This week, Kristin Hayes and Joseph Aldy discuss the presidential candidates’ stances on climate change. Aldy is professor of the practice of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and a university fellow at Resources for the Future (RFF). Aldy worked as an RFF fellow in 2005–2008, leaving in 2009 to serve as the special assistant to the president for energy and environment, reporting through both the National Economic Council and the Office of Energy and Climate change at the White House.
Given this experience as both a researcher and a policymaker, Aldy is the perfect person to kick off the Resources Radio podcast series that accompanies RFF’s new online interactive tool, the Candidate Tracker. The Candidate Tracker has been developed to compare and contrast the positions of the 2020 presidential candidates from both major political parties on a range of climate- and energy-related topics. We hope Resources Radio can serve as a great venue for some deeper-dive analysis on several issues under discussion by the candidates; listeners will see episodes posted over the next few months in this mini-series.
This first episode in the Candidate Tracker series with Aldy is designed to offer some big-picture commentary on how the candidates are talking about energy and climate, how their plans compare, and how the conversation is evolving.
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The Full Transcript
Kristin Hayes: Welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future.
I'm your host, Kristin Hayes. I'm very pleased to be joined today on the podcast by Joe Aldy, professor of the practice of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and a university fellow here at RFF. Joe has been in the RFF family for many years. He worked here as a fellow from 2005 to 2008 and then left in 2009 to serve as the special assistant to the president for energy and environment, reporting through both the National Economic Council and the Office of Energy and Climate change at the White House.
So given this experience, as both a researcher and a policymaker, Joe seemed like the perfect person to kick off our mini podcast series accompanying the Candidate Tracker. For those of you who may not have yet seen it, the Candidate Tracker was developed to compare and contrast the positions of the 2020 presidential candidates from both major political parties on a range of climate and energy related topics. It's available online at www.rff.org/candidatetracker.
And we felt like one of the best ways to make the Candidate Tracker more RFF-y was to provide some deeper-dive analysis on a number of issues under discussion by the candidates, and it seemed like Resources Radio would be in fact a great venue for those deeper dives. So listeners will see several podcasts come out over the next few months in this miniseries, and this first one with Joe is designed to offer some big picture commentary on how the candidates are talking about energy and climate, how their plans compare, and how the conversation is evolving. So thanks for joining us for the beginning of our candidate tracker miniseries, and stay with us.
Joe, it is a pleasure to be talking with you this afternoon. Thank you for joining us on Resources Radio.
Joseph Aldy: Kristin, it's a pleasure for me to be here. Thanks for having me.
Kristin Hayes: Good. I feel like it's taken us a long time to get you on the podcast and I'm very glad that we now have an opportunity. But I want to note for our listeners that, as mentioned at the outset, this podcast is a little bit different than our usual fare. It's actually the first in our Candidate Tracker series, which accompanies our online Candidate Tracker. But that being said, I don't want to miss the opportunity for our usual introduction, so can you tell us a little bit more about your background and how you started working on environmental economics and policy?
Joseph Aldy: So I think my interests began with growing up on a farm outside of Lexington, Kentucky where I spent a lot of time outdoors. And then after college and a master's program, I started in the government as a presidential management fellow where I wound up working on the Kyoto Protocol and that's when I first got engaged on climate change policy as a junior staff for the Council of Economic Advisers. It then spurred a lot of my interests in research on these issues that I continued in my PhD program. And then I started my post-PhD career at Resources for the Future, and have continued to work on this in both research and policy engagement, and [for] sometime in government. I worked the first two years in the Obama White House on energy and climate change issues as well.
Kristin Hayes: Right. All right, so you've seen a lot of the dialogue unfold here around this topic and yeah, I'm very happy that you were willing to join us today to sort of give our big picture opening podcasts related to the Candidate Tracker. Again, I'm just going to remind our listeners that's available online at www.rff.org/candidatetracker. And the focus of the tool that we built is to highlight candidates' stated positions, candidates from both parties, their stated positions on a range of energy and climate related topics.
And so Joe, let me start by asking you this: At this point, a number of candidates have released formal climate policy plans, a number of those were the focus of Climate Town Hall not too long ago, so in big terms, how would you describe them? Are they more similar than different? What themes across those plans jump out at you?
Joseph Aldy: So Kristin, I think there's three things that jump out at me. First is the common theme of a Green New Deal, and this is something which I think has changed public interests in the climate change issue. It started to bring in constituencies and stakeholders who haven't always thought that much or in much depth about climate change. And it's clear across a whole host of plans here that the candidates are thinking about their program as part of a Green New Deal.
Now to be fair, I think that a lot of what they have in these plans may deliver on some of what we know of as the Green New Deal in terms of the resolution introduced earlier this year, but there are certainly elements of what some of the advocates, the progressive advocates for a Green New Deal, have pushed for that's not in these plans. I would say that these plans have a lot more of the green part of the Green New Deal than the new deal part of the Green New Deal, so they really do tend to still be quite focused on climate and energy.
I would say the second thing is the striking similarity in the emission goals, the long-term emission goals. So virtually every Democratic candidate wants to get to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions between 2045 and 2050. That's a really ambitious goal, but it's fascinating how that is common across all of them and it's clearly more aggressive than say, what then-Senator Obama ran on in 2008, wanting to cut emissions 80 percent by 2050. Or what Senator McCain [ran on] that year, to cut emissions 60 percent by 2050.
So the third thing I would say is in many of these plans it appears that they have done a brainstorming session to identify all possible policy options and they want to implement all of them. There are a lot of different policy instruments trying to tackle the emissions problem, whether it's pricing carbon—some are more explicit in how they would do that than others, and we can talk about that in a little bit, a lot of interest in continuing various kinds of tax credits for zero-carbon technologies or technologies that may enable more renewable power—such as an investment tax credit transmission or trying to support battery storage, and interest in government financing of clean energy technologies, emphasis in using standards. And in some cases, they seem a bit in conflict, where you have really aggressive interest in pushing out electric vehicles and at the same time a really aggressive interest in a low-carbon fuel standard. And in some sense, you want them to make a decision. Are we going to have electric cars or liquid fuel cars? Because it doesn't make sense to push super aggressive on both because they're going to be competing with one another.
But part of that is just going to be if one of these candidates ends up becoming president-elect, one of the key things I'll be doing is trying to sort of parse down from this huge set of policy options that they said they support, to what will be the priority issues they'll pursue first, and then think about the others as backups to their program.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah, and that actually … Well, I want to come back to that question of the Green New Deal because that's actually a topic that we struggled with determining how to characterize as part of the Tracker. But before I do that, you sort of led me very neatly into one of my next questions so I'll jump to that. How much do policy specifics matter at this point? So candidates, as you noted, they've sort of thrown in the kitchen sink as a potential option. Some of them, I would argue, have provided much more detail about their policy plans than others, but you're right, a lot of them have multiple components and numbers of instruments that they're looking at. So how much does that matter right now? Does it actually help a candidate or potentially limit a candidate by coming out too strongly for a certain set of options too early in the game?
Joseph Aldy: Well, I think there's certainly pros and cons. The first pro is you're really signaling your seriousness about this issue. And I think you're doing that strategically because you want to engage, say younger adults, a constituency that doesn't normally vote at high rates, and say, "I know that this is a major issue for you. I may be a generation or two older than you, I may not be around when the worst of climate change hits, but you will be. And I hear you and here's what I plan to do to address your concerns if I'm elected president." So I think it's a way of really tailoring your message to get at the vote of those voters who are in their late teens and 20s.
I think the second is that you can be strategic in how you highlight specific elements of your plan, depending on which audience you're addressing. So you want to discuss the prospects for low carbon fuels and transportation when you're in Iowa, getting ready for the Iowa caucuses. You may be having a session where you have a large labor audience and you want to talk about all the different ways you think your plan is going to increase manufacturing jobs. You may be in California, in Silicon Valley, and you want to talk about how you're going to be creating these incentives for innovative technologies that they're going to help develop and finance. So part of it is that by having a lot of details, you can then sort of be strategic in how you use that to signal to the voters why they should vote for you in, the primaries and then hopefully in the general election if you get that far.
Now having said that, I think there's a risk here that some of these platforms get described as being too prescriptive or, as I'm sure some of the critics on the right will call it, as being socialist. The bar to be called socialist is pretty low. Having said that, a couple of these plans clear that bar quite easily.
I think there's also the risk that you start to pick some potential fights that aren't first tier fights to have. You don't want to expend political capital on them. But there's some here where, a couple of candidates talk about basically the equivalent of federal building codes. This is something that has been fought off and on since the 1970s; we have still to this day, let state and local governments be in charge of building codes. Or a lot of interest in trying to finance a lot more transmission and that gets into a lot of local NIMBY issues that can be quite politically fraud at the local level. So there's a risk that you start sort of picking some of these fights about what's the right role for the federal government versus state and local governments. And especially in a world where some state and local governments feel like they've been moving way ahead of the federal government because they're tired of waiting on the federal government, they may not like then, the federal government trying to use their role.
The last thing I would say is, you create—by being very detailed like this—specific targets for criticism, and you risk getting into the weeds about some of your policy choices on implementation without focusing on the top level contrast of what you're trying to do to address climate change, and what President Trump is not doing on climate change.
So there are some risks here, but I think the key thing is, if you think that to be in the game, you've got to signal your seriousness with the program, you can't complain about, really, the incredible wealth of ideas that are put forth through all the proposals.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah. No, I would agree with that. And I do think, if I can sort of paraphrase one of the things you said, but it does feel like one of the big risks here is that you end up negotiating a policy before you've even gotten nominated, right? By putting yourself out there in that way. But I do agree with you that it certainly does signal a level of seriousness and a priority to this issue, and a level of thought that's gone into how candidates are treating this issue that I think is an important change from past campaigns that I've followed.
So maybe a related question for you, Joe. For folks who are trying to pick their preferred candidate, are there other signals that candidates are giving, that climate is a priority for them, aside from the detailed nature of their policy plans? Or in other words, how can we tell which candidates would put energy, environment issues at the top of their agenda? Or is that impossible to know at this point?
Joseph Aldy: So first I think it's the sharp contrast that matters, that each one of these Democratic candidates would place climate clearly on the agenda, and that is incredibly different from what the incumbent in the White House who sleeps with a lump of coal at night does. I mean, you're actually going to have someone who wants to do something positive on this issue. And the question is do you think that they're going to make it their number one issue? And I think it's tough. I mean some of the most aggressive climate and energy plans are coming from candidates who want to do aggressive policy on higher education funding, for reforming the healthcare system, for how we think about financial regulation. There's a lot of different issues that are competing with them.
I think there are two things that would signal to me the seriousness that it would be a first year policy priority. One is an appreciation that this isn't the number one environment issue, but this is an issue that comes up when we think about national security, that this is an issue that comes up when we think about investment in public infrastructure, that this is an issue that comes up when we think about workforce needs in the United States, that it's something that you recognize is going to be a determining factor for how well some of our policies work in this space and how we ought to be tailoring those policies.
I think the second signal of seriousness that this is a first year policy priority is to hear a little bit more about what their plans are for implementation. I'm not sure we're going to get rid of the filibuster in the Senate. My guess is senators don't really care about the opinion of the executive about the filibuster. You’ve got some of the people saying this who are current members of the Senate. But having said that, the fact that you have a discussion of should we get rid of the filibuster to move our climate change agenda, it reflects an understanding that it's really difficult to move climate change policy because of the typical voting rules in the Senate. And so to me, that's a sign that yes, they know they need new legislative authorities to deliver on their very ambitious goals, but that we're going to have to have potentially a really big political fight on changing the way one of the chambers of Congress does its business.
But I think it's important to recognize that there's a number of things that a president, a new president, can do moving on climate. Some which the president, the White House can just do on their own. Some they can do by working with our regulatory agencies to use existing statutory authorities to move regulations. And some of it is how they're going to have to work with Congress. And I think a lot of it will depend on what they say is going to be that first hundred days deliverable on climate is, I think, a good way to sort of get a sense of just how important this is going to be and how much political capital they plan to expend to make that happen.
Kristin Hayes: Right. Yeah. I've found myself wishing during the town hall that there had been an opportunity to ask the candidates about their “how” as much as their “what.” And I think it speaks to that very point that on some level all the plans and targets in the world still have to translate into real policy action in order for any of those targets to be achieved. And so I do think that question of what levers will you use, what strategies will you try is a really important one. And I wish there were a way to capture a little bit more of that in the Tracker, but we haven't quite mastered that yet.
Joseph Aldy: Let me make one suggestion on that.
Kristin Hayes: Sure.
Joseph Aldy: We have a lot of individuals who are current or former members of Congress and a number of them have either introduced or co-sponsored energy, environment, and climate legislation in the past. I think it might be worth including an entry in the Candidate Tracker that includes say a link to those bills they have supported in the past.
Kristin Hayes: Okay. That's a great idea.
Joseph Aldy: Here's one that I want to see because I'm finding it curious that Senator Sanders is not talking about a carbon tax.
Kristin Hayes: Right, when he used to but-
Joseph Aldy: Not only did he used to, he did in the 2016 campaign, and he introduced a carbon tax bill in 2015.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah.
Joseph Aldy: It was fascinating that with the CNN town hall, he was the only one of those 10 Democratic candidates who did not support carbon pricing either during the town hall or had previously done so in his climate and energy platform.
Kristin Hayes: Right. That is actually a very interesting example that you highlight because we had originally placed him in the “favors carbon pricing” category based on statements that he made three years ago. And then it became apparent pretty quickly that he had lost a bit of his fervor, or at least publicly lost a bit of his fervor for that topic. And so yeah, I think looking at how the candidates have potentially changed over time as well and what … Aside from the Green New Deal, which I realize is definitely a 2019 concept, but are there other positions that they've modified or expanded upon or embraced that they didn't embrace before? So that's really good-
Joseph Aldy: It reflects, I think, one of the tensions that we see between the Green New Deal and legislative policy proposals, which is to say my sense is where there are a lot of the efforts, thinking about legislative language and titles of a climate policy bill, that when we think about new authorities to reduce emissions, it's one of two flavors. It's some kind of carbon tax or some kind of national clean energy standard. And recognizing there are others, whether you want to do a big infrastructure program, I can see that with a climate framing, climate could potentially play a big role in that.
But in the sense of what kind of policies do you want to drive down emissions? It's those two kinds of policies which are really trying to leverage market incentives to drive the deployment of new technologies that lower emissions and to drive innovation so that we have a better lower cost, more effective suite of technologies in the future. There's a tension between that and some of the Green New Deal rhetoric that tends to not be very market friendly. And so I think that that comes out some as well between like, yes we want to rely on some of these more market oriented policies, but we're also going to layer on a bunch of other things because to be honest, we're not sure we fully trust a market-based approach to dealing with this problem.
Kristin Hayes: Right. Yeah. And I will take this opportunity to jump all the way back to the Green New Deal and your comments about how … Well, certainly all the Democratic candidates have come out in support of the Green New Deal. But I personally, I found it a bit hard to define in a way that would actually allow me to parse out what the policy components of the Green New Deal that each individual candidate was supporting, what those really were. And I guess I'm just wondering if you feel like you have enough clarity and you know what it means for a candidate to be supporting the Green New Deal, or is that still amorphous enough that it can mean multiple things to multiple people?
Joseph Aldy: I think President Trump also supports the Democrats supporting the Green New Deal.
Kristin Hayes: I think that's true. I think he's said that explicitly.
Joseph Aldy: Yes. So it's like sustainability, when sustainability really came into vote a few decades ago, everyone was for sustainability and then we realized we're not really sure how to define it. And it's that kind of ambiguity that created a space for a lot of people to sort of embrace the concept. And to me, the real question is sort of, well what does it look like in practice when you're trying to move legislation? And if I were in the next administration and my boss ran on Green New Deal or whatever we got done, I would say that delivers the Green New Deal. It's one of these things where you're going to exploit the ambiguity and declare victory, and that's just part of the political messaging.
There are some very ambitious goals in the Green New Deal and so you do have to be aware of the fact that if you're moving legislation or regulations, or what have you, that have goals that are clearly different from what has been in the Green New Deal in the past, you need to think about how you message on that. But if we're in a world in which we become quite aggressive in how we use our regulatory authorities on fuel economy and appliance standards and we get new authorities, whether it's to tax carbon, or something else to expand the Clean Air Act, to tackle climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, I think you call that at a minimum, the down payment on a Green New Deal.
And that's one of the things too that's going to be important, is to think about both the short-term and the long-term on Green New Deal. I think in order to be politically viable to say, "Yes, this is an important first year," you're going to have to deliver something on the climate agenda early in the first year of a new administration, if a Democrat is elected. But you should also recognize the New Deal itself took years and a large number of bills to become law. And so you may be doing some things initially and building up momentum and moving forward and then that sets the foundation for the more ambitious policies that you would pursue in years two, three and four, and if you're reelected then into the second term.
So I don't think we should be expecting to judge any of these candidates if they become president on whether or not they delivered on the Green New Deal by the year 2021. But they do need to send some signals of, yes we're making down payments on that Green New Deal and we're setting ourselves up for even more and more success down the line.
Kristin Hayes: So Joe, I'm going to ask you one more sort of candidate related question and then I think we probably need to move towards our closing feature here, but I wanted to ask … So you and I have talked about a couple of things that we could potentially add to the Tracker, we've identified a few of those and we've actually listed them on the website, things that we know we want to add, including how candidates are anticipating using any revenues from carbon pricing policies, for example. So this question of green spending and how do you take all that money and reinvest it into the economy to sort of drive additional emissions reductions. But aside from the Tracker itself and sort of what else we should be capturing there, I wanted to ask one bigger picture question, which is, are there issues that you feel like the candidates aren't even talking about? So not just things that we haven't captured but that they haven't even captured? And beyond the climate change conversation, recognizing that that's the focus of the tracker, but should candidates be coming out more strongly and clearly on water policy or biodiversity policy or forest policy? I'd love your opinion on that.
Joseph Aldy: No.
Kristin Hayes: Oh, okay.
Joseph Aldy: No. So I think there's this challenge where they're all trying to be very progressive on climate. Even the least progressive of the Democratic candidates is night and day difference with President Trump. And on these other dimensions, whether it's clean water, whether it's land use policy, whether it's protecting biodiversity, I suspect that even the least progressive of the Democratic candidates will also be night and day different with President Trump. So I think it's fine, that issue in the broader energy and environment space that can really energize the public, draw people to support you in the primaries, draw people out to the polls and mobilize them in the general. And I think my sense is, when I look at the media coverage, when I look at the polling, the Green New Deal frame and tackling the existential threat of climate change is that first tier issue. It makes it as one of a small set of issues that every candidate has to address. And I don't want to say that some of these other environmental issues aren't important, but I don't think they are as politically salient to such a large part of the population as what climate change is right now. And I think the very high correlation between what kind of policies and actions a Democratic president would take to address climate change, probably going to be similar kinds of actions on these other environmental issues.
Kristin Hayes: So differentiating between what they might want to tackle once in office versus what really, again, motivates people during a campaign. That's a good way to think about it so. All right, Joe, well this has been very fun.
Joseph Aldy: I've enjoyed it, Kristin. Thank you.
Kristin Hayes: Good. Good. So I will close with our regular feature, which is called Top of the Stack. I don't know if you've heard any of our top of the stacks before, but this is my chance to ask you to share with our listeners something that you've been reading, watching, listening to, something that is proverbially on the top of your reading stack that you might want to recommend. So tell us, Joe, what's on the top of your stack?
Joseph Aldy: So this is literally on the top of my stack. I printed this out a couple of hours ago, and I'll be honest, I'm recommending something for which I've only read the abstract.
Kristin Hayes: Okay.
Joseph Aldy: But I'm going to read it and I think—
Kristin Hayes: But you're sold.
Joseph Aldy: I'm sold.
Kristin Hayes: Okay.
Joseph Aldy: So this is a paper by Kent Daniel, Bob Litterman, who's on the board of directors at RFF, and Gernot Wagner on declining carbon dioxide price paths, and it appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences online today. So that's why I just printed it.
Kristin Hayes: Right, hot off the presses.
Joseph Aldy: I've talked some with Gernot about this work previously, so I have a sense of what they are talking about here. But the key thing is trying to think through, using some of the insights on how we think about accounting for managing risk from financial analysis, using that to inform how we think about managing climate change risk and what the long term price on carbon should be and the sort of, if you will, result that's contrary to a lot of the conventional literature, and why I think it would be interesting to read, is that they suggest that the carbon price should start out quite high, and then actually decline over time. Whereas a lot of other analysis might suggest the opposite.
Kristin Hayes: Right, sure.
Joseph Aldy: I mean you might want to really enjoy math to truly appreciate this paper, but I think it provides some good food for thought when we think about the design of carbon tax and carbon pricing policies.
Kristin Hayes: Well, maybe we should just get Bob Litterman on the podcast to talk about that piece of work then. That sounds great. You just gave me an idea for another show, so thanks, Joe.
Joseph Aldy: I bet Bob would love to do it.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah. Yeah. Great. Great. Well, thank you for that recommendation. That sounds very timely and relevant to our conversation too, about policy design writ large. So with that, Joe, I think we will wrap up. Thank you again for joining us on Resources Radio.
Joseph Aldy: Well, I've enjoyed it. Thanks for having me, Kristin.
Kristin Hayes: You've been listening to Resources Radio. Thanks for tuning in. If you have a minute, we'd really appreciate you leaving us a rating or a comment on your podcast platform of choice. Also, feel free to send us your suggestions for future episodes.
Resources Radio is a podcast from Resources for the Future. RFF is an independent nonprofit research institution in Washington DC. Our mission is to improve environmental energy and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. Learn more about us at rff.org.
The views expressed on this podcast are solely those of the participants. They do not necessarily represent the views of Resources for the Future, which does not take institutional positions on public policies. Resources Radio is produced by Elizabeth Wason with music by Daniel Raimi. Join us next week for another episode.