CAMBRIDGE MA. – Gernot Wagner, Clinical Associate Professor at New York University and former economist at the Environmental Defense Fund, shared his thoughts on the impact of politics on climate policy in 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. A transcript of the interview is available 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.
Wagner, whose career also includes time spent as a consultant at the Boston Consulting Group and a journalist at the Financial Times, brings to the topic a rich and varied set of perspectives gained through his years of experience in academia, the NGO world, and private industry. He is a graduate of Harvard College, where he took Stavins’ environmental economics course as a freshman. Stavins served as chair of Wagner’s dissertation committee when he received his Ph.D. in Political Economy and Government from Harvard in 2007.
Wagner is author of two books, “But will the Planet Notice: How Smart Economics Can Save the World?,” and “Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet,” which he co-wrote with the late Harvard Professor Martin Weitzman, whom he had met his first week on the Harvard campus in 1998.
“I went to meet Marty on a Thursday that week,” Wagner recalled. “I remember Marty sitting me down and first of all, taking me seriously…much like you did. You did try to dissuade me from taking your class, but then I ended up taking it later that year. But Marty sat me down and guided me through, maybe in an attempt at dissuading me frankly of wanting to become an environmental economist or academic.”
Turning to the topic of current-day climate policy, Wagner sounded cautiously optimistic about the chances that the United States will meet the Biden Administration’s recently announced commitment to reduce CO2 emissions by 50-to-52 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2030, saying that it would be technically feasible, but politically difficult.
“I'd like to think I can make a cogent argument for why it will happen, and this administration is uniquely positioned to make it happen. And the approach it is taking seems to be on the right path,” Wagner said, while also admitting it will be a challenge for the administration to get any meaningful climate policy through a divided Congress.
Wagner also expressed his hope for establishing a carbon price of between 60 and 300 dollars per ton to provide incentives for companies and industries to reduce CO2 emissions. Exxon, he said, has recently come out in support of a carbon price of 50 dollars per ton, but Democrats in Washington aren’t satisfied with that proposal.
“The progressives in the House want something that has a higher price equivalent. The Biden Administration might be slightly less ambitious on that front,” he said. “All of it is still much more ambitious than the…simple 50 dollar per ton of CO2 carbon tax.”
Stavins asked Wagner for his thoughts on the youth climate movements that became quite pronounced in 2019.
“What we do see is amazing action in the right direction, on a whole lot of different dimensions,” Wagner remarked. “Now we are back to – what should this movement push for? And frankly, now we are back to the raw politics of it all. It's very, very difficult to see – the one simple law that will just solve it all. That basically doesn't exist. It exists in theory, maybe. Not in practice.”
Wagner’s interview is the 6th episode during 2021 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.”