Tag Archives: distributional equity

Using Markets to Make Fisheries Sustainable

Around the world, over-fishing is leading to severe depletion of valuable fisheries.  This is as true in U.S. coastal waters as it is in many other parts of the world.  In New England waters, for example, after two decades of ever more intensive fishing, the groundfish fishery has essentially collapsed.  But, we are not alone.  According to the United Nations Environment Program, fully 25 percent of fisheries worldwide are in jeopardy of collapse due to over-fishing.  Clearly, something needs to be done.  Yet, what has long been considered the obvious answer – restrictions on fishing – has been shown time and time again to be the wrong answer.  The right answer is enlightened use of markets.

The fundamental cause of the depletion of fish stocks is well known to economists:  virtually all ocean fisheries are “open-access,” that is, fishermen – small operations or large corporations – can fish all they want.  These individuals and companies are no more greedy than the rest of us, but because no one holds title to fish stocks in the open ocean, everyone races to catch as much as possible.  Each fisherman receives the full benefit of aggressive fishing (that is, a larger catch), but none pay the full cost (an imperiled fishery for everyone).  One fisherman’s choices have an effect on other fishermen (of this generation and the next), but in an open-access fishery – unlike a privately-held copper mine, for example – these impacts are not taken into account.  What is individually rational adds up to collective foolishness, as the shared resource is over-exploited.  This is the “tragedy of the commons.”  What to do?

Government intervention is, alas, required.  Fishermen don’t welcome such regulation in their economic sphere any more than anyone else does.  And they have a point.  Conventional regulatory approaches have driven up costs, but not solved the problem.  And we know why.  If the government limits the season, fishermen put out more boats.  If the government limits net size, fishermen use more labor or buy more costly sonar.  Economists call this over-capitalization.  Costs go up for fishermen (as resources are squandered), but pressure on fish stocks is not relieved.

The answer is to adopt in fisheries management the same type of innovative policy that has been used for decades in the realm of pollution  control – tradeable permits, called “Individual Transferable Quotas” ( ITQs) in the fisheries realm.  Sixteen countries – some with economies much more dependent than ours on fishing – have adopted such systems with great success.  New Zealand regulates virtually its entire commercial fishery this way.  It’s had the system in place since 1986, and it’s been a great success, putting a brake on over-fishing and restoring stocks to sustainable levels ­- while increasing fishermen’s profitability!

There are several ITQ systems already in operation in the United States, including for Alaska’s pacific halibut and Virginia’s striped-bass fisheries.  More important, the time is ripe for broader adoption of this innovative approach, because a short-sighted ban imposed by the U.S. Congress on the establishment of new ITQ systems has expired.

The first step in establishing an ITQ system is to establish the “total allowable catch.”  The next step – and a crucial one – is to allocate shares of that total limit to fishermen in individual quotas that are theirs and theirs alone (read:  well-defined property rights).  Setting the individual quotas will not be easy.  The guiding principle should be simple pragmatism – using the allocations to build political support for the system.  Making the quotas transferable eliminates the problem of overcapitalization and increases efficiency, because the least efficient fishing operations find it more profitable to sell their quotas than to exploit them through continued fishing.  If you can’t catch your whole share, you can sell part of your quota to someone else, instead of buying a bigger boat.

In addition, these systems improve safety by reducing incentives for fishermen to go out (or stay out) when weather conditions are dangerous.  And it was just such perverse incentives of conventional fisheries regulation that were blamed for the tragic loss of life when a fishing boat was lost in a storm off the New England coast just a few winters ago.

Further, because ITQ systems eliminate the motivation for government to limit the duration of the fishing season, supplies available to consumers improve in quality.  Prior to the establishment of an ITQ system for Alaskan halibut, for example, the government had reduced the fishing season to just two days, but subsequent to the introduction of the system, the season length grew to more than 200 days.

A decade ago, environmental advocates – led by the Environmental Defense Fund – played a central role in the adoption of the sulfur dioxide allowance trading program that’s cut acid rain by half and saved electricity generators and rate-payers nearly $1 billion annually, compared with conventional approaches.  The time has come for environmentalists to join forces with progressive voices in the fishing industry and in government to set up ITQ systems that can keep fishermen in business while moving fisheries onto sustainable paths.

A Tale of Two Taxes

Whether they are called “revenue enhancements” or “user charges,” fear of the political consequences of taxes restricts debate on energy and environmental policy options in Washington. In a March 7th post on “Green Jobs,” in which I argued that it is not always best to try to address two challenges with a single policy instrument, I also noted that in some cases such dual-purpose policy instruments can be a good idea, and I gave gasoline taxes as an example.

Although a serious recession is clearly not the time to expect political receptivity to such a proposal, the time will come — we all hope very soon — when the economy turns around, employment rises, and a sustained period of economic growth ensues. When that happens, serious consideration should be given to increases in the Federal tax on gasoline.

A gas tax increase — coupled with an offsetting reduction in other taxes, such as the Social Security tax on wages — could make most American households better off, while reducing oil imports, local pollution, urban congestion, road accidents, and global climate change. This revenue-neutral tax reform would exemplify the market-based approaches to environmental protection and resource management I examined in previous posts.

Such a change need not constitute a new tax, but a reform of existing ones. It is well known ­– both from economic theory and numerous empirical studies ­– that taxes tend to reduce the extent to which people undertake the taxed activity. In the United States, most tax revenues are raised by levies on labor and investment; the resulting reduction in these fundamentally desirable activities is viewed as an unfortunate but unavoidable side-effect of the need to raise revenue for government operations. Would it not make more sense to raise the revenue we need by taxing undesirable activities, instead of desirable ones?

Combustion of gasoline in motor vehicles produces local air pollution as well as carbon dioxide that contributes to global climate change, increases imports of oil, and exacerbates urban highway congestion. Can anyone really claim that — given a choice between discouraging work and discouraging gasoline consumption — it is better to discourage work?

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a 50 cent gas tax increase could eventually reduce gasoline consumption by 10 to 15%, reduce oil imports by perhaps 500 thousand barrels per day, and generate about $40 billion per year in revenue.

Furthermore, this approach would be far more effective than on-going proposals to increase the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, which affect only new vehicles and lead to serious safety problems by encouraging auto makers to produce lighter vehicles. Also, remember that a major effect of CAFE standards has been to accelerate the shift from cars to SUVs and light trucks (so that overall fuel efficiency of new vehicles sold is no better than it was a decade ago, despite the great strides that have taken place in fuel efficiency technologies). As my Harvard colleague Martin Feldstein pointed out in The Wall Street Journal in 2006, the conventional approach “does nothing to encourage individuals to drive less, to use their cars more efficiently, or to shift sooner to new and more fuel efficient [and cleaner] vehicles.” A more enlightened approach ­— a market-based approach — would reward consumers who economize on gasoline use. And that is what a revenue-neutral gas tax is all about.

The revenue from the gas tax could be transferred to the Social Security Trust Fund and credited to current workers. If $40 billion per year from new gas tax revenues were transferred to Social Security, the payroll tax — the employee contribution to Social Security — could be cut by perhaps a third: a worker with annual wages of $30,000 would take home an additional $750 per year! The extra income would more than offset the cost of the gas tax, unless the worker drove over 35,000 miles per year in a car getting 25 miles or less per gallon. Rebating the gas tax in this way addresses the greatest concern about higher gas taxes — that they can hit hardest those workers who drive to their jobs. Further, a tax of this magnitude could be phased in gradually, perhaps no more than 10 cents per year over 5 years, allowing individuals and firms to adjust their consuming and producing behavior.

Proposals for gasoline tax increases in recent sessions of Congress would have dedicated the revenue to public spending (for transportation and other programs). A key difference is that the proposal I have outlined here is for a revenue-neutral change in which the gas tax revenue would be returned to Americans through reduced payroll taxes. To adopt some of the language I developed in my previous posts, such a change can be both efficient and equitable, and — for those reasons — perhaps even politically feasible.

Of course, such a scheme is not a panacea for U.S. energy and environmental problems. But it would make a significant contribution if enacted. On the other hand, political fear of the T-word in Washington may mean that it is never discussed seriously in public, let alone adopted. Most fear of taxes is due to politicians’ anxieties about asking their constituents to pay more. But an increase in the Federal gas tax, rebated through reduced payroll taxes would not cost most Americans any more and would have significant long-term benefits for the country. Still, fear of the T-word looms large; maybe it should be called an “All-American Ecologically Sound, Fully Recyclable, Anti-Terror, Energy-Independence Assessment.”

Misconceptions About Water Pricing

Throughout the United States, water management has been approached primarily as an engineering problem, rather than an economic one. Water supply managers are reluctant to use price increases as water conservation tools, instead relying on non-price demand management techniques, such as requirements for the adoption of specific technologies and restrictions on particular uses. In my March 3rd post, “As Reservoirs Fall, Prices Should Rise,” I wrote about how — in principle — price can be used by water managers as an effective and efficient instrument to manage this scarce resource.

In a white paper, “Managing Water Demand: Price vs. Non-Price Conservation Programs,” published by the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research, Professor Sheila Olmstead of Yale University and I analyzed the relative merits of price and non-price approaches to water conservation. We reviewed well over a hundred studies, and found strong and consistent empirical evidence that using prices to manage water demand is more cost-effective than implementing non-price conservation programs.

Despite such empirical evidence regarding the higher costs of non-price approaches to water conservation, many constituencies continue to prefer them. Professor Olmstead and I believe that this reliance on inefficient command-and-control approaches to water management may be due — in part — to several common and influential misconceptions regarding the use of water pricing.

One misconception is that “because water prices are low, price cannot be used to manage demand.” This misconception that low prices somehow obviate the use of price as an incentive for water conservation may stem from economists’ definition of a price response in the range observed for water demand as “inelastic.” There is a critical distinction between the technical term “inelastic demand” and the phrase “unresponsive to price”. Inelastic demand will decrease by less than one percent for every one percent increase in price. In contrast, if demand is truly unresponsive to price, the same quantity of water will be demanded at any price. This may be true in theory for a subsistence quantity of drinking water, but it has not been observed for water demand in general in 50 years of published empirical analysis.

A second misconception is that “water customers are unaware of prices, and therefore price cannot be used to manage demand.” If this were true, the hundreds of statistical studies estimating the price elasticity of water demand would have found that effect to be zero. But this is not the case. Instead, consumers behave as if they are aware of water prices. The hundreds of studies we reviewed cover many decades of water demand research in cities that bill water customers monthly, every two months, quarterly, or annually; and in which bills provide everything from no information about prices, to very detailed information. Our conclusion is that water suppliers need not change billing frequency or format to achieve water demand reductions from price increases, but providing more information may boost the impact of price changes.

A third misconception is that “increasing-block pricing provides an incentive for water conservation.” Under increasing-block prices (IBPs), the price of a unit of water increases with the quantity consumed, based on a quantity threshold or set of thresholds. Many water utilities that have implemented IBPs consider them part of their approach to water conservation; and many state agencies and other entities recommend them as water conservation tools. But analysis indicates that increasing-block prices, per se, have no impact on the quantity of water demanded, controlling for price levels.

A fourth and final misconception is that “where water price increases are implemented, water demand will always fall.” Price elasticity estimates measure the reduction in demand to be expected from a one percent increase in the marginal price of water, all else constant. Individual water utilities may increase prices and see demand rise subsequently due to population growth, changes in weather or climate, increases in average household income, or other factors. In these cases, a price increase can reduce the rate of growth in water demand to a level below what would have been observed if prices had remained constant.

Raising water prices (as with the elimination of any subsidy) can be politically difficult. This is probably one of the primary reasons why water demand management through non-price techniques is the overwhelmingly dominant approach in the United States. But the cost-effectiveness advantages of price-based approaches are clear, and there may be some political advantage to be gained by demonstrating these potential cost savings.

Green Jobs

The January 12, 2009 issue of The New Yorker includes a well-written and in some ways inspiring article by Elizabeth Kolbert, profiling Van Jones, founder and president of Green for All. In the article, “Greening the Ghetto: Can a Remedy Serve for Both Global Warming and Poverty,” Kolbert includes the following passage:

When I presented Jones’s arguments to Robert Stavins, a professor of business and government at Harvard who studies the economics of environmental regulation, he offered the following analogy: “Let’s say I want to have a dinner party. It’s important that I cook dinner, and I’d also like to take a shower before the guests arrive. You might think, Well, it would be really efficient for me to cook dinner in the shower. But it turns out that if I try that I’m not going to get very clean and it’s not going to be a very good dinner. And that is an illustration of the fact that it is not always best to try to address two challenges with what in the policy world we call a single policy instrument.”

That brief quote generated a considerable amount of commentary in the blogosphere, much of it negative, and some of it downright hostile. This surprised me, because I didn’t consider the proposition to be controversial, and I had chosen my words carefully, simply stating that “it is not always best to try to address two challenges with … a single policy instrument.” Two activities — each with a sensible purpose — can be very effective if done separately, but sometimes combining them means that one does a poor job with one, the other, or even both.

In the policy world, such dual-purpose policy instruments are sometimes a good, even great idea (gas taxes are an example), but other times, they are not. Whether trying to kill two birds with one stone makes sense depends upon the proximity of the birds, the weapon being used, and the accuracy of the stoner. In the real world of important policy challenges — such as environmental degradation and economic recession — these are empirical questions and need to be examined case by case, which was my point in the brief quote. Since my further explanation of this point in the green jobs context (in an interview that lasted 30 to 60 minutes — I don’t recall) did not find its way into Ms. Kolbert’s article (no fault of hers — she had plenty of sources, plenty of material, and limited space), let me provide that explanation here.

In 1990, when Congress sought to cut sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions from coal-fired power plants by 50% to reduce acid rain, Senator Robert Byrd (West Virginia) argued against the proposal for a national cap-and-trade system, because it would displace Appalachian coal mining jobs through reduced demand for high-sulfur coal. He recommended instead a national requirement for all plants to install scrubbers, which would have increased costs nationally by $1 billion per year in perpetuity.

Fortunately, Senator Ted Kennedy (Massachusetts) recognized that these two problems (acid rain and displaced miners) called for two separate policy instruments. Simultaneous with the passage of the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990, which established the path-breaking SO2 allowance trading program, Congress passed a job training and compensation initiative for Appalachian coal miners, at a one-time cost of $250 million. Acid rain was cut by 50%, $1 billion per year was saved for the economy, and sensible and meaningful aid was provided to the displaced miners. Two different policies were used to address two different purposes. Sometimes that is the wisest course.

What about two current challenges: concern about the environment, in particular global climate change, on the one hand, and the need to turn around the economy, on the other hand? Can “green jobs” be the answer to both?

Will an economic stimulus package — properly designed — lead to job creation in the short term? Yes, but to some degree this will be by moving forward in time the date of job creation, as opposed to creating additional jobs in the long run. Of course, at a time of recession and increasing unemployment, that can be a sensible thing to do. So, by expanding economic activity, an economic stimulus package can surely create jobs — green or otherwise — in the short term.

But will a stimulus package — such as subsidies for renewable energy — create net jobs from the change in the nature of economic activity? The key question here is whether the encouraged economic activities in green sectors are more labor-intensive than the discouraged economic activities in other sectors, such as with a shift to renewables from fossil fuels.

This is considerably less clear, but there are cases where it is likely to be valid. Solar rooftop installation, for example, is labor-intensive. And the greatest consistency between economic stimulus and greening the economy is within the energy-efficiency realm, in particular, activities such as the weatherization of homes and businesses. Such projects are highly labor-intensive, can be done quickly, and will save energy. And, importantly, they will reduce the long-term cost of meeting climate objectives.

But some other areas, such as new green infrastructure, will happen much more slowly — partly because of NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) problems — and so are less consistent with the purpose of economic stimulus. An example of the challenge is presented by the current interest in expanding and improving our national electricity grid.

A more interlinked and better grid is needed for increased reliance on renewable energy sources, which will be needed to address climate change. First, greater use of renewable resources will require an expanded grid just to transmit electricity from the Great Plains, for example, to cities with high demand for power. And, second, this will also require the use of a so-called “smart grid,” so that greater reliance on intermittent sources of electricity, such as from wind farms, can be balanced with cuts in consumer demand when power is scarce.

But the timing of grid expansion — important for the use of renewables and achieving climate goals — is not coincident with the appropriate timing of the economic stimulus. As was reported in an article by Matthew Wald in the New York Times (“Hurdles (Not Financial Ones) Await Electric Grid Update,” January 7, 2009, p. A11), the CEO of the American Transmission Company — which operates in four midwestern states — said that the firm’s most recent major project, a 200-mile transmission line from Minnesota to Wisconsin, took 2 years to build, but 8 years prior to that to win the necessary permits!

Likewise, an article by Peter Behr in Climate Wire (“Green Power Express line gets derailed by patchwork grid rules,” Feburary 12, 2009, p. 1) focuses on the dilemma facing ITC Holdings, the nation’s largest independent electric transmission company, which has been seeking permission from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to build a line to bring wind power from the Great Plains to the Midwest and East. The company’s chairman and CEO, Joseph Welch, indicates that a greater hurdle than the necessary money or “even the ever-present citizen opposition to new transmission projects” is a set of rules for interstate transmission lines that effectively prohibits projects that are not immediately required to maintain the grid’s reliability. A project intended to provide future green power does not meet the test.

These are just two examples of the unpleasant reality of the pace of investment and change in this important category of green infrastructure frequently talked about in the context of quick economic stimulus. Surely, economic recovery, increased reliance on renewable sources of energy, and a smarter, inter-connected grid are all important. But that does not mean they are best addressed with a single policy instrument – the economic stimulus package.

So, the strongest support for “green job creation” is with regard to economic expansion, as opposed to changes in the economy. Of course, the key economic question remains whether even more jobs would be created with a different sort of expansion. In any event, while we are expanding economic activity through the economic stimulus package, it makes sense to reduce any tendency to lock in new capital stock that would make it more difficult and costly to achieve long-term environmental goals. But that is very different from claiming that all substitution of green activities for brown activities creates jobs in the long-term.

As the government uses economic stimulus to expand economic activity, it can and should tilt the expansion in a green direction. But rather than a “broad-brush green painting of the stimulus,” this may call for some careful, selective, and well thought-through “green tinting.”

Addressing the worst economic recession in generations calls for the most effective economic stimulus package that can be devised, not a stimulus package that is diminished in effectiveness through excessive bells and whistles meant to address a myriad of other (legitimate) social concerns. And, likewise, getting serious about global climate change will require the enactment and implementation of meaningful, dedicated climate policies, most likely a comprehensive national CO2 cap-and-trade system. These are two serious but different policy problems, and they call for two serious, carefully-crafted policy responses.

After I wrote this brief essay, someone brought to my attention an article posted at Slate by Michael Levi, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations(“Barking Up the Wrong Tree: Why ‘Green Jobs’ May Not Save the Economy or the Environment,” March 4, 2009). I found Levi’s assessment to be sensible and compelling, but I may be biased by two realities: one is that he and I are fundamentally in agreement; and the other is that we have been professionally affiliated, because he is the co-author of a paper (“Policies for Developing Country Engagement” ) which is part of the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements, a global research and outreach initiative which I direct. Rather than summarize or repeat any of Michael Levi’s article, I urge you to read it in its entirety at the Slate web address above.

As Reservoirs Fall, Prices Should Rise

Last week, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency and warned of possible mandatory water rationing as the state struggled through its third consecutive year of drought. This well-intentioned response to the latest water crisis should not come as a surprise.

Whenever prolonged droughts take place — anywhere in the United States — public officials can be expected to give impassioned speeches, declare emergencies, and impose mandatory restrictions on water use. Citizens are frequently prohibited from watering lawns, and businesses are told to prepare emergency plans to cut their usage. A day after the restrictions are announced, the granting of special exemptions typically begins (as in Maryland a few years ago, when car washes were allowed to remain open even if they were not meeting conservation requirements).

The droughts eventually pass, and when they do, water users go back to business as usual, treating water as if it were not a scarce resource. Water conservation efforts become a thing of the past, until the next drought, until the next unnecessary crisis. Isn’t there a better way?

The answer is yes — if we are willing to treat water as a valuable resource and price it accordingly, so that people have incentives to use the resource wisely, especially in times of need.

In 1776, Adam Smith described in The Wealth of Nations the apparent paradox that water is absolutely vital to human existence but is sold for no more than a pittance. More than two hundred years later, I can refill an eight-ounce glass 2,500 times with water from the tap for less than the cost of a single can of soda. Under these conditions, it is hardly surprising that we have so little incentive to conserve our scarce water supplies.

Throughout the United States, water is under-priced. Efficient use of water will take place only when the price reflects the actual additional cost of making that water available. Lest one fear that higher water rates would mean that Americans would go thirsty, take note: On average, each of us uses 183 gallons of water a day for drinking, cooking, washing, flushing, cleaning, and watering, but less than 5% of that is for drinking and cooking combined. There is plenty of margin for change if people are given the right price signals.

Fifty years of economic analyses have demonstrated that water demand is responsive to price changes, both in the short term, as individuals and firms respond by making do with less, and in the long term, as they adopt more efficient devices in the home and workplace. For example, when Boulder, Colorado moved from unmetered to metered systems, water use dropped by 40% on a sustained basis.

But prices are typically set well below the social costs of the water supplies, since historical average costs are employed, rather than true additional (marginal) costs of new supplies. Although water scarcity typically develops gradually across seasons of low rainfall and low accumulations of snow pack, pronounced droughts are usually felt in the summer months of greatest demand. The economically sensible approach is to charge more at these times, but such “seasonal pricing” is practiced by less than 2% of utilities across the country.

A reasonable objection to jacking up the price of water is that it would hurt the poor. But we can take a page from the play book of electric utilities who subsidize the first kilowatt-hours of electricity use with very low “life-line rates.” Indeed, the first increment of water use can be made available free of charge. What matters is that the right incentives are provided for higher levels of usage.

Other innovative possibilities exist. For instance, we have learned that the generation of electricity can be separated from its transmission and distribution — and that generation is a competitive business. Similarly, the supply of water to municipal systems can also be made more competitive, and hence more efficient. The Western states have been the first to innovate with water markets because of their greater scarcity concerns.

An example much in the news in recent years in California involved the sale of water conserved by Imperial Valley farmers to the water authorities in Los Angeles and San Diego, following a blueprint pioneered 20 years ago by Thomas Graff, then a staff attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund and now a living legend in the environmental community. These markets can address water shortages in droughts without mandatory restrictions on use or rationing, and without the need to construct new, expensive, and environmentally damaging dams and reservoirs.

Droughts, like so many public policy dilemmas, present both challenges and opportunities. Inevitably, citizens and businesses do their best to cope with mandatory restrictions. And with equal inevitability, once droughts have passed and the restraints are lifted, they return to their previous habits of water use and abuse.

The next water “crisis” when it comes will therefore present an opportunity to refuse to return to business as usual when the drought has passed. Instead, the affected areas can introduce progressive water pricing reforms that will send the correct signals to individuals and businesses about the true value of this precious resource. In my next post, I will focus on some specifics of implementing better water pricing, drawing on work I’ve done with Professor Sheila Olmstead of Yale University.

The Myths of Market Prices and Efficiency

In my two previous posts I described a pair of prevalent myths regarding how economists think about the environment: “the myth of the universal market” ­– the notion that economists believe that the market solves all problems; and “the myth of simple market solutions” — the notion that economists always recommend simple market solutions for social problems. In response to those two myths, I noted that in the environmental domain, perfectly functioning markets are the exception, not the rule; and that no particular form of government intervention is appropriate for all environmental problems.

A third myth is that when non-market solutions are considered, economists use only market prices to evaluate them. No matter what policy instrument is chosen, the environmental goal must be identified. Should vehicle emissions be reduced by 10, 20, or 50 percent? Economists frequently try to identify the most efficient degree of control — that which provides the greatest net benefits. This means that both benefits and costs need to be evaluated. True enough, economists typically favor using market prices whenever possible to carry out such evaluations, because these prices reveal how people actually value scarce amenities and resources. Economists are wary of asking people how much they value something, because respondents may not provide honest assessments of their own valuations. Instead, economists prefer to “watch what they do, not what they say,” as when individuals reveal their preferences by paying more for a house in a neighborhood with cleaner air, all else equal.

But economists are not concerned only with the financial value of things. Far from it. The financial flows that make up the gross national product represent only a fraction of all economic flows. The scope of economics encompasses the allocation and use of all scarce resources. For example, the economic value of the human-health damages of environmental pollution is greater than the sum of health-care costs and lost wages (or lost productivity), as it includes what lawyers call “pain and suffering.” Economists might use a market price indirectly to measure revealed rather than stated preferences, but the goal is to measure the total value of the loss that individuals incur.

For another example, the economic value of some parcel of the Amazon rain forest is not limited to its financial value as a repository of future pharmaceutical products or as a location for ecotourism. Such “use value” may only be a small part of the properly defined economic valuation. For decades, economists have recognized the importance of “non-use value” of environmental amenities such as wilderness areas or endangered species. The public nature of these goods makes it particularly difficult to quantify the values empirically, as we cannot use market prices. Benefit-cost analysis of environmental policies, almost by definition, cannot rely exclusively on market prices.

Economists try to convert all of these disparate values into monetary terms because a common unit of measure is needed in order to add them up. How else can we combine the benefits of ten extra miles of visibility plus some amount of reduced morbidity, and then compare these total benefits with the total cost of installing scrubbers to clean stack gases at coal-fired power plants? Money, after all, is simply a medium of exchange, a convenient way to compare disparate goods and services. The dollar in a benefit-cost analysis is nothing more than a yardstick for measurement and comparison.

A fourth and final myth is that economic analyses are concerned only with efficiency rather than distribution. Many economists do give more attention to aggregate social welfare than to the distribution of the benefits and costs of policies among members of society. The reason is that an improvement in economic efficiency can be determined by a simple and unambiguous criterion C an increase in total net benefits. What constitutes an improvement in distributional equity, on the other hand, is inevitably the subject of much dispute. Nevertheless, many economists do analyze distributional issues thoroughly. Although benefit-cost analyses often emphasize the overall relation between benefits and costs, many analyses also identify important distributional consequences. Indeed, within the realm of global climate change policy, much of the economic analysis is dedicated to assessing the distributional implications of alternative policy measures.

So where does this leave us? First, economists do not believe that the market solves all problems. Indeed, many economists make a living out of analyzing Amarket failures@ such as environmental pollution in which laissez faire policy leads not to social efficiency, but to inefficiency. Second, when economists identify market problems, their tendency is to consider the feasibility of market solutions because of their potential cost-effectiveness, but market-based approaches to environmental protection are no panacea. Third, when market or non-market solutions to environmental problems are assessed, economists do not limit their analysis to financial considerations, but use monetary equivalents in benefit-cost calculations in the absence of a more convenient unit. Fourth and finally, although the efficiency criterion is by definition aggregate in nature, economic analysis can reveal much about the distribution of the benefits and the costs of environmental policies.

Having identified and sought to dispel four prevalent myths about how economists think about the natural environment, I want to acknowledge that my profession bears some responsibility for the existence of such misunderstandings about economics. Like our colleagues in the other social and natural sciences, academic economists focus their greatest energies on communicating to their peers within their own discipline. Greater effort can certainly be given by economists to improving communication across disciplinary boundaries. And that is one of my key goals in this blog in the weeks and months ahead.

Opportunity for a Defining Moment

The inauguration of Barack Obama as the forty-fourth President of the United States is a defining moment in American history. For most Americans and countless others around the world, this is an inspiring political transition. The question we must face, however, is whether compelling inspiration will lead to effective action. As I wrote in a Boston Globe op-ed (November 12, 2008) one week after election day, environment and energy issues — particularly climate change policy — provide a microcosm of the forces that are shaping and will shape the actions of the new Administration and Congress.

About eight years ago, President-Elect George W. Bush promised to be President for all the people, not just those who had voted him into office. Bush’s ability as Texas Governor to bridge differences across the political aisle provided cause for optimism.

But hope for a centrist and sensible Presidency dissolved under the influence of White House political operative Karl Rove and Vice President Dick Cheney. The Bush Administration moved not to the center, but toward solidifying its base on the political right. Nowhere was this more apparent than in energy and environmental policy, with Vice President Cheney running energy policy, and EPA Administrator Christie Whitman virtually driven from office.

Will the environment and energy team of President Obama respond effectively to the serious challenges that lie ahead? Or will we find that the corporate lobbyists who filled so many key environmental positions in the Bush Administration have simply been replaced by strident advocates from the other end of the political spectrum? In other words, will ideology trump reason?

The first sign of trouble will be if the Administration issues an “endangerment finding” for carbon dioxide, as promised by the Obama campaign, thereby pleasing and solidifying President Obama’s political base, but also playing into the hands of those who oppose climate policy action, tying up progress with litigation, driving up costs, and accomplishing little or nothing.

Ultimately, will the Obama White House work with Congress to develop climate strategies that are scientifically sound, economically sensible, and thereby politically pragmatic? Will the new President –with impressive Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress — take on the difficult task of crafting meaningful climate legislation?

The only politically feasible approach that can make a real dent in the problem is a comprehensive, upstream cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon dioxide emissions 50 to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. The declining cap will increase the cost of polluting, thereby discouraging the use of the most carbon-intensive fossil fuels and providing powerful incentives for energy conservation and technology innovation.

The system could start with a 50-50 split of auctioned and free allowances, gradually moving to 100% auction over 25 years. To establish political support in the short term, free allowances should be targeted to sectors that are most burdened by the policy. And the auction revenue — which will increase over time — can be used to compensate low-income consumers, finance research and development, reduce the federal deficit, or cut taxes.

The best option may be to make the program revenue-neutral by returning all of the auction revenue to citizens through direct cash dividends or annual tax credits. This can go a long way towards making the legislation palatable to Republicans and Democrats alike who are reticent to take any actions that even resemble a tax increase.

By making the overall emissions cap gradually become more stringent over time, costs can be greatly reduced by avoiding premature retirement of existing capital stock, reducing vulnerability to siting bottlenecks, and ensuring that long-lived capital investments incorporate appropriate advanced technology.

Still, the costs of meaningful action will be significant, with impacts on gross domestic product eventually reaching up to 1 percent per year. But the longer the world waits to begin taking serious action, the more ambitious will emission reduction targets inevitably become, as atmospheric greenhouse gases continue to accumulate.

The bottom line is that getting serious about global climate change will not be cheap and it will not be easy. Beware of claims to the contrary. In the midst of a significant economic downturn, with businesses closing and unemployment on the rise, it makes sense for the new Administration to give its greatest attention to economic recovery. There is nothing wrong with sequencing policies. But if current predictions about the consequences of another few decades of inaction are correct, this defining moment provides an important opportunity for serious and sensible action.