A Call for Pragmatic Climate Policies

Economists, including myself, have long favored carbon-pricing policies – either carbon taxes or cap-and-trade – as the best approach to reducing emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) in large, complex economies – on the basis of:  feasibility of limiting emissions from hundreds of millions of point and non-point sources; short-term cost-effectiveness in the face of highly heterogeneous abatement costs associated with highly diverse sources; and long-term effectiveness and efficiency by bringing about carbon-friendly technological change. 

Although economists would therefore argue that carbon-pricing policies will be a necessary element of a truly meaningful policy portfolio, they would not claim that they will be sufficient, partly because of the presence of other market failures (such as principal-agent problems in the context of energy-efficiency technology adoption decisions in renter-occupied properties, and information spillovers leading to insufficient private investments in research and development).

But there is another reason for the insufficiency of carbon-pricing policies, and that reason is captured by a single word:  politics.  It has become increasingly clear that in the United States carbon-pricing policies do not have sufficient constituencies among either conservative Republicans or “progressive” liberal Democrats to become a central element of meaningful climate change policy.  Hence, there is increasing recognition – even by economists – that more attention needs to be given to other, so-called “second-best” policies, which may be more costly but will also be more politically feasible.

This point is made in compelling fashion by Gilbert Metcalf, Professor of Economics at Tufts University and a long-time analyst, expert, and advocate of the use of carbon taxes, in the latest episode of our podcast, “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.”  You can hear Gib’s plea for broader thinking by listening to our conversation here.

In these podcasts, I converse with leading experts from academia, government, industry, and NGOs.  Gib Metcalf fits well in this group, as a long-time Professor of Economics at Tufts, a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, a University Fellow at Resources For The Future, an Associate Scholar of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Environment and Energy at the U.S. Department of the Treasury (2011-2012).  He has spent much of his career working on policy design and evaluation in the area of energy and climate change, both in academia and government.

Gib Metcalf’s call for pragmatism and broader thinking on climate change policy by the economics community is particularly striking (and compelling) because of his extensive analysis over more than a decade and his strong advocacy for the development of a U.S. carbon tax.  This is exemplified by his excellent 2019 book, Paying for Pollution: Why a Carbon Tax is Good for America (Oxford University Press). 

As a longtime proponent of a carbon tax to affix a social price on CO2 emissions, Metcalf is particularly convincing when he acknowledges in our conversation that he is now convinced that a carbon tax is not a practical option in today’s exceptionally partisan political climate.

“I am a firm believer that we should do the most efficient policies possible, and I think carbon pricing is precisely the way to do that. I prefer a carbon tax to cap-and-trade, I think for a number of reasons … but the political environment is such that, that’s just not going to happen,” he says. “And meanwhile, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continues to rise. So given, that I think we are obligated, those of us who care about the climate, to promote policies that will reduce emissions now, even if they’re not necessarily our most desirable policies.”

So, Metcalf argues that the Biden Administration should consider regulatory actions and executive orders in addition to statutory subsidies to give polluters incentives to seek cleaner energy alternatives.  Commenting on the serious legal challenges that some regulatory initiatives are likely to face (particularly given the 6-3 conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court), he offers a cause for optimism:

“I see less of a problem with fuel economy standards [by] ratcheting those up. So, we can do something in transportation.  I think we’ll [also] use tax credits in the electricity sector instead of regulation and perhaps we’ll do the same in buildings, but that gets to the third leg of what I would call a policy tripod in a third best world, which is R&D spending. And here, I think the R&D spending really needs to be focused on the technologies that have the greatest potential to lower the cost of clean energy.”

Gib Metcalf argues that production tax credits can be used to encourage further development of clean energy options, including wind power, but they should be designed in a way that will account for the increasingly negative impacts of carbon emissions.  

“My recommendation is that we ought to tie that tax credit to the social cost of carbon.  Given the official social cost of carbon numbers that the Biden Administration is using, that would be about a two and a half cents per kilowatt hour production tax credit. So, it doesn’t change the [tax] credit now, but as the social cost of carbon rises over time, then the production tax credit should rise over time.”

Gib Metcalf and the author on a panel at COP21 in Paris in 2015

At the end of our conversation, I ask Gib Metcalf for his thoughts on the current, prominent youth movements pressing for more aggressive action on climate change.  His response is that he was initially skeptical about their impact, thinking of them as little more than a “side show” to meaningful action through the international climate negotiations, for example.  But that is no longer the case.

“I’ve actually changed my mind entirely.  I’m more pessimistic [now] about where the negotiations will get us given the urgency of action. But the youth movements, Greta Thunberg and others, are really, to me, incredibly important in that they are driving public opinion and bringing media attention to the problem, in a way that I think is extremely valuable.  So, I see them as just absolutely essential.”

I raise the question of whether this very prominent youth activism is an age effect (hence likely to become more moderate as young people become adults) or a cohort effect (likely to retain its strength over time).  Gib responds that the young people involved in these climate movements are likely to remain engaged.

“I think the current youth movements see a very clear stake for themselves in terms of the damages that we’re seeing in the world today because of climate change. So, I think that gives them a more enduring stake that may outlast their youth.”  

That’s an excellent, optimistic note on which our conversation comes to a close.

For this and much more, I hope you will listen to my complete conversation with Gib Metcalf, the 30th episode in the Environmental Insights series, with future episodes scheduled to drop each month.  You can find a transcript of our conversation at the website of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.  Previous episodes have featured conversations with:

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

Share

Bringing Ambition and Pragmatism to Climate Change Policy

In the world of environmental policy, it is frequently the case that pragmatism and effectiveness are framed as being at odds with passion and ambition.  Even more so, in the realm of climate change, it is the rare individual who can successfully merge ambition and pragmatism in the pursuit of intelligent and effective public policy.  Richard Schmalensee, my guest in the newest episode of our podcast, “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program,” is just such a person.

In my conversation with Dick Schmalensee, the Howard W. Johnson Professor of Management, and Professor of Economics Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he reflects on his many years working on environmental policy in public service and in academia.  Abundant insights arise, including important lessons for current climate policy deliberations in the United States, Europe, China, and other countries.

Professor Schmalensee was Dean of the MIT Sloan School of Management for 10 years, and Director of the MIT Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research for 12 years.  Before and during those years, his research and teaching were in multiple areas of application of industrial organization, including antitrust, regulatory, energy, and environmental policies.

He is a Fellow of the Econometric Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Director of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and Chairman Emeritus of the Board of Directors of Resources for the Future.  And I’m pleased to say that Dick is also an Associate Scholar of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, and in recent years, has been my frequent co-author (for example, here, here, and here).

In addition to all of this, during a leave of absence from MIT, he served as a Member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers in the George H.W. Bush administration.

Professor Schmalensee in his home study in Boston, 2020

In this latest Podcast episode, our conversation begins with Dick’s upbringing in a small town in southern Illinois, his move east to college and graduate school at MIT, his dissertation research, and the professional path that took him after receipt of his Ph.D. degree, first to California, and then back east to MIT’s Sloan School of Management.  We turn to his career in regulatory economics and policy – both his scholarly research and his close involvement in policy development and implementation, where he was “in the words of ‘Hamilton,” in the room where it happened.” 

Speaking at the Harvard Kennedy School, 2020

You won’t be surprised that we take time to focus on:  the pathbreaking cap-and-trade program launched by the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990; and political changes in the United States that have moved environmental policy from being a truly bipartisan issue to a partisan one in today’s highly polarized politics.  Much of our conversation is about the current state of climate change policy – and policy research – both domestically and globally.

Delivering Keynote Address at the Toulouse School of Economics, 2017

Throughout the interview, Dick is at home in his disarming style of candid conversation, with no punches pulled.  He terms current U.S. climate change policy “a disaster,” saying it was a mistake “walking away from Paris, walking away from any sense that it’s important that we deal with our emissions and indeed walking away from the potential federal role in helping states and localities adapt to change.”

All of this and more is found in the newest episode of “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.” Listen to this latest discussion here, where you can also find a complete transcript of our conversation.

My conversation with Dick Schmalensee is the eleventh episode in the Environmental Insights series.  Previous episodes have featured conversations with:

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

Share

How Have Companies Responded to the Coronavirus Pandemic and Climate Change?

We have just released the latest episode of our podcast, “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.”  In this latest episode, I engage in a conversation with Rebecca Henderson, the John and Natty McArthur University Professor at Harvard University.  She shares her perspectives on how large organizations are changing in response to the coronavirus pandemic and global climate change.  A full transcript of our conversation is available here.

Rebecca makes her home at Harvard Business School, where she was the founding co-director with Professor Forest Reinhardt of the Business and Environment Initiative.  She is also a Research Fellow of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and a Faculty Fellow of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.

In this podcast episode, we first discuss how the attention given to environmental matters has changed at business schools in the three decades since she received her Ph.D. in Business Economics at Harvard and joined the faculty at the MIT Sloan School of Management, prior to moving on to Harvard Business School.

Henderson’s research and writing explore how organizations respond to large-scale technological shifts, most recently in regard to energy and the environment.  This has also given her a special perspective to think about the role of the private sector in responding to the Covid-19 crisis.  In this regard, she notes that she is reminded that “when organizations decide they must change, they can change,” pointing to the quick shift to remote work across many sectors, the effort by biomedical firms to speed up supply changes, and the ways in which retail and grocery distribution channels are mobilizing their resources. “You’re seeing profound changes in methods of operation across the economy,” she remarks.

“The potential upside is that this emergency is making it very clear that the stability of the entire community is critical to the success of business,” Rebecca states. “I think the emergency is also highlighting that one needs a strong, effective federal government to deal with problems like this. I think both of those insights could conceivably translate into business pressure for coherent climate policy in ways that could be very helpful.”

“Climate change can seem distant; it can seem invisible. Why should I worry about it? To see the whole economy mobilized when the threat becomes very, very concrete reminds me that, as we think about climate change, we have to find a way to make that threat as concrete as possible. So that’s one thing I take away from the current moment.”

All of this and much more is found in the newest episode of “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.” Listen to this latest discussion here, where, by the way, you can also find a complete transcript of our conversation.

My conversation with Rebecca Henderson is the ninth episode in the Environmental Insights series.  Previous episodes have featured conversations with:

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

Share