A Behavioral Economist Thinks About Energy and Climate Change

When examining environmental, energy, and climate change policy, the methods and the topic of behavioral economics arise with some regularity.  In my podcast series, “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program,” we’ve talked about such behavioral research in regard to energy-efficiency policies with Michael Greenstone and others.  And, much more recently, in a podcast episode just released, I had the opportunity to talk with a behavioral economist who is now on the faculty of a school that’s focused on environmental studies.  I’m referring to Hunt Allcott, who is Professor of Global Environmental Policy at the Doerr School of Sustainability at Stanford University, and who – I’m proud to say – is a graduate of the PhD program in Public Policy at Harvard.  You can listen to our podcast conversation, produced by the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, here.

Allcott serves as Co-Director of the Stanford Environmental and Energy Policy Analysis Center, and is a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, as well a member of the board of editors of the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy.

The crux of Allcott’s research focuses on the ways in which human behavior affects economic decisions and outcomes in a variety of contexts, and the lessons those have for policymaking. In our conversation, he cites several examples where government policy can influence consumer decisions in ways that will benefit both consumers and the environment.

“It’s like what behavioral economists call a shrouded attribute. It’s a future cost that’s kind of easy to forget when you’re making a purchase decision. So, if it’s… true that consumers aren’t thinking very hard about these future energy costs, then we’re probably erring on the side of buying too many gas guzzling cars and energy guzzling air conditioners and light bulbs. And so, as a result, the government can make us better off by pushing us in the direction of being more energy efficient,” Allcott remarked. “It was fun for me to… work with a group of others to develop actual empirical tests of, okay, how would you substantiate those consumer protection arguments in the data? So, that’s some of the work that I’m most proud of.”

Allcott also discusses the federal electric vehicle tax credits, which are designed to incentivize consumers to reduce carbon emissions.

“You subsidize a new electric vehicle, that’s a new EV on the road, [and] that’s good for the environment in most places. You give somebody a tax credit to buy a used EV, that’s just trading an electric vehicle from one person to another, and so there’s no new net vehicle on the road, at least [not] directly,” he stated. “Is the incidence really on the used vehicle buyer, in which case there’s no environmental benefit, or maybe the prices of used electric vehicles are going up because they’re worth more upon resale. That’s not as good for the buyers, but then it might induce more new electric vehicle sales because when you buy a new EV, you then recognize that the resale value might be higher.”

Allcott officially joined the faculty at the Doerr School in September 2022, just as the school was being launched.

“There are 60 existing faculty members that were moved into that school as part of earth systems, energy systems, civil engineering, and some other departments. I was actually… the first external hire of this school to reach through the provost and actually show up on campus. And so, I’ve been here for, I guess, 15, 16 months so far, and it’s just been a great experience trying to help Stanford have an even bigger imprint in this space of impact on energy and environmental issues.”

Ironically, Allcott notes that much of the research taking place at the Doerr School and in which he’s now engaged is not focused on behavioral economics.

“This has been an opportunity to step back and rethink what is the right research direction for the next five to ten years. And perhaps interestingly, all the topics that our group is now working on are what I would call non-behavioral topics. There’s not really a behavioral economics angle to them,” he explained. “Upon arriving at Stanford [I asked] ‘okay, I’m in the sustainability school. What are the most important environmental economics topics?’ I think energy efficiency and behavioral economics is still on that list, but there’s so much other stuff. There’s the Inflation Reduction Act, there is electricity market design, and then within each one of those two, there’s a lot of different sub-areas that we’re actually focusing on.”

You can hear this and much more in my conversation with Hunt Allcott, which is the 59th episode over the past four years 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 iTunesPocket CastsSpotify, and Stitcher.


An Eminent Economist Talks About Climate Change

In my 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 four years with a significant number of truly outstanding economists who have carried out important work in the realm of environmental, energy, and resource economics, and have been real leaders in the profession.  In my most recent podcast, we topped that, because I was joined by someone who has made important contributions not just in the realm of environmental and resource economics, but has been a global leader in the discipline of economics broadly, across numerous sub-fields, and has ventured and published well beyond economics in seemingly disparate realms, ranging from contract bridge to Italian Rennaisance painting.  All in all, he is the author or editor of 14 books and more than 300 scholarly articles. 

I am, of course, referring to my Harvard colleague – and good friend – Richard Zeckhauser, the Frank Ramsey Professor of Political Economy at the Harvard Kennedy School, and Distinguished Fellow of the American Economic Association, the Econometric Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Association of Public Policy and Management, and the Society for Benefit-Cost Analysis.  Beyond that, I want to acknowledge that he is celebrated at Harvard and beyond as a marvelous classroom teacher, and a valued mentor to generations of students and faculty colleagues.

Near the beginning of our conversation, Richard laments a phenomenon he terms “the pumped equilibrium,” in which people hold exaggerated expectations about confronting the challenge of climate change if we do not drastically increase our efforts.  

“People started at least three decades ago saying, ‘Climate change is a terrible problem, but we can control it by cutting back on our greenhouse gases, and this is the last decade that we can do that. If we don’t do it this decade, we’re dead.’ And then, the next decade they said … the same thing. And this decade they’re saying … the same thing. And they keep telling us that we’re going to be able to [limit the global temperature increase to] two degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels, or even more recently, 1.5 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels. I think that’s unrealistic.”

Richard maintains that instead a realistic assessment of the current state of climate change requires new approaches to make an impact.

“The United States has done a so-so job of cutting our emissions by about 10 percent over a number of years, but at the same time, China has increased its emissions by 13 percent, and you can expect that countries like India will be growing much faster in its emissions [levels],” he remarks. “So, I think that we should take a sober look at these problems and say, ‘What else can we do?’”

Climate adaptation, Zeckhauser states, holds the potential for greatly reducing the impacts of climate change. He cites one example in which scientists have proposed building a 100-foot-tall berm around a fjord in Greenland where warm water currently flows in and melts the ice sheets.

“This is very speculative. Will this work? I sure hope so. It’s within our realm of technological capability, but I think we should be looking for many solutions like this that could enable us to deal with … what I consider to be [the] catastrophic track that we’re on,” he says. Other potentially effective adaptation measures, he states, include increasing the alkalinity of the oceans and enforcing smarter logging policies to protect mature trees.

When I question Richard about the distributional implications of climate change, he remarks, “I think dealing with climate change and reducing its impact will automatically have very beneficial distributional consequences.  The places that are currently suffering the most from climate change are the hottest places in the world, which are both suffering under [rising] temperatures and having their weather patterns shifted. So, you would be doing God’s work in restoring or preserving the planet, and you’d be doing work that’s to the benefit of the most affected people in the world.”

He also refers in this context to the challenges posed by massive migrations of people who want to escape rising temperatures in the south by heading north.

“Those [migration patterns] are very uncomfortable for the people in both places – the people who have to do the migration, which is frequently very dangerous and expensive, the people who are still trapped in the old place because they don’t have enough resources, and the people whose areas are being affected by the new people who are coming.”

Zeckhauser says that ultimately, it is up to policymakers around the world to confront the climate change challenge.

“This is a political problem on a global scale. So, even if you didn’t want to worry about it, as a political actor, as the president of the United States has to be and our climate envoy has to be, and the UN has to be, you have to pay serious attention to it.”

My conversation with Richard Zeckhauser is the first episode of 2024 and the 57th episode over the past four years 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 iTunesPocket CastsSpotify, and Stitcher.


Private Sector Initiatives to Address Climate Change

Over the past decade or more, there has been increasing attention to private-sector initiatives to address climate change, with scholarly research and considerable action being centered in business schools, particularly in the United States.  This is the focus in the latest episode of my podcast series, “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.”

I engage in conversation with Michael Toffel, Senator John Heinz Professor of Environmental Management and Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School (HBS).  We discuss the many ways in which business schools are giving much greater attention to climate change and other environmental issues, as well as how businesses and governments can and are working together to address climate change.  The podcast is produced by the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.  You can listen to our complete conversation here.

Toffel, who is a Faculty Fellow of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program and hosts the Climate Rising podcast at HBS, cites several examples of climate initiatives that are bubbling up organically throughout the private sector.

“What’s very interesting are …. the movement on the finance side, where you’ve got a lot deeper pockets of capital, pools of capital that are seeking out climate solutions,” he says. “You’ve got this whole ESG [Environmental, Social, and Governance] area that’s evolved … [which is] putting new screens on the types of investments that they want to include in their portfolio. You’ve got companies making these net zero commitments, which include a combination of decarbonizing their operations and their supply chains, and then using carbon credits to offset the residual. And a bunch of commitments in that regard remains to be seen.”

Michael emphasizes that it is uncertain how much this climate talk will translate into action.

“That’s long been an interest of mine – are companies following up with action? Who is? Who isn’t? And so that continues to be an interest of mine. We will see. A lot of my research in this area has taken the form of case writing, because so much of this is so new, and we don’t have years and years of data sets to do the type of empirical work that my scholarly work tends to gravitate toward.  We’re learning in real time through cases, and then doing some empirical scholarship as well.”

Toffel cites two recent projects he’s been involved with that he is especially proud of.

“On the scholarly research side, [there] is a study that’s just coming out in AEJ Applied Micro, a leading journal or field journal … that looks at the effectiveness of U.S. OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s efforts to target companies for inspection. OSHA is dramatically underfunded in the sense that they can maybe inspect every establishment that they regulate [once] every 100 years, and so they really need to make some tough decisions about where to go,” he says.

“Traditionally, they’ve been making these decisions for a lot of their inspections, based on where the problems have arisen in the past … and we conjecture and find some evidence that if they change that [strategy by] using more modern techniques and machine learning to figure out and predict where are problems more likely to be in the future, or where might their inspections do the most good … they can really reduce injuries by the thousands, with millions of dollars of consequences of reduced injury, pain, and suffering.”

The other research he cites is a Case Study, co-written with his HBS colleagues Shirley Lu and George Serafeim, on BMW’s approach to decarbonization.

“It’s a very engineering focused company, so they have a very engineering orientation to carbon accounting, to carbon management, to reduction, and to even their publicity around all of this. And their CEO has taken a perspective that whereas other companies are having these phase out dates for the internal combustion engine … they’ve said, ‘We’re not going to make that claim because we don’t know if we can keep that promise, in part because we don’t know if the infrastructure is going to be there to power electric vehicles, and will it be electric or will it be hydrogen powered fuel cells? We’re not really sure where the technology will shake out.’ So, they’ve been reluctant … to make such promises, because they have a culture … where they [don’t] want to … make promises until they know they can keep them.”

Reflecting on his almost two decades at Harvard Business School, Toffel remarks on how far the field of environmental management has come in recent years.

“When I applied to Ph.D. programs, this topic was very fringe,” he says. “This whole thing has completely changed, where most business schools now are leaning into the idea of environment and climate in particular … and scholarship is really exploding on these topics. So, that’s been really heartening to see. In addition, students’ interest in this has really risen incredibly in the 17 years that I’ve been here. Originally, no one talked about environment. Now … students are bringing these [issues] up. They’re demanding more content.”

For this and much, much more, I encourage you to listen to this 52nd 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.