The Challenge Posed to U.S. Climate Policy by Political Polarization

In my podcast series, “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program,” I’ve enjoyed chatting with economists who have been leaders in the realm of environmental, energy, and resource economics.  My most recent guest fits in that group, because I was joined by Kathleen Segerson, who in addition to her academic and scholarly research and teaching, has served on numerous state, national, and international advisory boards.  The podcast is produced by the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.  You can listen to our complete conversation here.

Segerson, the Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Economics at the University of Connecticut, is a Member of the National Academy of Sciences and a Fellow of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, and the Bayer Institute of Ecological Economics in Stockholm. Her advisory roles have included time spent as a Member of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board (SAB), where she had a close-up view of Washington political battles over environmental issues, including climate change policy. She acknowledges that the politics have only gotten worse.

“I think that it is really quite concerning how polarized we are now in this country, at least, on some of these issues,” Segerson remarks. “Some approaches, or at least concerns that might have been bipartisan in the past have become quite polarized now and that makes it very difficult to think about policy and how to move forward.”

Segerson says that many of the policy tools currently used to address climate change in the United States are less than ideal.

“One of the things that we’ve done, of course, recently is to enact the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes a lot of climate measures. Many of those are subsidy based. And as you know, economists wouldn’t typically be looking to subsidies as the ideal policy instrument to use to try to foster transformational change,” she states. “That, I think is a concern because it sets a precedent for policy. It obviously has large budgetary implications. We’ll see whether those subsidies can be effectively phased out if and when [they are] no longer needed. Let’s hope they’re no longer needed at some point, that they’ve been sufficiently successful, that they aren’t needed in the future.”

Segerson also addresses the issue of environmental justice and the Justice40 Initiative, which seeks to ensure that a certain level of investment is targeted for disadvantaged communities that have historically been underserved or highly affected by pollution.

“The challenge is identifying those communities. Which communities should be considered eligible for helping to meet the Justice40 goals? How do you define that? How do you measure it? Of course, the challenges are very different across different communities. So, how do you compare [and] calculate cumulative burdens?,” she asks. “There are a lot of … challenges associated with implementing policies to try to address the environmental justice concerns that are out there, and obviously very legitimate and need to be addressed.”

Segerson also expresses her optimism about the increase of youth movements of climate activism in recent years, saying that while she may question some of the tactics, she supports the objective of focusing attention on important climate policy issues.

“We need the young generation to be the ones who are, in some sense, drawing increased attention because the older generations, at least some parts of them, are not stepping up to that challenge,” she states. “I know that the people who are young parents … or teenagers or college students now, it’s really about their future and their right to feel indignant that those of us who are much older are not doing what we can or should be doing to try to ensure that future.

“I think at this point, they’re sufficiently young that they can try to demand it, but actually putting it in place is more challenging. Let’s hope that they can translate that activism or that it does translate into some real change at some point.”

For this and much, much more, I encourage you to listen to this 48th 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.


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.