Nordhaus Versus the Pope: Why Francis Is Right

The Yale climate economist William Nordhaus goes after Pope Francis in the current New York Review of Books on the question of how best to prevent global warming. But after landing a few solid punches, he collapses in a muddle all his own by obscuring the difference between carbon taxes and cap-and-trade.

Nordhaus zeroes in a number of passages in “On Care for Our Common Home,” the recent papal encyclical dealing with global warming, that, to his mind, show remarkable ignorance about the workings of modern economics. One passage calls on society “to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals,”while another takes aim at the profit motive:

The principle of the maximization of profits, frequently isolated from other considerations, reflects a misunderstanding of the very concept of the economy. As long as production is increased, little concern is given to whether it is the cost of future resources or the health of the environment; as long as the clearing of a forest increases production, no one calculates the losses entailed in the desertification of the land, the harm done to biodiversity or the increased pollution. In a word, businesses profit by calculating and paying only a fraction of the costs involved. ¶195.

To be sure, resource losses are chronically under-estimated. But Nordhaus maintains that the pope misses an important point, which is that the problem is not markets per se, but markets that are poorly designed and hence encourage the wrong kinds of activity.

Pope Francis addressing a joint session of Congress, Sept 24, 2015

Pope Francis addressing a joint session of Congress, Sept 24, 2015

“Markets can work miracles when they work properly,”Nordhaus writes, “but that power can be subverted and do the economic equivalent of the devil’s work when price signals are distorted.” The best way to correct such distortions is to see to it that social costs, or “externalities,” are incorporated in the price of a particular commodity or action. Only when economic actors are required to bear the full burden will they then find it profitable to seek out alternatives that are cheaper and cleaner. Otherwise, society finds itself in the strange position of subsidizing waste by allowing manufacturers to emit greenhouse gases and the like for free. As Nordhaus puts it:

Putting a low price on valuable environmental resources is a phenomenon that pervades modern society. Agricultural water is not scarce in California; it is underpriced. Flights are stacked up on runways because takeoffs and landings are underpriced. People wait for hours in traffic jams because road use is underpriced. People die premature deaths from small sulfur particles in the air because air pollution is underpriced. And the most perilous of all environmental problems, climate change, is taking place because virtually every country puts a price of zero on carbon dioxide emissions.

Nordhaus might have mentioned the entrenched political structures that foster such under-pricing in the first place. But let’s not quibble: his logic thus far is impeccable. He then goes off the rails, however, over a passage in the encyclical dealing with carbon-emission permits. According to the pope:

The strategy of buying and selling “carbon credits” can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide. This system seems to provide a quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way does it allow for the radical change which present circumstances require. Rather, it may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors. ¶171.

Although Francis is probably talking about cap-and-trade, Nordhaus is not so sure since “carbon credits” is not a term that practitioners usually employ with regard to the trade in carbon emissions. So he argues that “this part of the encyclical is clearly a critique of market-based environmental approaches”— all such approaches, that is — a category that in his view includes both cap-and-trade and carbon taxes.

This leads to a fatal error: defending both without delineating the differences between the two. Nordhaus has argued in favor of carbon taxes in the past, and he concedes in his NYR article that such an approach “is simpler and avoids any of the potential corruption, market volatility, and distributional issues that might arise with cap-and-trade systems.” But since carbon taxing also fiddles with markets, he concludes: “It is unfortunate that he [the pope] does not endorse a market-based solution, particularly carbon pricing, as the only practical policy tool we have to bend down the dangerous curves of climate change and the damages they cause.”

Wrong. Cap-and-trade clearly is a market-based solution because it creates new arenas for the buying and selling of emission permits, complete with futures markets and financial derivatives. But a carbon tax is not. Instead of creating new ways of buying and selling, taxing carbon is a form of direct behavior modification not unlike a traffic fine or a golf-course fee. Instead of encouraging speculation, it does the opposite by making it crystal clear that economic actors will have to pay a set premium for every unit of carbon dioxide they emit.

So while the pope may have gotten a good deal wrong, this is one thing he gets right. Not only does cap-and-trade promote speculation, but Francis is correct in pointing out that, in practice, it has done little to reduce emissions or encourage fundamental technological change. Setting a strict limit on greenhouse gases and then allowing investors to bid on emissions rights up to a certain level is music to the ears of neo-liberal economists for whom there can never be enough markets. But implementing such a program has proved a nightmare.

Due to heavy lobbying by corporations and politicians, the EU’s Emissions Trading System, the largest carbon market in the world, exempts 55 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Greek economist Andriana Vlachou. Since the system leaves it to individual member states to estimate their emissions, over-reporting has been rife. Offsets, the practice of allowing member states to reap credits by sponsoring carbon-capture projects such as new forests, have been especially problematic. As the Carbon Tax Center’s James Handley has pointed out, estimating savings from such projects is difficult, while verifying that developers are telling the truth about the benefits is even worse. Volatility is another problem. After the EU allocated too many permits, prices plunged so low in 2013 that officials had to take 900 million permits off the market. Since trading is electronic, hackers have meanwhile made off with millions.

It’s the sort of system that only a free-market Chicago economist could love – and, given the opportunities for corruption, maybe an old-school Chicago politician as well. By comparison, a carbon tax is the essence of simplicity. Administrative costs, which involve little more than calculating the carbon content of a given fossil fuel and then levying a charge “upstream,” are minimal. So are enforcement costs. There are no offsets, no complicated negotiations to determine each nation’s emissions quota, no wrestling with entrenched political interests to determine which industries are covered and which are not. While Vlachou reports the EU’s cap-and-trade program weighs especially heavily on poor electricity users, such consequences can be easily mitigated in the case of a carbon tax by earmarking revenues for social programs, investment in poor neighborhoods, or reducing income taxes for lower earners.

Nordhaus is not the only one to blur the difference between a carbon tax and tax-and-trade. Cass R. Sunstein, the Harvard law professor and recent Obama operative, recently made the same blunder in a column defending not only markets but consumerism and economists in general, who, he assures us, are “excellent technicians” and “pretty decent moralists” as well. The pope is not the only one who finds this difficult to swallow. Suspicion of market-based solutions may not be so unjustified after all.


Last modified: September 28, 2015

Pope Francis’s Embrace of Our Environment: Live-Tweeting at the U.N.

The following passages, transmitted by the New York Times via Twitter (@nytimes), capture Pope Francis’s call this morning to world leaders and humanity to place ourselves within, not above, the natural world; to care for Earth rather than destroy it; and to recognize for all living things a “Right of the Environment.”

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Last modified: September 25, 2015

Who’s “Out of Step” on Climate — Pope Francis or Harvard Expert?

New York Times climate reporter Coral Davenport writes today that Pope Francis’s warning against cap-and-trade as a tool to address the climate crisis creates a “paradox”:

[W]here Francis’ environmental and economic agendas meet, he leaves something of a paradox. . . While urging swift action to curb the burning of fossil fuels that have powered economies since the Industrial Revolution, he also condemns the trading of carbon-emission credits, saying it merely creates new forms of financial speculation and does not bring about “radical change.” But carbon trading is the policy most widely adopted by governments to combat climate change, and it has been endorsed by leading economists as a way to cut carbon pollution while sustaining economic growth.

With due respect to Davenport as well as Robert Stavins, the Harvard climate economist whose concerns figure prominently in her story, there is no paradox. Francis’s encyclical, On Care For Our Common Home, doesn’t muddy the climate change debate because a carbon tax, not cap-and-trade, is economists’ preferred policy tool for curbing carbon pollution. Francis-cap-tradeFrancis criticizes emissions trading on three grounds: First, trading carbon allowances allows traders to profit from the climate crisis — indeed, it’s designed to do that. Second, “offsets” that are virtually hard-wired into cap-and-trade shift the burden of pollution to developing countries. Third, cap-and-trade with offsets absolves the wealthy of responsibility to rein in their carbon-intensive lifestyles. In Francis’s own words:

The strategy of buying and selling carbon credits can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide. This system seems to provide a quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way does it allow for the radical change which present circumstances require. Rather, it may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors. [171]

What, then, does Francis demand? That societies internalize the costs of pollution, especially climate pollution:

[O]nly when the economic and social costs of using up shared environmental resources are recognized with transparency and fully borne by those who incur them, not by other peoples or future generations, can those actions be considered ethical. [195]

A reference in that passage attributes Francis’s calls for polluters to pay “the economic and social costs” they incur to his predecessor, Pope Benedict. (Both pontiffs presumably intended “impose” rather than “incur,” i.e., for costs to be borne by those who impose them, but no matter.) Those resources surely include clean air. The new encyclical thus aligns the Catholic Church with the century-old “Pigovian” tradition of economists urging policies to internalize costs. Francis-carbon4-taxNevertheless, in an email quoted by Davenport, Stavins brands Francis as “out of step with … informed policy analysts around the world,” in effect labeling the Pope as economically-illiterate and naïve:

“I respect what the pope says about the need for action, but this is out of step with the thinking and the work of informed policy analysts around the world, who recognize that we can do more, faster, and better with the use of market-based policy instruments — carbon taxes and/or cap-and-trade systems,” Robert N. Stavins, the director of the environmental economics program at Harvard, said in an email.

That Stavins is the lone environmental economist quoted in Davenport’s piece did not deter her from claiming that “environmental economists criticized the encyclical’s condemnation of carbon trading, seeing it as part of a radical critique of market economies.” Hardly. The Pope, like legions of environmental activists and economists worldwide, has seen the shams of emissions trading and carbon “speculation” for what they are. [Read more…]


Last modified: June 27, 2015

Book Review: “Climate Shock”

Rachael Sotos is a political theorist and adjunct professor with a background in philosophy, classics and environmental studies.

Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet, is both a tidy summation of the state of the art in climate economics and a powerful call for action. For all the uncertainties and challenges, “the overall policy framework needed for addressing climate change is clear and has been for decades,” state co-authors Gernot Wagner and Martin L. Weitzman (p. 23). “Carbon dioxide is the problem. Pricing it properly is the solution.”(38)

climate shock coverWagner, a senior economist at the Environmental Defense Fund, and Weitzman, a celebrated economist at Harvard, are an intriguing blend of young and elder, and realist and idealist. They exhort economists and climate advocates to get past the “epic debates” between taxes and cap-and-trade and, while consensus builds toward carbon pricing, to engage in the work required for “second -, third-, and fourth-best solutions”(26): electricity grid reform, stronger CAFE standards, and strategic application of subsidies and U.S. EPA regulations. “At the very least,” they say, “these regulations could provide a real bargaining chip when it comes to U.S. Congress considering comprehensive climate policy and a direct price on carbon down the line.”(19).

Flying their Pigovian colors from Preface to Epilogue, the authors are emphatic and unambiguous; “Putting a proper price on carbon isn’t a question of if, it’s a question of when.(xi) Our best hope is “a high enough price on carbon to reflect its true cost to society.”(152)

Unfortunately, the bracing clarity of Climate Shock appears to have been lost on some reviewers. Earlier this month, NY Times columnist Joe Nocera misconstrued Wagner and Weitzman’s extensive discussion of geo-engineering as surrender to the political obstacles to carbon pricing. On Nocera’s reading, insofar as “a carbon tax on the worst emitters has gotten nowhere,” it’s time for Plan B: “chemo for the planet.” Au contraire, Wagner and Weitzman do not delve into geo-engineering scenarios like sulfates dispersal in lieu of ambitious policies to reduce emissions. Rather, they insist, “the specter of geo-engineering should be a clarion call for action. Decisive, and soon.”(29)

If Nocera reconfigured Wagner and Weitzman to suit his own techno-utopian ends, Yale Nobel economist Robert J. Shiller, also in the Times, willfully invested Climate Shock with libertarian designs. Directly contravening the thoughtful and informative discussion of social change presented in Climate Shock (and previously thematized in Wagner’s 2011 But Will the Planet Notice?), Shiller proposed idealistically-motivated incrementalism as a way around Kyoto’s failure “to impose strict taxes on carbon emissions.”

According to Shiller, Wagner and Weitzman “say that we should be asking people to save our climate by taking many small, individual actions.” Climate Shock actually says the opposite: “the numbers don’t add up. They’ll only begin to add up when environmentalists use their collective political powers to move the policy needle in the right direction, toward a price on carbon.”(40) (See also CTC director Charles Komanoff’s recent takedown of Shiller’s piece in regard to both facts and theory.)

Shiller’s misreading is doubly unfortunate because, as Wagner and Weitzman point out, the imperative to seriously engage policy must be directed toward average citizens, “those in the middle of the political spectrum,” as well as those already conversant with climate economics.(136) Certainly we should all do what we can to encourage virtuous cycles of ethical engagement and political participation – “Recycling well leads to better environmental policies, which allow for a more environmentally enlightened citizenry; a more enlightened citizenry, in turn, leads to more people recycling well.”(132)

"Climate Shock" authors Martin Weitzman (left) and Gernot Wagner.

“Climate Shock” authors Martin Weitzman (left) and Gernot Wagner.

Indeed. But, as Wagner and Weitzman are right to remind: in a greenwashed world seemingly structured to distract and misinform the average person, the most virtuous deeds can dead end. In the practical economics of everyday life, single actions sometimes crowd out other forms of engagement: “when people substitute single, individual actions – like recycling – for larger policy actions – like voting.”(133) Pigovians from start to finish, Wagner and Weitzman are emphatic: “if you have to make a choice between recycling and voting for a price on carbon, choose voting.”(137)

Yet another review, this one by Yale economist William D. Nordhaus in the current New York Review of Books, is notable on several grounds, not least of which is Nordhaus’s outsized reputation as a pioneering climate economist and modeler. Respectful in tone, Nordhaus engages of Climate Shock’s discussions of geo-engineering, the economics of uncertainty and the pitfalls of negotiating climate treaties. Strangely, however, Nordhaus takes up Weitzman’s path-breaking analyses of catastrophic risk without acknowledging any critiques of his own perennially optimistic approach.
[Read more…]


Last modified: May 29, 2015

Climate Idealism Can’t Hold a Candle to Collective Action

Why do Copenhageners ride bicycles? The key reason, says Yale economist and best-selling author (“Irrational Exuberance”) Robert J. Shiller, is that Danes are idealists who resolved, after the oil crisis of the 1970s, “to make a personal commitment to ride bicycles rather than drive, out of moral principle, even if that was inconvenient for them.”

“The sight of so many others riding bikes motivated the city’s inhabitants and appears to have improved the moral atmosphere enough,” Shiller wrote in yesterday’s New York Times, that the share of working inhabitants of Copenhagen who bike has reached 50 percent.

From “Copenhagen: City of Cyclists” (2010), a report by the City of Copenhagen.

From “Copenhagen: City of Cyclists” (2010), a report by the City of Copenhagen.

In much the same way, Shiller argues, “asking people to volunteer to save our climate by taking many small, individual actions” may be a more effective way to bring down carbon emissions than trying to enact overarching national or global policies such as carbon emission caps or taxes.

Goodness. Rarely do smart people so badly mangle both the historical record and basic economics. I say “people” because Shiller attributes his column’s main points to a new book, “Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet” by Gernot Wagner of the Environmental Defense Fund and Martin L. Weitzman, a Harvard economist. And I say “smart” because the three stand at the top of their profession. Shiller won the Economics Nobel in 2013, Weitzman is a leading light in the economics of climate change, and Wagner is highly regarded young economist.

But mangle they have (I haven’t seen the Wagner-Weitzman book but assume that Shiller represents it fairly).

Let’s start with the history, which is fairly well known to anyone versed in cycling advocacy, as I’ve been since the 1980s, when I spearheaded the revival of New York City’s bike-advocacy group Transportation Alternatives (as recounted here.) Copenhagen’s 40-year bicycle upsurge, and indeed much of the uptake of cycling across Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands, came about not through mass idealism but from deliberate public policies to help cities avoid the damages of pervasive automobile use while reducing oil dependence.

If idealism played a part at the outset it was a social idealism that instructed government to undertake integrated policies ­― stiff gas taxes and car ownership fees; generously funded public transit; elimination of free curbside parking; provision of safe and abundant bicycle routes ― that enabled Copenhageners to do what they evidently desired all along: to use bikes safely and naturally.

The telltale is in the graphic. Only one in eleven Copenhageners who cycle have environment and climate in mind. The majority do it because it’s faster than other ways to travel, and around a third of cyclists say they ride because it’s healthy, inexpensive and convenient ― belying Shiller’s meme of Danes idealistically choosing bikes despite their inconvenience vis-à-vis cars. [Read more…]


Last modified: April 15, 2015

One Cheer for the Guardian’s Divestment Campaign

The worldwide fossil fuel divestment campaign got a huge boost this week when Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger boldly thrust his paper into the fray. Britain’s most respected newspaper is urging readers to sign a petition by demanding that the Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Charitable Trust divest from the world’s top 200 fossil fuel companies within five years.

Divestment can’t loosen the fossil fuel stranglehold without a carbon tax.

Combined, the two charities manage over $70 billion in assets. Both say they consider climate change a  serious threat. But last year the Gates Foundation invested at least $1 billion of its holdings in 35 of the top 200 carbon reserve companies, while the Wellcome Trust invested $834 million in fuel-industry mainstays Shell, BP, Schlumberger, Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton.

We’re both elated and concerned by Rusbridger’s audacious move. Elated that this distinguished and brave journalist has thrown down the gauntlet to the global fossil fuel industry. But concerned that this divestment campaign may raise false hopes.

As Matthew Yglesias articulated last year in a thoughtful piece on Slate, divestment by socially responsible investors, universities and even governments won’t starve capital flows to fossil fuel corporations anytime soon. That’s because in a global market, every share of stock we activists dutifully unload will be snatched up in milliseconds by some trader who can bank on humanity’s continued dependence on fossil fuels to continue generating profits.

South Africa’s historic divestment campaign — the one that helped topple Apartheid and enshrined divestment as a tool against oppression  — was paired with a UN-sponsored boycott of South African goods. Not just aiming at the supply of capital but destroying the demand for goods sheared the Apartheid regime’s economic lifeline to the rest of the world more than either policy could have done alone.

No, we’re not suggesting a global boycott of fossil fuels. Rather, we point to the Guardian’s campaign to reiterate that the best and maybe only broadly effective way to reduce fossil fuel demand (which is the point of a boycott) is with a carbon tax. Economists agree on that policy prescription just as strongly as climate scientists agree on the diagnosis. And national-level carbon taxes can be designed to draw our or any nation’s global trading partners into carbon taxing, which means that a move by a big economy to impose a carbon tax will trigger a wave of followers.

So by all means, divest. The cultural and perhaps political opprobrium that divestment can spark is long overdue for the fossil fuels industry. But let’s not assume that divestment alone will break the chains of fossil fuel dependence. Even with the Guardian’s welcome campaign, the world still needs a transparent price on carbon pollution to strangle demand for fossil fuels by replacing them with non-carbon alternatives.


Last modified: March 19, 2015

British Columbia’s Carbon Tax Architects Speak

A new report from a British Columbia think tank reveals the inside story behind B.C.’s successful tax on CO2 pollution. “How to Adopt a Winning Carbon Price, Top Ten Takeaways from Interviews with the Architects of British Columbia’s Carbon Tax,” published by Clean Energy Canada, draws on extensive interviews with senior government officials, elected representatives and a broad range of experts who helped shape or respond to this groundbreaking policy.

BC C-TX RPT CVRBritish Columbia inaugurated its carbon tax on July 1, 2008 at a rate of $10 (Canadian) per metric ton (“tonne”) of carbon dioxide released from coal, oil and natural gas burned in the province. The tax incremented by $5/tonne annually, reaching its current level of $30 per tonne of CO2 in July 2012. At the current U.S.-Canadian dollar exchange rate (1.00/0.80), and converting from tonnes to short tons, the B.C. tax now equates to around $22 (U.S.) per ton of CO2.

In the tax’s initial four years (2008 to 2012), CO2 emissions from fuel combustion in British Columbia fell 5% — or 9% per capita, considering the province’s 4.5% population growth over that span. [NB: These figures are revised downward from the original version of this post; see editor’s note at end.] During the same period, emissions from the rest of Canada increased slightly. Revenue from the tax has funded more than a billion dollars worth of cuts in individual and business taxes annually, while a tax credit protects low-income households who might not benefit from the tax cuts. [Read more…]


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