarks made by the distinguished health economist, Jonathan Gruber, professor at MIT for two decades. Professor Gruber, one of the country’s leading experts on health policy, had played an important role in the construction of the Obama administration’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, subsequently derided by its political opponents as “Obamacare.”

A brief but intense political controversy and media feeding-frenzy erupted when videos surfaced in which Professor Gruber – largely in a series of academic seminars and conferences – explained how the Act was crafted and marketed in ways that would make it easier to develop political support. For example, he noted that insurance companies were taxed instead of patients, fundamentally the same thing economically, but vastly more palatable politically. He went on to note that this was possible because of “the lack of economic understanding of the American voter.” His key point was that the program’s “lack of transparency is a huge political advantage.” Is that a controversial or even unique observation?

A Truism of Political Economy

Any economist who has worked on the development or analysis of public policy – in areas ranging from health care policy to environmental policy to financial regulation – recognizes the truth of the key insight Gruber was communicating to his audiences. It is inevitably in the interests of the advocates of a policy to make the policy’s benefits transparent and to make its costs vague, even unobservable; just as it is in the interests of the opponents of a policy to make that policy’s benefits obscure and its costs as clear as the light of day.

The specific construction of hundreds of public policies are explained by this truism. In the United States, Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards (or “CAFE standards”) have been a bipartisan Congressional success, despite the fact that the costs they place on the American public per unit of fuel savings are vastly greater than the costs of a commensurate increase in gasoline taxes. Likewise, when conservative opponents of CO2 cap-and-trade wanted to stop the House-passed bill in its tracks, they resorted to demonizing it as “cap-and-tax.”

So, the central lesson Professor Gruber was offering is hardly controversial, and its enunciation ought not lead to the terrible attacks that he suffered. He doesn’t need me to defend him, but he was unfairly demonized, simply because people disagreed with him politically regarding the merits of the public policy he had helped develop and support.

Unfortunately, I was reminded of this recently when I found myself subject to attempted demonization, because someone did not agree with a policy I supported. What happened to me is trivial compared with what Professor Gruber has gone through, but it prompts me to write about it today.

Can We Agree to Disagree?

I have written before at this blog about the reasons why I support my university’s decision not to divest its endowment of its fossil-fuel company holdings. I won’t repeat those arguments here, but will note that I have gone out of my way not to draw conclusions or make recommendations about what other universities or other institutions ought to do in this regard, including when I agreed to write an essay on the subject for Yale Environment 360. My analysis and conclusions were not developed in spite of my decades of research, teaching, and outreach on global climate change policy; rather, they were developed because of my years of work in this area.

There are people, some of whom I greatly respect, who have different perspectives on this issue, and have come to very different conclusions than have I. We have essentially agreed to disagree. They haven’t cast aspersions on me, nor I on them. As my writings on this topic have illustrated, there are many facets to the issue, including economics, politics, ethics, and even religion. No one has cornered the market on wisdom.

And What About the Keystone XL Pipeline?

Likewise, on a quite different topic, on January 8, 2015, Coral Davenport wrote a story in the New York Times about the political debates in Washington regarding the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, and stated that “… most energy and policy experts say the battle over Keystone overshadows the importance of the project as an environmental threat or an engine of the economy. The pipeline will have little effect, they say, on climate change, production of the Canadian oil sands, gasoline prices and the overall job market in the United States.” She went on to quote me (accurately) as having said, “The political fight about Keystone is vastly greater than the economic, environmental or energy impact of the pipeline itself. It doesn’t make a big difference in energy prices, employment or climate change either way.” What I said was consistent with the evidence at the time (note, however, that as oil prices fall, the possibility increases that the Canadian oil sands would be uneconomic to develop without the pipeline). Once again, the analysis is not one-dimensional, and reasonable people can respectfully disagree.

When Policy Debates Become Personal Attacks

But these two topics – the Keystone XL pipeline and fossil-fuel divestment – have increasingly become engulfed in highly-charged campaigns and exceptionally heated political debates. As part of this, my integrity was recently attacked, because of my views.  A young and – I’m sure – well-intentioned climate activist and journalist, writing in the Huffington Post, implied that my assessment in the New York Times of the Washington political debates regarding Keystone XL and my support for Harvard’s divestment policy, are because “Stavins has done consulting work for Chevron, Exelon, Duke Energy and the Western States Petroleum Association.”

The author of the Huffington Post piece selected those three companies and one trade association from a list of 92 “Outside Activities” that I voluntarily provide as a means of public disclosure. The author chose not to note that the vast majority of my outside engagements are with universities, think tanks, environmental advocacy NGOs, foundations, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, other federal agencies and departments, international organizations, and environment ministries around the world (not to mention a set of Major League Baseball teams, but that’s another story altogether).

But what about the four he did choose to highlight? First, I am very proud of my work supported by Chevron and the closely-related Western States Petroleum Association, in which I have carried out a series of analyses studying how to strengthen and improve California’s climate policy under AB-32. That’s right – developing and assessing ways to make the AB-32 cap-and-trade system and the related suite of “complementary policies” more environmentally effective, more cost-effective, and more equitable (I’ve written about this work several times at this blog).

Likewise, my work supported by Duke Energy began a decade ago when I helped the former CEO bring home to his senior management the importance of climate change and the importance of well-designed public policies (in particular, carbon cap-and-trade) to address it. All of my subsequent work supported by Duke Energy likewise has focused on the design of better market-based instruments – cap-and-trade – to reduce CO2 emissions.

And, finally, what about Exelon? This was interesting and important work I carried out with my friend and colleague, MIT Professor Richard Schmalensee, Dean Emeritus of the Sloan School of Management (I wrote about this work at this blog and at the Huffington Post). In 2011, with support from Exelon, Professor Schmalensee and I analyzed EPA’s proposals for new rules to regulate the interstate transport of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides emitted from electric power generation facilities. You can read in detail about our multi-faceted assessment, but the bottom-line is that we provided strong support for a stringent rule. Our brief summary at the University of Pennsylvania’s RegBlog concludes: “In sum, while imposing incremental costs to achieve reductions in SO2 and NOX emissions, the Transport Rule would produce significant benefits in terms of improved health outcomes, and better environmental amenities and services, which studies estimate significantly outweigh the costs.”

Sadness and Empathy

It is nothing less than absurd – and, frankly, quite sad – that someone would suggest that my views on divestment and my New York Times quote on the politics of Keystone XL were somehow due to my having received previous support for analytical work for an oil company, a trade association, and two electric utilities. This was an unfortunate move to question my credibility and damage my reputation in a misguided attempt to demonize me, rather than engage in reasonable discussion and debate. Unfortunately, most of those who have read the activist/journalist’s original commentary and have possibly repeated his claims to others will not see the essay you have just read.

This is surely nothing compared with what Professor Gruber has gone through, but it has certainly increased my empathy for him, as well as my admiration.

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Personal Attacks: An Even Sadder Epilogue

It’s nearly two months since I wrote the essay above, but a series of recent events prompts me to add this sad epilogue.  My family and I have recently been subject to cyber-bullying, harassment, and threats, because of my public stance in support of Harvard’s decision not to divest from its endowment portfolio its holdings of fossil-fuel company stocks.

In particular, the most recent message sent to me said in part: “You may be assured that I will have a lot to say about your vocal public support of Harvard’s fossil fuel investments, … and that I have a particular interest in making sure that [your] financial connections to the fossil fuel industry are made fully public …” This threat to tarnish my reputation by publicizing a supposed conflict of interest is striking for a number of reasons:

  • In several essays at this blog and elsewhere, I have carefully explained my reasons for supporting Harvard’s decision not to divest;
  • In several essays at this blog and elsewhere, I have been completely up front about receiving support for (publically available) analytical work I’ve carried out for private-sector companies (and have long provided a list of all outside engagements at my website);
  • In the essay above, I documented the fundamentally pro-environment, policy-analytic work I had done for the specific companies mentioned; and
  • The claim that my position regarding Harvard divestment has somehow been influenced by my work with an oil company and an industry trade association defies logic.

The last item on this list – the fundamental illogic of such a claim – merits explanation. People on all sides of the divestment issue (including leaders of the student movement, and including the person who wrote the threat I quoted above) acknowledge that divestment will have no direct financial impacts on the respective companies. Rather, the merit of divestment that is most frequently cited by supporters is its symbolic value. Because divestment has no financial impacts on the fossil-fuel companies, those companies don’t care much about it. They would not care one way or the other what I might have to say on the topic. Hence, even if I did want to curry favor with those companies, that would not lead me (or anyone else) to take a particular position on the divestment issue.

The more important question to ask is whether my research, teaching, and outreach initiatives on climate change economics and policy have been biased by my having carried out consulting assignments for an oil company and trade association (two of a hundred outside engagements over the past several years)? That is, if there really was a conflict of interest, then in an effort to make those companies happy, I would presumably pull my punches regarding recommendations of what does matter to those companies – public policies that will reduce their profits by increasing their costs of doing business and/or by reducing demand for their products. But nothing could be further from the truth!

For a decade or more, my research, teaching, and outreach have focused on more enlightened, stronger, and better climate change policies. I have been outspoken in regard to the pressing need for well-designed carbon-price instruments at the national and sub-national levels, and for the need for better, more effective international climate policies, both under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and through other venues. This is reflected in my published research, my teaching, and my outreach efforts, including through this blog.

It is ironic, offensive, and sad that anyone would suggest that my support of Harvard’s divestment position is somehow tied to my outside engagements. That suggestion – and the recent threats I have received – defies logic and is contradicted by the record.