This is Not a Time for Political Neutrality

I have been writing essays at this blog for over seven years, and throughout that time, through perhaps 100 more-or-less-monthly essays, I have tried very hard to keep politics at bay, and to view each and every issue I discussed from a politically neutral, yet analytical economic perspective.  But I find it difficult to remain neutral in the current U.S. Presidential election cycle.

Since before the summer, I had resolved to write today’s essay, but I decided to wait until one month before the November U.S. election to post it, simply because I thought this was the point in time when people would be paying most attention to the upcoming election but would not yet have completely made up their minds.  In particular, I want to address this message to people who – like me – are political independents.


I have been teaching at Harvard for close to 30 years, and every year I take pride in the fact that at the conclusion of my 13-week course in environmental economics and policy, my students cannot say – on the basis of what I have said in lectures or what they have read in the assigned readings – whether I am a tree-hugging environmental advocate from the political left, or an industry apologist from the political right (actually, I am neither, although hostile voices in the blogosphere have sometimes wanted to peg me as being on the opposite of whatever extreme they occupy).

Likewise, I have remained bipartisan in politics, ever since I directed Project 88 more than 25 years ago for the bipartisan coalition of former Democratic Senator Timothy Wirth and the late Republican Senator John Heinz.  Starting with the White House of President George H. W. Bush, and continuing with every administration – of both political parties – since then, I have worked on substantive matters of environmental and energy policy, in some cases closely and intensively, and in some cases indirectly and on the periphery.

Such professional bipartisanship and political neutrality have been important to me, and have been consistent with my voter registration, as I am officially registered as an independent (in Massachusetts, this goes by the designation of “unenrolled”).

So, over the years, I have voted for Democrats and I have voted for Republicans, for various offices ranging from the Mayor of my town to the President of my country.  And in each and every one of those elections, although I preferred one of the two principal candidates (sometimes very strongly), in no case did I fear for the future of my community, my state, or my country if my candidate lost and the other candidate won.

This time is different.  In all honesty, I fear for the United States and I fear for the world if Donald Trump is elected President.  The time for my professional bipartisanship and political neutrality has ended – at least temporarily.  And so I apologize to my readers for using this platform – An Economic View of the Environment – to express my broader, personal views on the upcoming election.  This is a departure that I hope never again will be necessary.

I am not part of a campaign, and I am not recommending a candidate.  Rather, I am recommending that everyone vote!  Of course, today’s essay, like all my posts at this blog, expresses only my personal views, and is not written on behalf of my employer, nor in my capacity as a faculty member of the Harvard Kennedy School.

What Drives My Fear of a Trump Presidency?  His Views on the Environment?

My fear of the consequences of a Trump victory in the Presidential election is not simply because of Mr. Trump’s misleading, (consistently) inconsistent, and fundamentally incorrect statements in the realm of environmental and energy policy.

Let me be clear.  I do find Mrs. Clinton’s policy positions in my area of expertise – environmental and energy economics and policy – to be superior to Mr. Trump’s positions.  I will not repeat here my views of Trump’s environmental and energy positions, because I have frequently been quoted in the press as critical of his pronouncements and positions in this realm (Climate Central, E&E News, Scientific American, New York Times, Washington Post, The Verge, New York Times, The Week, Law Street, Climate Central, New York Times, The Hill, Newsmax, Climate Central, Grist, and National Public Radio).  And a few times I have been quoted as criticizing Hillary Clinton’s policy prescriptions in the environmental and energy realm (New York Times, Denver Post, and High Country News).  (For that matter, I have been quoted perhaps hundreds of times over the past seven and a half years as sometimes supportive and sometimes critical of Obama administration environmental and energy policies.)

So, yes, I believe that the world would be worse off with what I anticipate would be a Trump administration’s environmental and energy policies.  But that is not what really frightens me.

What Really Does Scare me about a Trump Presidency?

What frightens me is much broader and more profound.  I worry about what a Trump presidency would mean for my country and for the world in realms ranging from economic progress to national security to personal liberty.  This comes not from any analysis of policy proposals, but from Trump’s own words in a campaign in which he has substituted impulse and pandering for thoughtful politics.  From the first day – his June 16, 2015 announcement of his Presidential bid (in which he described Mexican immigrants as drug smugglers, criminals, and rapists, and promised to “build a great wall”) – until today, Mr. Trump has built his populist campaign on false allegations about others, personal insults of anyone who disagrees with him, and displays of breathtaking xenophobia, veiled racism, and unapologetic sexism.

As disturbing as Trump’s stated positions are in economic policy, national security, and personal liberties, possibly even worse is the reality that Donald Trump, if elected President, would – intentionally or unintentionally – provide cover and support for the ignorant, racist, and xenophobic tendencies that sadly inhabit a substantial fraction of the U.S. population.  In many ways, Trump represents not the best that my country has to offer, but rather the worst excesses of American culture.

Trump is clearly a politician who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument.  That is the definition – word for word – of a demagogue.

The Bottom Line

If you are an independent, like me, please do not sit on the sidelines of the upcoming election, condemning both candidates for their failings.

It has been said many times by many people that Hillary Clinton is not an ideal candidate for President.  I do not disagree with that sentiment.  Nor can I dispute the fact that her primary campaign against Senator Bernie Sanders pushed her to adopt positions of the left, including her unfortunate reversal regarding the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.

But Mrs. Clinton would bring significant, positive experience to the presidency from four decades of public life, including as a member of the U.S. Senate and as Secretary of State.  In contrast with Mr. Trump, she has surrounded herself with legions of smart and experienced advisers in dozens of key policy realms.  Her campaign has produced detailed proposals on the most important challenges facing the country (although I do question some of her environmental positions).  But she is, if anything, a realist – not an ideologue, and certainly not a demagogue, which is precisely how I would characterize Mr. Trump.

I recognize that many people harbor very negative feelings about Mrs. Clinton.  The low approval ratings (of both candidates) validate that.  I respect those voters who have serious concerns about a Clinton presidency.

My core argument is that there are great differences between the two major candidates.  I disagree strongly with those of my fellow political independents (and others) who say that because both candidates are flawed, they will not vote.

In my view, that would be a mistake.  The fate of the United States and the fate of the world are really in our hands.  If you are an independent, please do not sit out this election.  It is much too important.

A Key Moment for California Climate Policy

The past year has been a crucial time in international climate negotiations.  In December, 2015, in Paris, negotiators established an agreement on the next round of targets and actions to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, which was signed in 1997 and will effectively close down in 2020.  In Paris, negotiators set up a new and meaningful agreement for multinational action through individual country “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs).  The Paris round was crucial, because it expanded the coalition of contributions from countries responsible for 14% of global emissions under Kyoto (Europe and New Zealand) to 187 countries responsible for 96% of emissions under the Paris Agreement.

California’s Role in Global Climate Change Policy

California sent a delegation to the Paris talks. While not officially a party to the negotiations, California government officials attended to show support for broad and meaningful action.  For many years, spurring action beyond California’s borders has been the key rationale for developing a California-based climate policy.  This began with Assembly Bill 32 (AB 32), the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006.  Initially, the focus was on encouraging action within the United States, including federal legislation, state-level actions, and multi-state compacts, but subsequent domestic action turned out to be much less than originally anticipated. As a result, California’s focus shifted to the international domain.

This is a good time to consider how the State can best demonstrate leadership on this global stage.  Action by all key countries, including the large emerging economies – China, India, Brazil, Korea, and South Africa – will be necessary to meaningfully address the climate problem.  Significant multinational contributions will be necessary to avoid having California’s aggressive in-state actions be for naught.  Absent such multilateral action, ambitious California policies do little or nothing to address the real problem.

But California can play a very important role by showing leadership – in two key ways.  One is to demonstrate a commitment to meaningful reductions in (greenhouse gas) GHG emissions.  In this regard, California has more than met the bar, with policies that are as aggressive as – if not more aggressive than – those of most countries.

The other way is to show leadership regarding how reductions of GHG emissions can best be accomplished – that is, in regard to progressive policy design.  California has a sophisticated GHG cap-and-trade system in place, which while not perfect, has many excellent design elements.  Countries around the world are now planning or implementing cap-and-trade systems, including in Europe, China, and Korea.  These countries are carefully watching decisions made in California, with particular attention to the design and implementation of its cap-and-trade system.  California’s system, possibly with a few improvements, could eventually be a model for even larger systems in other countries.

Can California Provide a Good Model of Progressive Policy?

Unfortunately, California’s climate policy has not relied heavily on its cap-and-trade system to achieve state targets.  Furthermore, rather than increasing reliance on this innovative market-based climate policy over time, recent proposals have doubled-down on the use of less efficient conventional policies to achieve GHG reductions. While some of these so-called “complementary policies” can be valuable under particular circumstances, they can also create severe problems.

One example of this is the attempt to employ aggressive sector-based targets through technology-driven policies, such as the Low Carbon Fuels Standard (LCFS).  In the presence of a binding cap-and-trade regime, the LCFS has the perverse effect of relocating carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to other sectors but not reducing net emissions, while driving up statewide abatement costs, and suppressing allowance prices in the cap-and-trade market, thereby reducing incentives for technological change.  That is bad news all around.  These perverse outcomes render such policies of little interest or value to other regions of the world.

The magnitude of the economic distortion is illustrated by the fact that allowances in the California cap-and-trade market have recently been trading in the range of $12 to $13 per ton of CO2, while LCFS credits have traded this summer for about $80 per ton of CO2.

While reduction in transportation sector GHG emissions is clearly an important long-run objective of an effective climate policy, if the approach taken to achieving such reductions is unnecessarily costly, it will be of little use to most of the world, which has much less financial wealth than California and the United States, and will therefore be much less inclined to follow the lead on such costly policies.

The Path Ahead

With China now the largest emitter in the world, and India and other large developing countries not very far behind, California policies that achieve emission reductions through excessively costly means will fail to encourage other countries to follow, or even recognize, California’s leadership.  On the other hand, by increasing reliance on its progressive market-based system, California can succeed at home and be influential around the world.

Paris Agreement — A Good Foundation for Meaningful Progress

The Paris Agreement, a truly landmark climate accord, which was gaveled through today, December 12, 2015, at 7:26 pm (Paris time) at the Twenty-First Conference of the Parties (COP-21), checks all the boxes in my five-point scorecard for a potentially effective Paris Agreement, described in my November 17th blog essay, Paris Can Be a Key Step.  The Agreement provides a broad foundation for meaningful progress on climate change, and represents a dramatic departure from the Kyoto Protocol and the past 20 years of climate negotiations.

Essential Background

Anyone who has read this blog over the past several years, or – even more so — my academic writing over the past twenty years on international climate change policy architecture, knows that I have viewed the dichotomous distinction between Annex I and non-Annex I countries as the major stumbling block to progress. That distinction was first introduced in the climate negotiations at COP-1 in Berlin in 1995. That was, in my view, an unfortunate and narrow interpretation of the sound equity principle in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, 1992) – “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.” It was codified two years later in the Kyoto Protocol.

The Kyoto Protocol, which has been the primary international agreement to reduce the greenhouse-gas emissions that cause global climate change, included mandatory emissions-reduction obligations only for developed countries. Developing countries had no emissions-reduction commitments. The dichotomous distinction between the developed and developing countries in the Kyoto Protocol has made progress on climate change impossible, because growth in emissions since the Protocol came into force in 2005 is entirely in the large developing countries—China, India, Brazil, Korea, South Africa, Mexico, and Indonesia. The big break came at the annual UNFCCC negotiating session in Durban, South Africa in 2011, where a decision was adopted by member countries to “develop [by December 2015, in Paris] a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties.” This “Durban Platform for Enhanced Action” broke with the Kyoto Protocol and signaled a new opening for innovative thinking (which we, at the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, took to heart).

The Paris Agreement is a Departure from the Past

Today, in Paris, representatives of 195 countries adopted a new hybrid international climate policy architecture that includes: bottom-up elements in the form of “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs), which are national targets and actions that arise from national policies; and top-down elements for oversight, guidance, and coordination. Now, all countries will be involved in taking actions to reduce emissions.

Remarkably, 186 of the 195 members of the UNFCCC submitted INDCs by the end of the Paris talks, representing some 96% of global emissions. Contrast that with the Kyoto Protocol, which now covers countries (Europe and New Zealand) accounting for no more than 14% of global emissions (and 0% of global emissions growth).

This broad scope of participation under the new Paris Agreement is a necessary condition for meaningful action, but, of course, it is not a sufficient condition. Also required is adequate ambition of the individual contributions. But this is only the first step with this new approach. The INDCs will be assessed and revised every five years, with their collective ambition ratcheted up over time. That said, even this initial set of contributions could cut anticipated temperature increases this century to about 3.5 degrees Centigrade, more than the frequently-discussed aspirational goal of limiting temperature increases to 2 degrees C (or the new aspirational target from Paris of 1.5 degrees C), but much less than the 5-6 degrees C increase that would be expected without this action. (An amendment to the Montreal Protocol to address hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) is likely to shave an addition 0.5 C of warming.)

The problem has not been solved, and it will not be for years to come, but the new approach brought about by the Paris Agreement can be a key step toward reducing the threat of global climate change.

The new climate agreement, despite being path-breaking and the result of what Coral Davenport writing in The New York Times rightly called “an extraordinary effort at international diplomacy,” is only a foundation for moving forward, but it is a sufficiently broad and sensible foundation to make increased ambition over time feasible for the first time.  Whether the Agreement is truly successful, whether this foundation for progress is effectively exploited over the years ahead by the Parties to the Agreement, is something we will know only ten, twenty, or more years from now.

What is key in the Agreement is the following: the centrality of the INDC structure (through which 186 countries representing 96% of global emissions have made submissions); the most balanced transparency requirements ever promulgated; provision for heterogeneous linkage, including international carbon markets (through “internationally transferred mitigation outcomes” – ITMOs); explicit clarification in a decision that agreement on “loss and damage” does not provide a basis for liability of compensation; and 5-year periods for stocktaking and improvement of the INDCs.

The Key Elements of the Paris Agreement

Here are some of the highlights of what stands out to me in the Paris Agreement.

Article 2 of the Agreement reaffirms the goal of limiting the global average temperature increase above the pre-industrial level to 2 degrees C, and adds 1.5 degrees C as something even more aspirational.  In my opinion, these aspirational goals – which come not from science (although endorsed by most scientists) nor economics, and may not even be feasible – are much less important than the critical components of the agreement:  the scope of participation through the INDC structure, and the mechanisms for implementation (see below).

Article 3 makes it clear that the INDC structure is central and universal for all parties, although Article 4 blurs this a bit with references to the circumstances of developing country Parties. But throughout the Agreement, it is abundantly clear that the firewall from the 1995 Berlin Mandate has finally been breached. In addition, five-year periods for the submission of revised INDCs (and global stocktaking of the impact of the Paris Agreement) are included in Article 14.  The first stocktaking review will be in 2018, with the start date for new INDCs set for 2020.

Article 4 importantly describes transparency requirements (domestic monitoring, reporting, and verification).  This is crucial, and represents a striking compromise between the U.S. and Europe, on the one hand, and China and India, on the other hand. All countries must eventually face the same monitoring and reporting requirements, regardless of their status as developed or developing.

Article 6 provides for international policy linkage, and is thereby exceptionally important for the successful exploitation of the foundation provided by the Paris Agreement.  The necessary language for heterogeneous international policy linkage (not only international carbon markets, but international linkage of other national policy instruments) is included. I have written about this key issue many times over the past ten years. It can bring down compliance costs greatly, and thereby facilitate greater ambition over time. (See our paper on this from the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements:  “Facilitating Linkage of Heterogeneous Regional, National, and Sub-National Climate Policies Through a Future International Agreement” By Daniel Bodansky, Seth Hoedl, Gilbert E. Metcalf and Robert N. Stavins, November 2014.)  The Paris Agreement accomplishes this through provision for “internationally transferred mitigation outcomes.” With this provision, we have a new climate policy acronym – ITMOs – about which I suspect I will be writing in the future.

There is considerable discussion of “finance” in Article 9, but the numbers do not appear in the Agreement, only in the accompanying Decision, where item 54 states that by 2025, the Parties will revisit the total quantity of funding, using the current $100 billion target as a “floor.”

Finally, the Agreement’s Article 8 on Loss and Damage was necessary from the point of view of the most vulnerable countries, but the most contentious issue is settled in Decision 52, where the Parties agree that this “does not involve or provide a basis for any liability of compensation.”  That decision was absolutely essential from the perspective of the largest emitters.

Anticipated Impacts of the Paris Agreement

Before I turn to my assessment of the Agreement, I should comment briefly on a topic that seems to be of considerable interest to many people (based on the questions I received from the press during my 10 days in Paris), namely what effect will the Agreement have on business, what signals will it send to the private sector?

My answer is that impacts on businesses will come largely not directly from the Paris Agreement, but from the policy actions that the various Parties undertake domestically in their respective jurisdictions to comply with the Paris Agreement.  I am again referring to the 186 countries which submitted Intended Nationally Determined Contributions – INDCs – under the Agreement.

So, in the case of the United States, for example, those policies that will enable the country to achieve its submitted INDC are: the Clean Power Plan (which will accelerate the shift in many states from coal to natural gas for electricity generation, as well as provide incentives in some states for renewable electricity generation); CAFE (motor vehicle fuel efficiency) standards increasing over time (as already enacted by Congress); appliance efficiency standards moving up over time (as also already enacted by Congress); California’s very aggressive climate policy (AB-32); and the northeast states’ Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

These various policies are credible, and they will send price signals that affect business decisions (but not across the board nor with ideal efficiency, as would a national carbon tax or a national carbon cap-and-trade system). In terms of impacts on specific companies, impacts will continue to vary greatly. But a useful generalization is that a major effect of most climate policies is to raise energy costs, which tends to be good news for producers of energy-consuming durable goods (for example, the Boeing Company) and bad news for consumers of those same energy-consuming durable goods (for example, United Airlines).

An Assessment with my Paris Scorecard

Lastly, here is my November 17th scorecard and my assessment of the five key elements I said would constitute a successful 21st Conference of the Parties:

  1. Include approximately 90% of global emissions in the set of INDCs that are submitted and part of the Paris Agreement (compared with 14% in the current commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol). This was obviously achieved, with total coverage reaching 96% of global emissions.
  1. Establish credible reporting and transparency requirements. This was achieved, through long negotiations between China and India, on the one hand, and Europe and the United States, on the other.
  1. Move forward with finance for climate adaptation (and mitigation) B the famous $100 billion commitment. This was achieved.
  1. Agree to return to negotiations periodically, such as every 5 years, to revisit the ambition and structure of the INDCs. This was achieved.
  1. Put aside unproductive disagreements, such as on so-called “loss and damage,” which appears to rich countries like unlimited liability for bad weather events in developing countries, and the insistence by some parties that the INDCs themselves be binding under international law. This would have required Senate ratification of the Agreement in the United States, which would have meant that the United States would not be a party to the Agreement. There was success on both of these.

Final Words

So, my fundamental assessment of the Paris climate talks is that they were a great success. Unfortunately, as I have said before, some advocates and some members of the press will likely characterize the outcome as a “failure,” because the 2 degree C target has not been achieved immediately.

Let me conclude where I started. The Paris Agreement provides an important new foundation for meaningful progress on climate change, and represents a dramatic departure from the past 20 years of international climate negotiations.  Of course, the problem has not been solved, and it will not be for many years to come. But the new approach brought about by the Paris Agreement can be a key step toward reducing the threat of global climate change. In truth, only time will tell.


As many of you know, over a period of ten days, we (the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements) were hard at work at COP-21 in Paris. I made a dozen presentations and we held bilateral meetings on a daily basis with national negotiating teams and and others. You will find videos, photos, and numerous stories about our activities in Paris at our Tumblr page. Thanks are due to the entire team who were with me in Paris – Robert Stowe, executive director, Jason Chapman, program manager, and Doug Gavel, director of media relations — as well as Bryan Galcik, communications coordinator, back in Cambridge.