Adam Smith, Methane Emissions, and Climate Change

Most of my guests in my podcast series, “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program,” have been academic economists, but I’ve also had the privilege of talking with some leading lights from other disciplines, including ones that seem adjacent to economics, such as political science and law, and also some that are further afield, such as physics and chemistry.  Most recently, I had the opportunity to delve into a realm that bridges the humanities (in particular, history) and social science (in particular, economics), by talking with a star in the field of economic history, Emma Rothschild, the Jeremy and Jane Knowles Professor of History at Harvard, and Fellow at Magdalene College and Honorary Professor of History and Economics at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom.  The podcast is produced by the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.  You can listen to our complete conversation here.

Professor Rothschild, who serves as director of the Harvard Joint Center for History and Economics and a faculty contributor to the Visualizing Climate and Loss project, has devoted much of her academic career to research and teaching at the intersection of history, economics, and the environment, where she sees growing opportunities to affect thinking about climate change.

“One of the things that makes me very optimistic now about my field is that so many people interested in economic history are now seeing that the environment and climate [are] part of economic history and vice versa,” she states. “I’ve been … struck by how many of the top [academic job] candidates this year actually have either environmental papers, climate papers, or history papers as part of their portfolios, and in many cases, both actually. I just think the PhD students are kind of understanding this much faster than perhaps the educational establishment.”

Rothschild has focused a considerable part of her scholarly work on the Scottish economist and philosopher Adam Smith, credited for helping originate the study of free market economies. Specifically, Rothschild says she became intrigued by why some people blame Smith for today’s global climate change problem.  

“I became interested in the question, ‘Well, did he say anything that could conceivably have led people to think this? And what did he, to the extent that we can discern this, think about the origins of the industrial revolution in relation to a more plausible, causal story about how industrial growth of the late 18th century actually did lead to contemporary climate change?,’” she says.  Rothschild has written a series of papers about Smith to gain a deeper understanding of “the ways in which Smith’s ideas can be of interest in thinking about the discordant times in which we now live.”

Emma is also deeply involved in the Methane In 1,800 Histories project, designed to promote discussion and research on the 1,800 local sites of severe methane emissions around the world.

“This project came about really opportunistically when I saw a very good article that was the cover piece in Science a little over a year ago by some French climate scientists who were actually able to map almost 1,800 sites of ultra methane emissions worldwide. A lot of this has been done for the U.S. and for other countries. They were able, using satellite data, to give a literally worldwide overview of where the largest methane emitters were,” she states.

“And this turned into a collaborative project,” she continues. “We’d done a big visualization of all the sites. And the aspiration is that young historians [and] young economists will actually investigate each of these sites and thereby contribute to an understanding of the history of why climate change is happening. And, of course, thereby in turn, start to think in a practical and local way about what can be done about the sites.”

Related to this is her research project with Steve Wofsy, Professor of Atmospheric and Environmental Science at Harvard, “Using Remote Sensing Data to Inform Micro-Histories of Methane-Release Sites,” which is part of the Harvard-wide Initiative on Reducing Global Methane Emissions, sponsored by the Salata Institute on Climate and Sustainability at Harvard.

Rothschild goes on to argue that local solutions to climate change may seem more plausible to people who are daunted by the enormity of the challenge.

“Part of what’s so difficult about climate change is that the instruments, mainly global policy change, seem so beyond the capacity of individuals or groups to affect,” she remarks “Climate change is really immediate to people in their early 20s or late teens thinking about their own lives and thinking about, ‘What can I do with all the knowledge I’m acquiring, all the skills that I have, to do something?’”

For this and much, much more, I encourage you to listen to this 53rd 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.