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Guarded Optimism about the Paris Climate Agreement

Robert Stavins's picture
Professor & Director John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

Robert N. Stavins is the A.J. Meyer Professor of Energy & Economic Development, Director of Graduate Studies for the Doctoral Programs in Public Policy and in Political Economy and...

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My monthly podcast – “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program – provides a venue for me to chat about policy and practice with interesting people who are working at the interface of economics, energy, and the environment, whether from academia, NGOs, business, or government.  My latest guest is a “rock star” on the international climate policy circuit – David Victor

Perhaps the ultimate professional compliment I can give someone after having read something they’ve written is to think, “I wish I’d written that.”  There are two people about whom I’ve recently thought that, and neither is an economist (as am I).  One is a lawyer, Jason Bordoff, on the faculty at Columbia University (he will be featured in a blog post in the near future); and the other, a political scientist, is David Victor, professor of international relations at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California, San Diego, where he is director of the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation

In addition, David is Co-Chair of the Brookings Institution Initiative on Energy and Climate, and he’s served as a Coordinating Lead Author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, where he and I spent many hours together in various parts of the world – some of it enjoyable, some not.  Much of David’s research has been at the intersection of climate change science and policy.

You can listen to my conversation with David Victor here.

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David is delightfully outspoken on subjects about which he has considerable expertise, including the international dimensions of climate change policy.  In our conversation, he voices his concern about uncertainty surrounding climate policy at a time when many countries are directing or preparing to direct their resources into large-scale economic stimulus programs to help soften the economic blow of the coronavirus pandemic.  David notes that many questions remain at this time about public confidence in federal leadership and in the capacity for governments to act effectively.

“What I really worry about is that there’s been a huge test of government and that governments have varied enormously in their competence. And in particular, I’m deeply worried about the federal government in the United States,” he says. “And the contrast this time with the 2008-2009 financial crisis is really striking because back in 2008-2009, depending on how you count, up to 15% of the stimulus money went into low carbon trajectories. And a lot of it was spent well, and this time outside of Europe, we’re not seeing that. So that to me is the really big lesson emerging out of the pandemic that’s going to affect the future of energy and climate.”

He notes that “… the world is really looking to Europe more than the United States right now for guidance and a vision of how you would do large green infrastructure spending effectively.”  In particular, Victor points to the interesting work on climate and energy taking place in Norway.

“The Norwegians have shown, even for a small population of highly committed people, that you can make big bets on new technologies. And where those bets are successful, that in effect, you push the frontier and you steer the whole industry,” he said. “And so, Norway is a small country economically and in terms of population, but is engaged in leadership in a way that leadership might create followership.”

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It is fair to say that David Victor was not a fan of the Kyoto Protocol and its particular policy architecture, but he expresses guarded optimism that while the Paris Agreement, which has been ratified by 125 parties since its approval in 2016, has some flaws due to its structure, it is a first step toward an effective international effort to combat climate change.

“I expect that Paris is valuable because it’s there; it’s a city on the hill. It’s got goals that a lot of people are talking about. It’s got legitimacy, and that’s an enormous contribution that we’ve not had to date,” he remarks. “But then we should expect almost all the serious work’s going to happen in clubs of countries working outside Paris in ways that are consistent with Paris. And I think most of the diplomats are overly focused on Paris, and under focused on this – the real engines of progress.”

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All of this and more is found in the latest episode of “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.” Listen to this latest discussion here.  You can find a complete transcript of our conversation at the website of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.

My conversation with David Victor is the fifteenth episode in the Environmental Insights series.  Previous episodes have featured conversations with:

“Environmental Insights” is hosted on SoundCloud, and is also available on iTunes, Pocket Casts, Spotify, and Stitcher.

The post Guarded Optimism about the Paris Climate Agreement appeared first on An Economic View of the Environment.

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