2012 Calderwood Lecture delivered by former EPA economist
Distinguished economist talks about why environmental policy and economic policy go hand-in-hand
Published: Tuesday, March 27, 2012
Updated: Sunday, April 1, 2012 22:04
Yesterday on March 27, Robert Stavins, the former chair of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Environmental Economics Advisory Board, delivered the 2012 Calderwood Lecture in Economics. The lecture, entitled “Beyond Kyoto,” was centered on providing an economic perspective on past and present climate change policies.
To begin his lecture, Stavins told a personal story that he believes captures a common cultural attitude: That someone cannot be both an environmentalist and economically-minded. Stavins described how, while travelling on an airplane, a man sitting next to him tried to strike up a conversation by asking him what he does for a living.
“I paused for a moment and then I did something that was very foolish: I told the truth and I said ‘I’m an environmental economist,’” Stavins said. “So he looked at me and I looked at him...We sat there for what seemed to me to be an invariably long time… And then it suddenly dawned on me that he wasn’t following up because he had concluded that he had just met a living, breathing oxymoron.”
But as Stavins argued, approaching environmental issues using an economic lens is not only not an oxymoron, but also a crucial step in thinking critically about environmental policies. According to Stavins, the reason why the field of environmental economics is so critical is twofold.
“The first reason is that the causes of environmental problems in a market economy, as we have in the United States and in virtually all countries in the world with a few exceptions, are all economic,” Stavins said. “[Secondly], the consequences of environmental problems also have very important economic dimensions.”
Stavins went on to address a wide range of specific topics concerning the role of economics in environmental issues, including an explanation as to why most U.S. economists favor carbon pricing as the “only feasible approach to providing truly meaningful reductions in [global greenhouse gas] emissions” and a discussion of many of the current federal and international regulations that have been enacted or may be enacted in the future to reduce climate change.
“He covered basically everything I’ve learned in the past three years that was remotely related to environmental economic policies,” Tiana Ramos ’13 said. “I’ve heard a lot of lectures from political speakers, and sometimes they’re so fluffy and I’m like, ‘What did I just get out of out of that?’…but I felt that Stavins had content to his lecture so I could actually tease a good amount of information out of it.”
Ramos explained how she believed that the informative nature of Stavins’ lecture differed from most environmental lectures, which, to her, often seem to be geared toward introducing the topic of environmental problems in general.
“I wouldn’t say that the lecture was for someone who was very new to this topic or indifferent about environmental issues, but rather, for someone who was seeking more information on the specific types of political and economic policies that can transform the environmental movement.”
And for Ramos, who will be interning with the EPA this summer, drawing out as much information as she could from Stavins was exactly what she had hoped would be the result of attending the lecture. Ramos even spoke with Stavins after the lecture to ask him about whether or not the EPA is corrupted in the same way as other regulatory agencies often are as a result of special interest groups. Stavins’ answer—that this is not the case with the EPA—served as a relief for Ramos.
“I’m now more excited to go to the EPA and see how this is implemented and enacted for myself,” Ramos said after speaking with Stavins.
In contrast to Ramos, Christine Keung ’14 said that she believed that Stavins actually spoke more broadly about issues.
“I really enjoyed the Q-and-A session,” Keung said. “When he was giving his presentation, it was more of a broad overview, so I really appreciated the specific questions.”
But Keung is also careful to stress that this did not make the lecture any less meaningful. According to Keung, the main message that she found in Stavins’ lecture was that we must take a multilateral approach when it comes to grappling with environmental issues. This includes not just considering fields such as economics, but also making issues less polarized politically and not thinking of environmental issues as ideological, something that Stavins stressed during his lecture has become the recent cultural trend.
“Thinking of environmental issues as ideological is really dangerous,” Keung said. “The reality is that many of these issues are supposed to be backed by science, but when these issues become polarized, you create a lot of problems.”
During his discussion, Stavins also described how, historically, it was actually Republican initiatives such as the ones proposed by the Reagan administration that brought forth more economic solutions to environmental problems. Stavins further considered how the shift to the current thinking of environmentalism as exclusively a “liberal” idea is profoundly detrimental to our progress in generating economically viable solutions to climate change.