Placing U.S. Government Views on Climate Change into Historical Context

In this year of 2018, the Europe Union, China, India, Brazil, Korea, Canada, and other countries are negotiating the details for implementation of the Paris Agreement, and are developing domestic policies to achieve their respective Nationally Determined Contributions under the Agreement.  At the same time, the United States – under the leadership of President Donald Trump – has announced its intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement as soon as permitted (November, 2020), and has taken significant steps to immediately roll back domestic climate change policies put in place by the Obama administration.  This may be a good time to place this quite deviant U.S. government behavior into historical context.

Where to Begin?

This blog is dedicated to an economic view of the environment, and my essays here typically feature analyses of existing or proposed policies, with a look to the future, particularly in the realm of global climate change.  Today, however, I take a look back, with an examination of the early history of deliberations in the U.S. government about climate change.

Of course, the history of climate change science goes back at least to Svante Arrhenius, the Nobel Prize-winning Swedish physicist and chemist, who in 1896 calculated how increased concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) would increase the Earth’s temperature through the greenhouse effect, a finding that was picked up many years later by Guy Stewart Callendar, Charles David Keeling, Roger Revelle, and others.  But my focus is not on the history of the science, but on a very specific dimension of the policy history, namely the history of discussions within the U.S. government regarding climate change and potential policy responses.

Some might think that the starting point would be the 1988 Congressional hearings – led by U.S. Senators Timothy Wirth and Albert Gore – which the New York Times covered in a long article.  That was during the last year of the Reagan administration, but the story really begins more than two decades earlier – in 1965.

Before going further, I want to give credit to two people who have written about this – David Hone, Chief Climate Change Advisor for Shell, and Jairam Ramesh, formerly chief negotiator for India at the conferences of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

President Lyndon Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee, 1965

More than fifty years ago, on November 5, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson released a report authored by the Environmental Pollution Panel of the President’s Science Advisory Committee, pictured here.


Remarkably, the report included a 23-page discussion of the climatic effects of increased concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), due to the combustion of fossil fuels, and – interestingly enough – concluded with a proposal for research on a specific approach to responding, namely with what is now called “geoengineering.”  Below is the table of contents of that section of the report – on “Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide,” and you can read that section of the report here.

In his introduction to the report, President Johnson emphasized that “we will need increased basic research in a variety of specific areas,” and then went on to state:  “We must give highest priority of all to increasing the numbers and quality of the scientists and engineers working on problems related to the control and management of pollution.”  What a contrast with the anti-science approach of the current resident of the White House!

A Striking Nixon White House Memorandum – 1969

Daniel Patrick Moynihan – surely one of the leading public intellectuals of the twentieth century – was a Harvard professor (1966-1969, 1971-1973 ), advisor to President Richard Nixon (1969-1970), U.S. Ambassador to India (1973-1975), U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (1975-1976), and U.S. Senator (1977-2001).  On September 17th, 1969, while he was working in the White House, Moynihan sent a memorandum to John Ehrlichman, then a key Presidential assistant (who subsequently served 18 months in federal prison for his role in the Watergate conspiracy).  The original memorandum is in the Nixon Library, but you can also read it immediately below.  It is well worth reading!

Historical Context and the Path Ahead

From the perspective of 2018, as we enter the second year of the Trump administration, it may – or may not – be comforting to recognize that scientific and even policy attention by the White House to climate change goes back more than five decades, to the administration of Lyndon Johnson.  Since then, there have surely been ups and downs – through the administrations of Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush (I), Clinton, Bush (II), and Obama, but the current administration is an outlier in its utter disdain for sound science and related hostility to sensible public policy (in this and other domains).

The list of Presidential administrations above should remind us that whether a single four-year term or the maximum eight years, administrations are relatively short-lived when judged in historical context.  And they tend to swing back and forth between the two political parties.

All of which reminds me of a true story.  In November, 2016, just days after the U.S. Presidential election, I was in Marrakech, Morocco, for the annual U.N. climate negotiations.  I was speaking on a panel assembled by the government of China in their Pavilion.  Those who preceded me voiced their dismay about the election and their very low expectations for the climate change policy that would likely be forthcoming from Donald Trump and his administration-to-be.

Our moderator from the Chinese government then introduced me to speak, and as I listened with headphones to the simultaneous translation, I heard him say, “And now Harvard’s Professor Stavins will bring us some good news from the United States.”  I was dumbfounded.  What could I possibly say?  I walked to the lectern, sipped some water, took a deep breath, and said to the audience, “When you get to be my age, you recognize that four years is not a long time!”

That will have to suffice as an “optimistic” conclusion to today’s essay.


Beware of Scorched-Earth Strategies in Climate Debates

With the apparent collapse last week of U.S. Senate consideration of a meaningful climate policy, it is important to reflect on what could be a very serious long-term casualty of these acrimonious climate policy debates, namely the demonizing of cap-and-trade and the related tarnishing of market-based approaches to environmental protection.

In an op-ed which appeared on July 27th in The Boston Globe (click here for link to the original op-ed), Richard Schmalensee and I commented on this unfortunate outcome of U.S. political debates and described the irony that the attack on cap-and-trade – and carbon-pricing, more broadly – has been led by conservatives, who should take pride as the creators of these cost-effective policy innovations in three Republican administrations.

Rather than summarize (or expand on) our op-ed, I simply re-produce it below as it was published by The Boston Globe, with some hyperlinks added for interested readers.

By the way, for anyone who is not familiar with Dick Schmalensee, let me note that he is the Howard W. Johnson Professor of Economics and Management at MIT, where he served as the Dean of the Sloan School of Management from 1998 to 2007.  Also, he served as a Member of the Council of Economic Advisers in the George H. W. Bush administration from 1989 to 1991.


The Power of Cap-and-Trade

by Richard Schmalensee and Robert Stavins

The Boston Globe, July 27, 2010

LAST WEEK, the Senate abandoned its latest attempt to pass climate legislation that would limit carbon dioxide emissions, putting off any action until the fall at the soonest. In the process, conservative Republicans dubbed the cap-and-trade systemcap-and-tax.’’ Regardless of what they think about climate change, however, they should resist demonizing market-based approaches to environmental protection and reverting to pre-1980s thinking that saddled business and consumers with needless costs.

In fact, market-based policies should be embraced, not condemned by Republicans (as well as Democrats). After all, these policies were innovations developed by conservatives in the Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush administrations (and once strongly condemned by liberals).

In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan’s Environmental Protection Agency successfully put in place a cap-and-trade system to phase out leaded gasoline. The result was a more rapid elimination of leaded gasoline from the marketplace than anyone had anticipated, and at a savings of some $250 million per year, compared with a conventional no-trade, command-and-control approach.

In June 1989, President George H. W. Bush proposed the use of a cap-and-trade system to cut by half sulfur dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants and consequent acid rain. An initially resistant Democratic Congress overwhelmingly endorsed the proposal. The landmark Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 passed the Senate 89 to 10 and the House 401 to 25. That cap-and-trade system has cut sulfur dioxide emissions by 50 percent, and has saved electricity companies — and hence shareholders and ratepayers — some $1 billion per year compared with a conventional, non-market approach.

In 2005, George W. Bush’s EPA issued the Clean Air Interstate Rule, aimed at achieving the largest reduction in air pollution in more than a decade, including reducing sulfur dioxide emissions by a further 70 percent from their 2003 levels. Cap-and-trade was again the policy instrument of choice in order to keep costs down and achieve the rapid reductions at minimum economic pain. (The rule was later invalidated by the courts, and is now being reformulated.)

To reject this legacy and embrace the failed 1970s policies of one-size-fits-all regulatory mandates would signify unilateral surrender of principled support for markets. If some conservatives oppose energy or climate policies because of disagreement about the threat of climate change or the costs of those policies, so be it. But in the process of debating risks and costs, there should be no tarnishing of market-based policy instruments. Such a scorched-earth approach will come back to haunt when future environmental policies will not be able to use the power of the marketplace to reduce business costs.

Virtually all economists agree on a market-based approach to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Some favor carbon taxes combined with revenue-neutral cuts in distortionary taxes, whereas others support cap-and-trade mechanisms — or “cap-and-dividend,’’ with revenues from auctioned allowances refunded directly to citizens.

Conventional approaches advanced as “painless alternatives’’ — a plethora of standards, special-interest technology subsidies, and tax breaks — won’t do the job, and will be unnecessarily expensive. While we are struggling to revitalize the economy, we simply cannot afford to turn our backs on markets and impose unnecessary costs on businesses and consumers.

A price on carbon is the least costly way to provide meaningful incentives for technology innovation and diffusion, reduce emissions from fossil fuels, and drive energy efficiency. In the long run, it can reduce our use of oil and drive our transportation system toward alternative energy sources.

Market-based approaches to environmental protection – including cap-and-trade – should be lauded, not condemned, by political leaders, no matter what their party affiliation. Demonizing cap-and-trade in the short term will turn out to be a mistake with serious long-term consequences for the economy, for business, and for consumers.