Recalling the Past and Looking to the Future

Sometimes it’s helpful to recall the past as an aid to thinking carefully about the future.  The development of scientifically sound, economically sensible, and politically feasible climate-change policies would seem to be a case in point.  Such an approach is well illustrated by the thinking of Jonathan Wiener, the William and Thomas Perkins Professor of Law at Duke Law School, who shares his thoughts on the prospects for federal legislative and regulatory policy in the latest episode of my podcast, “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.”  Our full conversation is here.

As you probably know, in these podcasts, I converse with leading experts from academia, government, industry, and NGOs.  Jonathan Wiener certainly belongs in this group.  Wiener, who also holds appointments at the Nicholas School of the Environment, the Sanford School of Public Policy, and Resources for the Future, has focused his research and writings for thirty years on a broad range of environmental policy issues, often from an economic perspective (once quite rare among environmental law scholars). 

Before launching his academic career, he served as a clerk for Judge (now U.S. Supreme Court Justice) Stephen Breyer on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston from 1988 to 1989. He also served at the White House Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ/ENRD), during the George H. W. Bush and Clinton Administrations.

Reflecting on his time in Washington, Professor Wiener recounts in our conversation the sense of bipartisanship that permeated environmental policy discussions on Capitol Hill during the Bush 41 and Clinton years. “On the issue, for example, of designing an economic incentive-based policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, there was, I would say, substantial agreement among all of those involved,” he says.

Wiener explains how there have also been significant changes in the scholarly world of environmental law in recent decades, including more mainstream support for economic incentive instruments, and for the use of economic analysis to evaluate the costs and benefits of laws and regulations.

“The advocacy of cost benefit analysis has shifted over time so that now one sees a lot more advocacy [on behalf of] economic analysis and cost benefit analysis to demonstrate the large social gains from environmental policy,” he remarks.

Jonathan also addresses the prospects for the Biden Administration to make headway on climate policy, saying that it started on the right foot. “President Biden issued a memorandum on modernizing regulatory review on his first day in office, which reaffirmed the executive orders from the Clinton and Obama Administrations.” Yet Wiener goes on to acknowledge that the administration’s promise to issue a revised estimate of the social cost of carbon has yet to be fulfilled.

At the end of our conversation, Jonathan Wiener offers – as a contrast with the slow pace of government action – his optimism that youth movements of climate advocacy which have become prominent in recent years hold great promise for advancing policy in the years ahead.

“On campuses across the country and around the world, one sees enthusiasm, energy, some sense of impatience and indignation, that the earlier generations didn’t address these problems adequately,” he says. “I think we anticipated, when you and I and …others were working on climate change policy design back 30 years ago, that we needed to design the institutions well so that we would not face a crunch time later of trying to address climate change in a big hurry. Unfortunately to some extent, we are in that crunch time right now.”

For this and much more, I hope you will listen to my compete conversation with Jonathan Wiener, which is the 35th 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.


Author: Robert Stavins

Robert N. Stavins is the A.J. Meyer Professor of Energy & Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, Director of Graduate Studies for the Doctoral Program in Public Policy and the Doctoral Program in Political Economy and Government, Co-Chair of the Harvard Business School-Kennedy School Joint Degree Programs, and Director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.