It’s Not Too Soon to Take Climate Change Adaptation Seriously

Much more research, reflection, and policy action have been dedicated to the mitigation of climate change than to adaptation.  Both are important, and given the fact that climate change is already taking place and likely to accelerate, it is surely not too soon to begin taking adaptation seriously.  This point is made in compelling fashion by Robert Pindyck, the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi Professor of Economics and Finance at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, in the latest episode of our podcast, “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.”  I hope you can find time to listen to our conversation here.

In these podcasts, I converse with leading experts from academia, government, industry, and NGOs.  My long-time colleague and friend, Bob Pindyck, fits exceptionally well in this group, as a Fellow of the Econometric Society, a past President and Fellow of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, and – I’m pleased to say – an Associate Scholar of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.

Although Professor Pindyck is well known as an energy economist, his research, writing, and expertise is much broader than that, which makes me think of two of his several books, namely a pair of text books co-authored with Daniel Rubinfeld of the University of California at BerkeleyEconometric Models and Economic Forecasts (which I found immensely helpful during my years in graduate school), andMicroeconomics, an intermediate textbook now in its 9th edition. 

But over the past decade, Pindyck has spent much of his time bringing his expertise to bear on issues related to climate change and climate change policy.  In fact, he is the author of the forthcoming book, “Climate Future: Averting and Adapting to Climate Change,” to be published by Oxford University Press.  In our podcast conversation, Pindyck notes that his new book speaks to the role of uncertainty in the context of climate policy, both with regard to mitigation and adaptation:

“There is a lot we don’t know about climate change and how the system works. And my interest is what does that mean for policy? What do you do when you don’t know know certain things, when you’re uncertain, when many of the characteristics of the system are uncertain? So that got me interested in this,” he remarks.

“I’m very, very clear in the book that it’s extremely important to reduce emissions and that we have to do everything we can to reduce emissions quickly and as much as possible. But we also have to be realistic about what’s going to happen.  Despite our best intentions, the world may not succeed and likely won’t succeed in reducing emissions enough to prevent a temperature increase [of] greater than two degrees. We can’t just make believe that we’re going to be able to do something that in fact we’re not going to do.”

Possibilities and policies for adaptation, Bob Pindyck points out, constitute a relatively new lens through which to view the future of climate change policy.  

“What we’d like to do is to sharply reduce CO2 emissions and prevent a temperature increase of two degrees Celsius, and as I started doing a bunch of calculations, it just became clear to me that, that is very unlikely.  And then the question is, what should we do if that’s very unlikely? Just say that’s too bad or what? And I came to the view that we need to start working now on adaptation to get ready for that possibility.”

Professor Pindyck suggests that solar geoengineering is just one example of potential measures that could help mitigate the impacts of climate change. The others, he notes, range from planting of trees to less construction of homes in flood zones.

Pindyck says that academics and policymakers must also focus more urgently on the social cost of carbon, and on defining an equitable discount rate that accurately addresses the costs and benefits that will accrue far into the future.

“This is simply an area where despite many, many years of work on discounting, we really don’t know how to address the issue of discounting climate damages that are going to happen 50 or a hundred years from now. What kind of discount rate do we use? Do we use market rates? Do we use ethical arguments for choosing a discount rate? If so, whose ethics?”

For this and much more, I hope you will listen to my complete conversation with Robert Pindyck, the 29th 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.


Important, Despite the Controversy — Geoengineering Research

We have just released the newest 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 David Keith, professor at Harvard and one of the world’s leading authorities on geoengineering.

Recently, the Earth System Research Laboratory of NOAA – the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – announced that it had received authorization to study what they characterized as “Plan B for climate change,” namely to examine the science behind what is usually referred to as “geoengineering,” including the possibility of injecting particular aerosols into the stratosphere to help shade the Earth from sunlight.  NOAA emphasized that this and other techniques of geoengineering are recommended in a forthcoming study from the National Academies titled, “Climate Intervention Strategies that Reflect Sunlight to Cool Earth.”

Until now, neither the U.S. Congress nor the Administration has moved forward with such work, but NOAA pointed out to the press that “the closest thing to testing is a Harvard University project called the “Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment.”  That project is co-directed by my guest in the latest episode of our podcast, David Keith, who directs the closely-related Solar Geoengineering Research Program.

David is the Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and a Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

In this new episode of our monthly podcast, Professor Keith recounts how he came to focus his research on climate change, and how his interest in geoengineering evolved.  All of this 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.

David is renowned for his work at the intersection of climate science, energy technology, and public policy over the past 25 years.  A Canadian native, he is faculty director of Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program, a Harvard-wide interfaculty research initiative which aims to further critical research on both the science and governance of solar geoengineering. While best known for his work on geoengineering, Keith has also conducted extensive research on carbon capture and storage, and is the founder of Carbon Engineering, a company which develops technologies for direct air capture (an approach that he keeps completely separate from his Harvard research, which focuses on solar radiation management).

In our conversation, I asked David what work he is most proud of – a difficult question for any researcher to answer, because the question is akin to asking a parent to identify his or her favorite child.  After taking some time to reflect, David cited his landmark 2000 article in the Annual Review of Energy and the Environment, in which he first presented the case for the potential of solar geoengineering to help mitigate the impacts of global climate change.  It was a controversial study which prompted intense pushback from some environmental activists and some academics who argued that such technologies would lessen political pressure to address the root causes of climate change, that is greenhouse gas emissions.

“This is a thing where people have extremely strong opinions, and I don’t think that solar geoengineering necessarily makes sense as policy. I think it might well make sense to ban it. What I do think is that it deserves serious study and that we won’t make better decisions about it by kind of maintaining a taboo where nobody talks or thinks about it,” he said.

“Sensible climate policy is not one thing and a kind of monomania around emissions cuts doesn’t make sense. Of course, we have to do emissions cuts. It’s the single most important thing. If we don’t do it, nothing else does it, but the idea that it’s only emissions cuts, I think, is just now clearly wrong.”

“It may be that thinking about solar geoengineering for some people should mean a permanent moratoria, and for other people, it should mean pathways towards deployment.  I’m open minded about what the right answer is, but I think it is one of the big climate policy instruments, and we won’t do sensible policy if you pretend it’s not there.”

My conversation with David Keith is the sixth 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.


Controversial, But Important: The Governance of Solar Geoengineering Deployment

In September, the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements hosted a research workshop on an important topic regarding a controversial approach to addressing the threat of global climate change – “Governance of the Deployment of Solar Geoengineering”.  We benefitted from collaboration and support for the workshop from Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program (HSGRP).  Participants included 26 leading academic researchers addressing the workshop’s topic – as well as leading scholars who had considered the governance of other international regimes that might provide lessons and insights for solar geoengineering governance.  You can find the agenda and participant list (combined in a single document) here, as well as most of the presentations from the workshop.

Motivation for Examining this Topic

We based the workshop on the premise that some types of solar geoengineering (SG) will be associated with incentive structures that are actually the inverse of those associated with efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Obviously, the latter is a global commons problem, which requires cooperation at the highest jurisdictional level (international cooperation) in order to advance significant mitigation.

But, in contrast, certain types of SG can – in principle – be implemented effectively at relatively low financial cost – low enough to be borne by small states or even non-state entities acting on their own. The impacts of such action, however, might be substantial, at regional or even global scales. These could include the intended beneficial impacts – decreased global average surface temperature – plus other, potentially adverse side effects. Given the incentive structure associated with SG, its potentially substantial impacts, and the uncertainty (of various kinds) surrounding it, the governance of SG deployment will be challenging, to say the least.

Questions Addressed by the Workshop

The workshop began with overviews of research on SG governance from three disciplinary perspectives – social sciences broadly (including economics, political science, and international relations); legal scholarship; and, finally, further insights from economic theory.

Subsequent sessions addressed the following key questions, which arise, in part, from the incentive structure of SG governance:

(1)  Who ought to and/or will specify criteria for SG deployment, and who ought to and/or is likely to decide when criteria are satisfied?

(2)  What will or should these criteria be? They may include: regulatory criteria developed by policy makers; criteria specified by “agents”/actors who might engage in SG deployment; and physical, engineering, social, economic, ethical, and other dimensions.

(3)  How should/will decisions about deployment be made; what decision-making process should/will be utilized?

(4)  What institutions, either existing or new, are appropriate as decision-making venues? What will or should be the legal framework of such institutions?

(5) How might SG complement and/or undermine national, regional, and multilateral institutions and policy to mitigate or adapt to climate change – and, more broadly, to manage climate risks?

(6)  SG is both a hedge against uncertain but potentially catastrophic risks of (or, alternatively, damages from) climate change – and has its own associated risks, known and unknown. How can we better understand these uncertainties and incorporate them into useful decision-making processes?

(7)  How might we best define a research agenda for the governance of SG deployment?

Finally, a panel of international-relations scholars discussed a set of international regimes – including nuclear arms control and cyber security – that may provide lessons for and insights into SG governance.

The Path Ahead

We did not attempt to provide definitive answers to these questions, but to advance understanding of this set of issues and move the research community some steps further toward better understanding of options for the governance of SG deployment.

Each participant in the workshop is preparing a brief on an aspect of the topic of their interest.  These briefs are designed to be readily accessible by practitioners – policy makers, climate negotiators, and leaders in the business and NGO communities.  The entire volume will be released by the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements in February 2019.  Watch this blog for an announcement of the release early in the new year.