Addressing climate change with meaningful policy action will be neither cheap nor easy, but presently the greatest barrier to action in the United States is not technological, nor perhaps even economic, but fundamentally political. This becomes a theme in my latest podcast, where I engage in a wide-ranging conversation about economics, politics, and climate change with Gernot Wagner, Clinical Associate Professor at New York University, and former staff economist at the Environmental Defense Fund.
You can hear our complete conversation in the podcast here.
In these podcasts – “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program – I converse with very well-informed people from academia, government, industry, and NGOs. Gernot Wagner fits well in this group, with experience in academia, industry, and the NGO world.
Wagner, whose career also includes time spent as a consultant at the Boston Consulting Group and a journalist at the Financial Times, brings to his thinking about the economics of climate change policy a rich and varied set of perspectives gained through his years of multi-sectoral experience.
He is a graduate of Harvard College, where he took my environmental economics course as a freshman (and then proceeded to receive the highest grade in the class). In addition, I had the privilege of serving as chair of Gernot’s dissertation committee when he received his Ph.D. in Political Economy and Government from Harvard in 2007.
Gernot Wagner is author of two books, “But will the Planet Notice: How Smart Economics Can Save the World?,”and “Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet,” which he co-wrote with the late Harvard Professor Martin Weitzman, whom he had met his first week on the Harvard campus as a freshman in 1998.
“I went to meet Marty on a Thursday that week,” Wagner recalls in our podcast conversation. “I remember Marty sitting me down and first of all, taking me seriously…much like you did. You did try to dissuade me from taking your class, but then I ended up taking it later that year. But Marty sat me down and guided me through, maybe in an attempt at dissuading me frankly of wanting to become an environmental economist or academic.”
In my podcast conversation with Gernot, we turn to the topic of current-day climate policy, and Wagner sounds cautiously optimistic about the chances that the United States will meet the Biden Administration’s recently announced commitment to reduce CO2 emissions by 50-to-52 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2030, saying that it would be technically and economically feasible, although politically difficult.
“I’d like to think I can make a cogent argument for why it will happen, and this administration is uniquely positioned to make it happen. And the approach it is taking seems to be on the right path,” Wagner says, while also admitting that it will be a challenge for the administration to get any meaningful climate policy through a divided Congress.
Wagner also expresses his hope for establishing a carbon price of between 60 and 300 dollars per ton to provide incentives for companies and industries to reduce CO2 emissions. Exxon, he notes, has recently come out in support of a carbon price of 50 dollars per ton, but Democrats in Washington are not satisfied with that proposal.
“The progressives in the House wants something that has a higher price equivalent. The Biden Administration might be slightly less ambitious on that front,” he says. “All of it is still much more ambitious than the…simple 50 dollar per ton of CO2 carbon tax.”
At the end of our conversation, I ask Wagner for his thoughts on the youth climate movements that became prominent in 2019.
“What we do see is amazing action in the right direction, on a whole lot of different dimensions,” Gernot remarks. “Now we are back to – what should this movement push for? And frankly, now we are back to the raw politics of it all. It’s very, very difficult to see – the one simple approach that will just solve it all. That basically doesn’t exist. It exists in theory, maybe. Not in practice.”
My complete conversation with Gernot Wagner is the 24th 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:
- Gina McCarthy, former Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
- Nick Stern of the London School of Economics discussing his career, British politics, and efforts to combat climate change
- Andrei Marcu, founder and executive director of the European Roundtable on Climate Change and Sustainable Transition
- Paul Watkinson, Chair of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
- Jos Delbeke, professor at the European University Institute in Florence and at the KU Leuven in Belgium, and formerly Director-General of the European Commission’s DG Climate Action
- David Keith, professor at Harvard and a leading authority on geoengineering
- Joe Aldy, professor of the practice of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, with considerable experience working on climate change policy issues in the U.S. government
- Scott Barrett, professor of natural resource economics at Columbia University, and an authority on infectious disease policy
- Rebecca Henderson, John and Natty McArthur University Professor at Harvard University, and founding co-director of the Business and Environment Initiative at Harvard Business School.
- Sue Biniaz, who was the lead climate lawyer and a lead climate negotiator for the United States from 1989 until early 2017.
- Richard Schmalensee, the Howard W. Johnson Professor of Management, and Professor of Economics Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
- Kelley Kizier, Associate Vice President for International Climate at the Environmental Defense Fund.
- David Hone, Chief Climate Change Adviser, Shell International.
- Vicky Bailey, 30 years of experience in corporate and government positions in the energy sector.
- David Victor, professor of international relations at the University of California, San Diego.
- Lisa Friedman, reporter on the climate desk at the The New York Times.
- Coral Davenport, who covers energy and environmental policy for The New York Times from the Washington bureau.
- Spencer Dale, BP Group Chief Economist.
- Richard Revesz, professor at the NYU School of Law.
- Daniel Esty, Hillhouse Professor of Environment and Law at Yale University.
- William Hogan, Raymond Plank Research Professor of Global Energy Policy at Harvard.
- Jody Freeman, Archibald Cox Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.
- John Graham, Dean Emeritus, Paul O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University