Follow the Plastic Bag Example, Nudge Polluters to Pay

By Gernot Wagner. Originally posted on EDF Voices.

Nudge is the best kind of book. It presents the type of head-slappingly obvious solutions to public policy problems that make you wonder why you needed a book to tell you about them in the first place. Place the veggies before the French fries in the cafeteria, and people will eat more greens. Enroll employees into retirement programs with the option of opting out rather than in and they’ll save more as a result.

Such nudges are the best kinds of policy interventions: minimum intrusion, maximum freedom of choice, maximum relative impact. But one area in which Nudge comes up short is global warming. Putting smiley faces on your electricity bill as a reward for using less electricity than your neighbor, something Power has done with utilities around the country, helps bring down electricity use by 1 to 3%. Better than zero, but not the solution by a long shot.

That solution would be making polluters pay: putting a price on carbon dioxide through a direct cap or tax on carbon pollution. Cass Sunstein, who wrote Nudge with Richard Thaler, says as much in his latest piece on the topic. He laments the fact that we don’t seem to be able to get these kinds of taxes passed, and then adds a few items to his running list of things we can do, all under the broad heading of setting “clean-energy default rules”: Change the default printer setting to “print on front and back,” and people will. Enroll people into programs where they spend extra for clean energy (with the option of opting out), and 90% will choose to stick with the clean energy.

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Beyond Reasonable Debate

By Kristen Sheeran

It appears that scare tactics, slander, and intimidation are no longer exclusively the domain of climate denialists seeking to discredit climate science research. According to the actions of Richard Tol, an economist at the University of Sussex, it would seem that these are now acceptable forms of academic debate in economics.

Tol has waged a campaign to damage the reputation of economist Frank Ackerman. Ackerman’s crime? He published a peer-reviewed technical article in a highly reputable journal (“Climate Damages in the FUND Model: A Disaggregated Analysis,” Ecological Economics, 2012.) that critiques Tol’s signature contribution to the climate economics literature – the FUND model. Since then, Tol has written to Ackerman’s employer and publishers accusing him of libel.

As a well published academic, Tol understands that disagreement is not only common, but encouraged by the academy. When you publish your work, you expect others to critique it. Sometimes you agree with the criticisms; other times you do not. But as an academic, you understand that this is how a body of knowledge evolves. It is an expected part of the process. And no academic, no matter how well accomplished, is immune to critique.

It appears that all of the proper channels to facilitate a healthy and productive academic debate have been pursued – and then some. The article was subject to peer-review prior to publication. Ecological Economics then published a commentary by Tol and Anthoff and a reply by Ackerman and Munitz. It even published an editor’s letter on the controversy. Why then, is Tol still trying to silence a legitimate academic debate?

A statement of support has been signed by Terry Barker, Stephen DeCanio, Paul Ekins, Duncan Foley, Michael Hanemann, Julie Nelson, William Nordhaus, Robert Pollin, J. Barkley Rosser, Juliet Schor, and dozens of other economists. It affirms that the Ackerman-Munitz article is a legitimate, peer-reviewed publication making a valuable contribution to the economics of climate change, and urges scholars to pursue criticisms of each other’s work through normal channels of academic debate. If you are an economist who agrees with this statement, Ackerman invites you to add your signature (e-mail frankackerman12 at gmail.com).

In the interest of full disclosure, Ackerman is a founding member of E3 Network. He blogged about the FUND model on Real Climate Economics back in 2011 We also published Tol’s response to that blog post.