CAMBRIDGE MA. – The explosion of youth climate activism in recent years has focused the world’s attention on the problem like never before, but Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, argues that young activists often err by trying to turn climate change into a moral issue rather than an environmental one. Greenstone shared his thoughts during the newest episode of “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program,” a podcast produced by the Harvard Environmental Economics Program. Listen to the interview here.
Hosted by Robert N. Stavins, A.J. Meyer Professor of Energy and Economic Development at Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program and the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, Environmental Insights is intended to promote public discourse on important issues at the intersection of economics and environmental policy.
Greenstone, who spent a year in the Obama White House serving as the chief economist for the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, argued that the energy and passion young people have brought to the climate debate have been very effective in making others pay attention to it.
“These youth movements have been incredibly successful, in my view, in raising political consciousness in ways… that cold blooded cost benefit analysis somehow [doesn’t] seem to hit the mark. And I give them a lot of credit for that,” he said. “A second reaction is, I do not think that the right way to confront climate change is by treating it as a moral issue, or as an issue that is beyond economics. I think it’s a really interesting economics question that has all kinds of subtleties, but I do not think that the tools of cost benefit analysis and or economic analysis are inappropriate for climate change.”
Greenstone pointed to two trends that he feels are most critical for building momentum in the climate change debate. The first, he said, is that opportunities to leverage technology to reduce CO2 emissions are becoming more realistic as the prices of alternative energy sources continue to fall compared to the cost of fossil fuels. The second, he said, is that people are beginning to experience the impacts of climate change in real time.
“I do think a real game changer has been that we can see the fingerprints of climate change now, in ways that we couldn’t 10 or 15 years ago,” he said. “I think the two things that we can see – the fingerprints and that it’s not as economically challenging a bar to jump over – have come together in a way that has in a reinforcing way helped with the youth activism [by underscoring the fact that] we don’t have only infeasible responses.”
Greenstone also spoke of his year serving at the White House Council of Economic Advisers, specifically of his work on regulatory policy and trying to determine a formula for converting the benefits of the reduction of CO2 in the atmosphere into dollars.
“So, I had this idea, why shouldn’t the government have a coherent and uniform social cost of carbon? And I suggested it to [then Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs] Cass Sunstein at lunch one day, and we decided to set off on this journey to set a social cost of carbon for the US government,” he remarked. “And we co-ran an inter-agency process and one thing led to another, and there was a US government social cost of carbon at the end.”
In recent years, Greenstone helped launch and now co-leads the Climate Impact Lab at the University of Chicago which is building a comprehensive body of research quantifying the impacts of climate change.
Greenstone’s interview is the tenth episode this year in the Environmental Insights series, with future episodes scheduled to drop each month.
“Environmental Insights is intended to inform and educate listeners about important issues relating to an economic perspective on developments in environmental policy, including the design and implementation of market-based approaches to environmental protection,” said Stavins. “We speak with accomplished Harvard colleagues, other academics, and practitioners who are working on solving some of the most challenging public problems we face.”
Environmental Insights is hosted on SoundCloud and is also available on Amazon Music, iTunes, Pocket Casts, and Spotify.