An Expression of Hope and Frustration re Climate Change Progress

In our podcast series, “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program,” I’ve had the pleasure of engaging in conversations over the past three years with a significant number of truly outstanding economists who have carried out important work in the realm of environmental, energy, and resource economics.  My most recent guest is no exception, because I am joined by Geoffrey Heal, the Donald Waite III Professor of Social Enterprise at Columbia Business School, where he previously served as Senior Vice Dean, essentially the chief academic officer of the School.

More to the point, Geoff Heal is the author of 18 book and some 200 articles, a Fellow of the Econometric Society and the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, where he served as President.  And Geoff has also held – and continues to hold – important advisory and other positions with governmental, multi-governmental, and non-governmental organizations.  I hope you will listen to our complete conversation here.

Among his writings is the pathbreaking 1979 book “Economic Theory and Exhaustible Resources,” co-authored with Partha Dasgupta, which is widely viewed as a seminal work in the field of resource and environmental economics.  I asked Geoff how the book came about.

“Partha and I enjoyed collaborating, and I think it’s something that we just felt sort of intellectually compelled to write because we felt the time was right and we felt that we could make a contribution … particularly acting together,” Heal remarks. “But I don’t think we had any sense of the impact it would have, quite frankly.  And I find students still reading it today, which is quite remarkable.”

Heal also addresses the question of how much the field of resource and environmental economics has changed during his time in academia over the past 40 years.

“The field has been transformed, hasn’t it? I mean, in the last decade or so, it’s been transformed into a much more empirical field than it was before that. What they call the ‘credibility revolution’ in economics has taken hold in environmental and resource economics,” he said. “We’ve got a vast number of papers using interesting novel data sets to look at climate impacts or regulatory impacts, and I think they’ve increased our understanding of the impact of environmental issues and environmental policies… considerably.”

Serving as a Coordinating Lead Author in Working Group III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report, which was finalized in 2014, Heal had a front row seat in the analysis of climate change policy. That said, he admits he is a bit frustrated with the pace of collective efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat the effects of global climate change.

“I think that we know a lot about how to solve the climate problem. I think the technologies that we need to solve it are largely, perhaps not totally, but largely available… So, I think we know how to move to an electric grid which is powered entirely without fossil fuels,” he states. “We have a lot of the pieces available. We’re not just deploying them fast enough to reach the targets that we think we need to reach …so I find that frustrating. We’re very close to being able to achieve the goal, but we’re not actually doing what we need to do.”

When I ask Geoff Heal why current climate policies don’t seem to be accomplishing their goals, he cites politics.

“It’s the enormous influence of the fossil fuel industry and the sense of mostly some conservatives that this is a plot to increase the powers of the state. And of course, the Ukraine war has really been a major problem too, because it’s caused Europeans to move away from natural gas and in some cases back to coal, which is a terrible piece of backsliding, and it’s understandable under the circumstances, but it’s very regrettable from the climate perspective,” he says. “The Ukraine war, I hope, is a temporary phenomenon, whereas the power of the fossil fuel industry and the sort of conservative misapprehensions about what climate change is all about, I think are more real and more enduring.”

For this and much, much more, I encourage you to listen to this 47th 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.