Raising climate issues | Harvard Review

Early September, As students settled into their fall classes, the University announced the creation of a new position, vice-rector for climate and sustainability, which signaled a high level of coordinated action and research. on global warming. In a letter to the community that followed two days later, on September 9, President Lawrence S. Bacow discussed the University’s commitment to climate issues, writing that “Professor James Stock”, the first holder of the position, “will work beyond the borders of the University. to accelerate and coordinate research and education…to produce crucial new knowledge on climate and sustainability. Bacow added that he had committed “significant resources to initiate this effort” because “Harvard must stand among the world leaders to meet this challenge.” (For details, see harvardmag.com/bacow-climate-21.)

Stock, the Burbank professor of political economy, is an innovative thinker in the economics of climate change (see “Controlling the Global Thermostat,” Nov-Dec 2020, page 42) who has served on the Council of Economic Advisers of President Barack Obama in 2013 and 2014 (where he worked on plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the electric power industry). Stock’s scholarly publications have often emphasized the importance of establishing the social cost of carbon, putting a price on the economic damage incurred by burning fossil fuels. In light of the economic evolution of sustainable energy production (wind and solar energy have become competitive and sometimes cheaper than energy produced by fossil fuels), he has created a roadmap to decarbonize the sector. electricity. And against this backdrop of falling costs of sustainably produced energy, he underscored the need for different types of policies in different sectors of the economy to effect change quickly and effectively. Rightly so, he is now in a position to be an agent of change at Harvard.

Adaptation and Mitigation

In the Harvard Gazette When announcing his appointment Sept. 7, Stock spoke about the importance of climate change adaptation and mitigation. In a comeback Gazette interview, Bacow, using similar language, said: “The work of faculty focusing on interventions to adapt to the realities of the climate crisis and mitigate their effects is where Harvard will have its greatest impact.”

In a conversation about his new role, Stock expanded on these terms, which have special meaning for economists: Adaptation is dealing with current and future climate damage, he explained, which also involves putting a price on these impacts. “We are seeing forest fires, we are seeing floods,” he said. “We’ll see sea levels rise, we’ll see more heat episodes” – global warming that’s already happening. In this context, “adaptation means minimizing mortality, minimizing impacts on crops, ensuring that human and ecological systems can continue”. The work is broad, encompassing topics ranging from urban design (“How can we make these environments more storm resistant?”) to the natural world: “What can we do – if anything can be done – to reduce the loss of species in the context of climate change?

On divestment

President Lawrence S. Bacow’s Sept. 9 letter to the community observed that, as previously noted, Harvard has no direct endowment investments in fossil fuel exploration or development, and that its sponsorship investments in private equity funds with fossil fuel holdings would run out over time. While he didn’t talk about “divestment,” proponents of divesting the endowment’s fossil fuel assets hailed Bacow’s announcement as a significant shift in University policy and a landslide victory in a nearly decade-long campaign of students, faculty and alumni. advocacy. For an interpretation of what was said and what it may mean, see harvardmag.com/climate-divestment-21. ~JSR

Mitigation, Stock continued, first refers to “the energy transition to a clean economy: reducing emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gases. But it also means reducing methane emissions from other sources, including agriculture, and preventing the deforestation that frequently occurs in developing economies.

In the United States, he pointed out, “we actually haven’t had a meaningful national policy” to support such an energy transition – and we still don’t have any, other than “light energy standards.” . The “technological tailwinds” of cheap solar and wind power have been instrumental in initiating this change, he said, and the prospect of electric vehicles that are cheaper to own and operate than those based on gasoline engines. internal combustion will also help. “We should take advantage of it and get things done.” But in many other areas, the steps needed to make a transition are “much less obvious. And for that, we actually need to have concerted policies.

An econometrician, who pursues statistical analyzes of economic data, Stock takes a quantitative approach to the challenge of moving economies away from their reliance on fossil fuels. This led him to advocate a nuanced and textured strategy that sometimes emphasizes supply side policies, and to others focuses on demand. How can policies that discourage the consumption of fossil fuels (by taxing carbon, for example) be complemented by others that pave the way for a sustainable future? Its multi-faceted approach avoids economy-wide carbon pricing. For example, Stock found that carbon taxation would be effective in shifting to clean electricity generation, but his work suggests that supporting reliable vehicle charging capacity at home and at work will be a more efficient and effective way. more efficient way of accelerating the transition to sustainable development. electric transportation system.

Harvard can play a particularly important role in sorting out those intricacies and analyzing the most appropriate responses, Stock said. Therefore, its first priority will be to engage broadly with faculty members to determine where the University can make the most meaningful contributions: “The question is how do people who are tech savvy, in the the economics of climate change and in government policy are helping to move this conversation forward so that it actually happens? »

Harnessing Harvard’s Academic Strengths

stock guess its new role in the context of an active community of Harvard scholars working on topics related to climate change. A “very collegial umbrella organization – but certainly not the only one”, he said, was the Harvard University Center for the Environment (HUCE) headed by Professor Hooper of Geology, professor of environmental science and engineering and Professor in the Department of the Environment. health Daniel Schrag. HUCE, which catalyzes interdisciplinary research and education on some of the world’s most pressing environmental issues, has been “very effective given the resources it has,” Stock said. But there was “a widespread feeling within this community,” including social scientists, policy experts, and natural and physical scientists, “that a much more committed effort was needed at the community level. ‘University’, which of course has faculties in such relevant fields as law, architecture and design, engineering, medicine and public health. A committee headed by former vice-president for research Richard McCullough explored several different proposals, one of the results of which was the new post that Stock (who was not a member of that committee) now holds.

The vice provost for climate and sustainability will coordinate Harvard’s investments in teaching, research, and engagement with outside constituencies. Stock brings to this role both her experience as a faculty member since 1983 and her public service outside of academia. Interestingly, he pointed out that the strengths of the University – including “a lot of good research and teaching focused on climate change, and the enthusiasm of deans, as well as alumni, to do more” – owe a lot to his decentralized structure, through which Harvard disciplinary experts have traditionally imposed “the quality standards that guarantee that we recruit the best people in a field, and ensure that we [focus on] the most important ideas. At the same time, “expanding Harvard’s footprint” for focused work on climate change in a way that “works for all schools … is going to require coordination” through its new office.

“The world has realized the seriousness of the problem, and passing legislation or making statements on net zero in 2050 is great,” Stock said. “But now we have to do it. And we have to manage the transition… including all the collateral damage associated with climate change, some of which we can imagine and some of which we cannot. Given the pressing challenge, he continued, “Harvard can provide significant leadership in… terms of understanding what is happening; make projections on how we can mitigate the damage; and, most importantly, developing policies to make this transition effective, so that we can stem the damage as soon as possible. In practical terms, this means Stock is tasked with “working with deans and schools so that we can join forces and build on each other’s work.”

As he strives to get a decentralized, and sometimes slow, institution to ramp up, Stock noted that in some important cases, politics is moving too quickly for academic research at the traditional pace. For example, proposals to support the nationwide rollout of electric vehicle charging stations are “literally in committee in Congress right now.” What scholars can Doing particularly well is discerning “what issues need to be addressed over the next three to five to eight years, and then brainstorming proposals and solutions that might be able to address them,” he said – for example, what to do with aviation fuels: “This is the kind of area where Harvard can make strides in science, engineering and policy.”

Just weeks into her new role, Stock was far from choosing a particular goal. Consulting with faculty members and others, he will assess Harvard’s greatest potential for progress in teaching, research, and engagement with other constituencies according to another economic principle, additionality: determining whether a proposed pathway will produce additional benefits over a baseline. scenario. “You want to have additionality and you want to have a real impact on the world,” he said. “Whatever path we choose, we will have adequate resources and it will be something that will work for schools”, including involving “new people and new ideas, which lead to more commitment and more ‘impact’. Stay tuned.

Teresa H. Sadler