The Challenge Posed to U.S. Climate Policy by Political Polarization

In my podcast series, “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program,” I’ve enjoyed chatting with economists who have been leaders in the realm of environmental, energy, and resource economics.  My most recent guest fits in that group, because I was joined by Kathleen Segerson, who in addition to her academic and scholarly research and teaching, has served on numerous state, national, and international advisory boards.  The podcast is produced by the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.  You can listen to our complete conversation here.

Segerson, the Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Economics at the University of Connecticut, is a Member of the National Academy of Sciences and a Fellow of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, and the Bayer Institute of Ecological Economics in Stockholm. Her advisory roles have included time spent as a Member of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board (SAB), where she had a close-up view of Washington political battles over environmental issues, including climate change policy. She acknowledges that the politics have only gotten worse.

“I think that it is really quite concerning how polarized we are now in this country, at least, on some of these issues,” Segerson remarks. “Some approaches, or at least concerns that might have been bipartisan in the past have become quite polarized now and that makes it very difficult to think about policy and how to move forward.”

Segerson says that many of the policy tools currently used to address climate change in the United States are less than ideal.

“One of the things that we’ve done, of course, recently is to enact the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes a lot of climate measures. Many of those are subsidy based. And as you know, economists wouldn’t typically be looking to subsidies as the ideal policy instrument to use to try to foster transformational change,” she states. “That, I think is a concern because it sets a precedent for policy. It obviously has large budgetary implications. We’ll see whether those subsidies can be effectively phased out if and when [they are] no longer needed. Let’s hope they’re no longer needed at some point, that they’ve been sufficiently successful, that they aren’t needed in the future.”

Segerson also addresses the issue of environmental justice and the Justice40 Initiative, which seeks to ensure that a certain level of investment is targeted for disadvantaged communities that have historically been underserved or highly affected by pollution.

“The challenge is identifying those communities. Which communities should be considered eligible for helping to meet the Justice40 goals? How do you define that? How do you measure it? Of course, the challenges are very different across different communities. So, how do you compare [and] calculate cumulative burdens?,” she asks. “There are a lot of … challenges associated with implementing policies to try to address the environmental justice concerns that are out there, and obviously very legitimate and need to be addressed.”

Segerson also expresses her optimism about the increase of youth movements of climate activism in recent years, saying that while she may question some of the tactics, she supports the objective of focusing attention on important climate policy issues.

“We need the young generation to be the ones who are, in some sense, drawing increased attention because the older generations, at least some parts of them, are not stepping up to that challenge,” she states. “I know that the people who are young parents … or teenagers or college students now, it’s really about their future and their right to feel indignant that those of us who are much older are not doing what we can or should be doing to try to ensure that future.

“I think at this point, they’re sufficiently young that they can try to demand it, but actually putting it in place is more challenging. Let’s hope that they can translate that activism or that it does translate into some real change at some point.”

For this and much, much more, I encourage you to listen to this 48th episode of 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.


Reflections on Economics and Policy Making in the Environmental Domain

This past week, I was privileged to participate in a workshop, “Climate Science in a Time of Political Disruption,” sponsored by the Harvard Program on Science, Technology and Society.  The workshop began with a keynote address by former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, now Professor of Practice at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.  Following Gina McCarthy’s down-to-earth but quite inspiring remarks (with her usual Yankee humor adding spice to the proceedings), the others on the panel were asked to comment on the topic at hand.  The panelists included Joe Goffman, Executive Director of the Environmental Law Program at Harvard Law School; Peter Huybers, Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences; Sheila Jasanoff, Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Harvard Kennedy School; Lucas Stanczyk, Assistant Professor of Philosophy; and myself.

Given the subject of the workshop, most of the panelists focused their comments on the current political scene and the current U.S. administration’s apparent disdain for climate science.  I took a broader, somewhat historical view, and as the only economist on the panel, I commented on the relationship of economic research to policy making.  I did this via reflections on experiences I’ve had over the past three decades.  I tried to make three points:  first, economic research results can be used as a light bulb or a rock, and either can be effective; second, it is important to move quickly when windows of opportunity open in the policy world to implement research ideas; and third, politics matter, and should not be ignored.

  1. Research Results Can be Used as a Light Bulb or a Rock

I cannot speak for the natural sciences, but it is clearly the case that economic evidence can be used either as a “light bulb” – to illuminate an issue and possibly persuade policy makers of the wisdom of a particular course of action – or as a “rock,” that is, as ammunition to support a policy maker’s predisposed position.  Is this cynical?  I think not, because such economic ammunition can help win a policy battle.  I was just reminded by Paul Krugman in his New York Times column of a somewhat less charitable metaphor, where he characterized some politicians as using economists “the way a drunkard uses a lamppost:  for support, not illumination.”

Related to this reality was a session I chaired in 2001 at the annual meetings of the American Economic Association – a roundtable of former chairs and members of the U.S. Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), including George Eads (Charles River Associates), the late William Niskanen (then of the Cato Institute), William Nordhaus (Yale University), and Joseph Stiglitz (Columbia University).  A repeated theme from this set of economists was the reality that CEA typically had more influence by helping others in the Executive Office of the President in their efforts to stop bad ideas than by itself promoting good ideas.

  1. When Windows of Opportunity Open, Move Quickly

Two examples stand out for me of the importance of moving quickly when windows of opportunity open in the policy world to implement research ideas.  One is the work I carried out in the late 1980s under the sponsorship of the late Republican Senator John Heinz of Pennsylvania and former Democratic Senator Timothy Wirth of Colorado in the form of research that led to a report, “Project 88:  Harnessing Market Forces to Protect the Environment.”  One of the proposals in the report was to address the then politically prominent problem of acid rain with what is now called a cap-and-trade system.  This idea resonated with the incoming administration of President George H. W. Bush, particularly with the Counsel to the President, Boyden Gray.  In parallel with work being carried out by Joe Goffman and Dan Dudek (both then at the Environmental Defense Fund), I followed up the Project 88 report with numerous White House and other Washington meetings (commuting weekly from my Harvard perch), which eventually contributed to the Bush Administration’s proposal (to an initially resistant Democratic Congress) of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, including its path-breaking sulfur dioxide allowance trading program.

The other example I mentioned to highlight the importance of moving quickly when windows of opportunity open in the policy world is associated with the negotiations carried out annually under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  At the seventeenth Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC in Durban, South Africa, in 2011, the delegates agreed to the “Durban Platform for Enhanced Action,” which broke with nearly twenty years of UNFCCC policy by mandating a new approach in which all countries, not just the richest nations, would participate in addressing the need for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions.  The key challenge for climate negotiators was how to meet this new mandate while still observing the fundamental UNFCCC principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities,” which had previously been interpreted to mean that rich countries alone would shoulder the burden of reducing emissions.

At the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, we recognized that negotiators around the world were suddenly open to outside-the-box thinking.  Indeed, in Science magazine, my colleague, Joe Aldy, and I wrote an article, “Climate Negotiators Create an Opportunity for Scholars.”  Over the following months (and years) we worked hard to help key negotiating countries develop a new policy architecture that could meet the challenge before them.  The result was a hybrid approach that combined elements of top-down architecture with a healthy dose of bottom-up “pledge-and-review,” which led eventually, of course, to the Paris Agreement of 2015.

  1. Politics Matter

For the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), I served as Coordinating Lead Author (with Dr. Zou Ji of China) of the chapter on “International Cooperation:  Agreements and Instruments.”  I was surprised to find that the process was highly politicized – in two distinct ways.  First, whereas I had assumed that the Lead Authors (LAs) serving on our writing team were there only to represent their respective scientific expertise (in economics, legal scholarship, international relations, etc.), some of the LAs seemed to represent the interests of their respective countries.

Second, I was very naive about the final step of the process, when the governments of the world are asked to approve the IPCC’s Summary for Policy Makers line by line.  The controversy associated with our chapter on international climate agreements resulted in that entire section of the SPM being eviscerated of all meaningful substance at the Government Approval Sessions for Working Group III (WG III) in Berlin in April, 2014.  I was disappointed and dismayed by the process and its outcome.

Fortunately, I learned from that experience and my attitude (and behavior) was quite different just six months later, when I found myself in Copenhagen for what was essentially the final stage of the entire five-year enterprise of research, writing, and government approval of the various reports of IPCC AR5, namely the government approval sessions for the Synthesis Report (SYR), which summarizes and synthesizes the key findings from all three Working Group reports.  I had learned my lesson.  Rather than disdaining the politics of the occasion, I embraced it and spent the week in Copenhagen in careful negotiations with the key national governments, the result of which was that all of the essential text on international cooperation and agreements was preserved in the Synthesis Report.

Ironically, by recognizing, accepting, and indeed participating in the fundamentally political aspects of the IPCC government approval process, I was able to keep the report of research from itself being politicized.

Summing Up

So, the three points I made regarding the relationship between economic research and policy making at last week’s Harvard workshop were these:  first, economic research results can be used as a light bulb or a rock, and either or both can be effective; second, it is important to move quickly when windows of opportunity open in the policy world to implement research ideas; and third, politics matter, and should not be ignored.

I left it to others at the workshop – and I leave it to readers of this essay – to judge whether any of this applies more broadly to “Climate Science in a Time of Political Disruption.”