Elevating Climate Issues

James Stock
James StockPhotograph by Stu Rosner

In early September, as students were settling into their fall classes, the University announced the creation of a new post, vice provost for climate and sustainability, that signaled an elevated level of coordinated action and research on global warming. In a letter to the community that followed two days later, on September 9, President Lawrence S. Bacow discussed the University’s commitment to climate issues, writing that “Professor James Stock,” the inaugural holder of the position, “will work across University boundaries to accelerate and coordinate research and education…to produce crucial new knowledge on climate and sustainability.” Bacow added that he had committed “significant resources to seed this effort,” because “Harvard must stand among world leaders in addressing this challenge.” (For more details, see harvardmag.com/bacow-climate-21.)

Stock, the Burbank professor of political economy, is an innovative thinker in the field of climate-change economics (see “Controlling the Global Thermostat,” November-December 2020, page 42) who served on President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers in 2013 and 2014 (where he worked on plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the electric-power industry). Stock’s scholarly publications have frequently emphasized the importance of establishing the social cost of carbon—putting a price on the economic damage incurred by the burning of fossil fuels. In light of the shifting economics of sustainable power production (wind and solar power has become competitive with, and at times cheaper than, power generated by fossil fuels), he has created a roadmap for decarbonizing the power sector. And in this context of dropping costs for sustainably produced energy, he has pointed out the need for different kinds of policies within different sectors of the economy to swiftly and efficiently effect change. Appropriately, he is now in position to be a change agent at Harvard.

Adaptation and Mitigation

In the Harvard Gazette announcement of his appointment on September 7, Stock referred to the importance of adaptation to and mitigation of climate changes. In a beginning-of-term Gazette interview, Bacow, using similar language, said, “The work of faculty focused on interventions to adapt to the realities of the climate crisis and mitigate their effects is where Harvard will have its greatest impact.”

In a conversation about his new role, Stock elaborated on these terms, which have specific meaning to economists: adaptation is dealing with current and future climate damages, he explained, which implies putting a price tag on those impacts, too. “We’re seeing wildfires, we’re seeing floods,” he said. “We’ll see sea level rise, we’ll see more heat events”—from global warming that is already under way. In that context, “adaptation means minimizing mortality, minimizing impacts on crops, making sure that human and ecological systems can continue.” The work is broad, encompassing topics ranging from urban design (“How can we make those environments more resilient to storms?”) to the natural world: “What can we do—if anything can be done—to reduce species loss in the context of climate change?”

On Divestment

President Lawrence S. Bacow’s September 9 letter to the community observed that, as previously disclosed, Harvard has no direct endowment investments in fossil-fuel exploration or development, and that its limited-partnership investments in private-equity funds with fossil-fuel holdings would run off over time. Even though he did not talk about “divestment,” advocates of divesting fossil-fuel assets from the endowment hailed Bacow’s announcement as a significant change in University policy—and a signal victory in a nearly decade-long campaign of student, faculty, and alumni advocacy. For an interpretation of what was said, and what it may mean, see harvardmag.com/climate-divestment-21. ~J.S.R.


Mitigation, Stock continued, refers first to “the energy transition to a clean economy: reducing carbon and other greenhouse-gas emissions. But it also means reducing methane emissions from other sources, including agriculture, and preventing the deforestation that frequently takes place in developing economies.”

In the United States, he pointed out, “we haven’t actually had any significant national policy,” to support such an energy transition—and still don’t, other than “light energy standards.” The “technological tail winds” of cheap solar and wind energy have contributed substantially to initiating that change, he said, and the prospect of electric vehicles that are less expensive to own and operate than those based on internal-combustion engines will help, too. “We should take advantage of that and drive that forward.” But in many other areas, the steps needed to effect a transition are “far less obvious. And for that, we actually need to have concerted policies.”

An econometrician, who pursues statistical analyses of economic data, Stock hews to a quantitative approach to the challenge of moving economies away from their dependence on fossil fuels. That has led him to advocate a nuanced and textured strategy that at times emphasizes supply-side policies, and at others focuses on demand. How can policies discouraging consumption of fossil fuels (by taxing carbon, for example) be complemented by others that support a path to a sustainable future? His multifaceted approach eschews economy-wide carbon pricing. Thus, Stock has found that taxing carbon would be effective in moving to clean electrical-power generation, but his work suggests that supporting reliable vehicle-charging capacity at home and work will be a more effective and efficient way to accelerate the transition to a sustainable electric transportation system.

Harvard can play an especially important role in sorting out such subtleties and analyzing the most appropriate responses, Stock said. Accordingly, his first priority will be to engage widely with faculty members to assess where the University can make the most significant contributions: “The question is, how can people who are experts in technology, in the policy arena, in the social sciences, in the economics of climate change, and in government policies help move that conversation forward so that it actually happens?”

Harnessing Harvard’s Academic Assets

Stock assumes his new role against the backdrop of an active community of Harvard scholars working on subjects related to climate change. One “very collegial umbrella organization—though certainly not the only one,” he said, has been the Harvard University Center for the Environment (HUCE) run by Hooper professor of geology, professor of environmental science and engineering and professor in the department of environmental health Daniel Schrag. HUCE, which catalyzes interdisciplinary research and education into some of the world’s most pressing environmental problems, has been “very effective given the resources that have been available to it,” said Stock. But there was “a broad-based sense among that community,” including social scientists, policy experts, and natural and physical scientists, “that there needed to be a much more committed effort at the level of the University,” which of course has faculties in such pertinent fields as law, architecture and design, engineering, and medicine and public health. A committee led by former vice provost for research Richard McCullough explored several different proposals, one result of which was the new position that Stock (who was not a member of that committee) now occupies.

The vice provost for climate and sustainability will coordinate Harvard’s investments in teaching, research, and engagement with outside constituencies. Stock brings to the role both experience as a faculty member since 1983 and his public service outside academia. Interestingly, he emphasized that the University’s strengths—including “a lot of good research and teaching focused on climate change, and enthusiasm among the deans, as well as among alumni, for doing more”—owe a great deal to its decentralized structure, through which Harvard’s disciplinary experts have traditionally imposed “the quality standards that ensure we recruit the best people in an area, and make sure that we [focus on] the most important ideas.” At the same time, “expanding Harvard’s footprint” for focused work on climate change in a way that “works for all of the schools…is going to require coordination” through his new office.

“The world has woken up to how serious the problem is, and passing legislation or making statements about being net zero in 2050 are great,” Stock said. “But now we actually have to do it. And we have to manage the transition…including all of the collateral damage associated with climate change, some of which we can imagine and some of which we can’t.” Given the urgent challenge, he continued, “Harvard can provide significant leadership in…terms of understanding what’s going on; making projections about how we can mitigate the damages; and, most importantly, crafting policies to make this transition an effective one, so that we can stem the damage as soon as possible.” In practical terms, that means Stock is responsible for “working with the deans and the schools so that we can join arms and build on each other’s work.”

As he labors to make a decentralized, and sometimes slow, institution ramp up its activity, Stock noted that in some important cases, policy is moving too fast for traditionally paced academic research. For example, proposals to support national deployment of electric-vehicle charging stations are “literally in committee in Congress right now.” What scholars can do especially well is discern “what questions need to be addressed over the next three to five to eight years, and then think about proposals and solutions that might be able to address those,” he said—for example, what to do about aviation fuels: “That is the sort of area where Harvard can make progress in the science and in the engineering and in the policy.”

Just a few weeks into his new role, Stock was far from choosing any particular focus. As he consults with faculty members and others, he will evaluate Harvard’s greatest potential for progress in teaching, research, and engagement with other constituencies according to another economic principle, additionality: determining whether a proposed path will produce some extra benefit as compared to a baseline scenario. “You want to have additionality and you want to have real impact on the world,” he said. “Whatever path we choose is going to be adequately resourced, and it’s going to be something that works for the schools”—not least through involving “new people and new ideas, that lead to more engagement and more impact.” Stay tuned. 

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