Policy Brief - Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, Belfer Center

What Can an Economist Possibly Have to Say about Climate Change?

| March 2015

Some time ago, I boarded an airplane for a flight out of Boston's Logan Airport. As I sat down in my seat, it quickly became apparent that the person seated next to me wished to engage in a conversation. Perhaps you have noticed what I have, namely that there tend to be two kinds of people who fly — those who like to have conversations with perfect strangers, and the rest of us.

I am very much in that second category, and so as I sat down in my seat, I had work and a newspaper in front of me, anything to ward off an unwanted conversation. But the gentleman seated next to me persevered, and sought to start a conversation in what is typical fashion for Americans. He asked me, "What business are you in?" I did something foolish — I told the truth. I said, "I'm an environmental economist."

He looked at me, but did not say anything. I looked at him. This went on for what seemed to me to be a very long time. Here is this fellow who wanted to have a conversation, but he did not follow-up with another comment or question. Finally, it dawned upon me, and I understood why he was not saying anything further. I realized that he had concluded that he had just met a living, breathing oxymoron — an internal contradiction. After all, it is either the economy or the environment. So what could this phrase — environmental economics — even mean?...

The entire Viewpoint may be downloaded below.

Robert Stavins, Harvard Kennedy School; National Bureau of Economic Research; University Fellow of Resources for the Future


Viewpoints present policy proposals, considered opinions, and commentary by distinguished policymakers, leaders from business and non-governmental organizations, and scholars. The Harvard Project on Climate Agreements does not advocate any specific climate-change policy proposals. Statements and views expressed in Viewpoints are solely those of the authors and do not imply endorsement by Harvard University, the Harvard Kennedy School, or the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.

For more information on this publication: Please contact Harvard Project on Climate Agreements
For Academic Citation: Stavins, Robert N.. “What Can an Economist Possibly Have to Say about Climate Change?.” Policy Brief, Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, Belfer Center, March 2015.

The Author

Robert N. Stavins