In a single, very personal way, I benefited from Trump’s election victory. It led to an amazing mother-daughter bonding experience last weekend when I took my 14-year-old daughter to the Women’s March on Washington.
It may not surprise blog readers that I voted against Trump in the election. After all, I’m a Californian who thinks deeply about climate change and environmental policy, values facts, cares about social justice, free speech… the list goes on. After the election, I felt an intense maternal instinct to show my daughter that many people were vehemently opposed to the racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, sexism, etc. articulated – if that’s the right verb to describe policymaking by tweet – by our President. And, I was fortunate to have enough frequent flier miles to fund our trip.
In any case, the march, subsequent debates about liberal alliances, and discussions with my colleagues about what the next four years might bring for energy and the environment have led me to do a lot of soul searching about how I spend my days and how much I’m contributing to the common good.
In particular, I’ve written blog posts that highlight problems with existing clean energy or environmental policies. I’ve expressed skepticism of off-grid solar in Africa, some energy efficiency programs, and the benefits of rooftop solar.
I’m wondering, though, if I should hold back in the coming years? In the era of fake news and “alternative facts”, is a reasoned critique of some part of an environmental policy more likely to be used by opponents to kill it entirely?
I’ve contemplated an answer to this question on several levels:
Practical – there will be many fewer environmental and clean energy policies to critique in the coming years, so it doesn’t matter what I say.
But, this isn’t a satisfying answer. While it’s very likely true at the federal level, California already seems to be stepping up its game around climate change. And, as a local, it’s in many ways easier for me to engage here.
So, if California is going to move into even more of a leadership role on climate change and other environmental policies, that’s all the more reason to get it right.
Principled – I’m an academic and I uncover facts. Facts speak for themselves so I shouldn’t be swayed by politics.
I’m all for this, but it oversimplifies. I have the latitude to pick which projects I spend time on, and I try to prioritize policy-relevant topics. But, the election has changed what’s policy-relevant and the range of potential policy levers. With many treasured energy and environmental policies now on the chopping block, I need to recognize that my research and blogs could be received differently in this new political environment.
Metaphysical – critiques are an inevitable part of life as an energy economist.
Almost every economist – from labor to macro – has what I would describe as “cancer research envy.” A number of us have been in situations where we’re vying for attention, say at an event with big campus donors, with a medical researcher who seems to be making progress on something that could help in the fight against cancer. It’s hard to get the crowd riled up about tax policy or a subtle critique of cap-and-trade next to that.
But, at some level, what we are doing is even more basic research than the molecular chemist behind the cancer discoveries. That’s because economists do research that helps all of us understand and ultimately decide how much money goes to cancer researchers instead of diabetes and to medical research instead of more virtual reality video games. What government allocations, philanthropic decisions or tax policies cause cancer researchers to get more or fewer resources? And, why did the creative and driven scientist decide to go into medical research and not investment banking? At the most basic level, economics is about how societies allocate scarce resources.
Economists have a lot in common with my paternal grandmother who was a teenager during the Great Depression. We absolutely hate waste. (My grandmother kept a refrigerator shelf full of the free ketchups from McDonalds.) Rooftop solar may do some good for the environment, but if it’s not the best way to reduce climate change and local pollution, I’m going to write blogs that criticize it.
After all, if we’re spending too much money fighting climate change, that’s money that we could be spending on lots of other things that society values, like cancer research.
So, I think I need to keep uncovering new facts and writing blogs to help fine-tune the policies and decisions on energy and the environment. Just remember, a dollar saved on energy policy is a dollar we can use somewhere else, whether it’s buying yarn to knit a pink pussy hat or buying a “Make America Great Again” hat – whatever suits your fancy.
Catherine Wolfram is Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and the Cora Jane Flood Professor of Business Administration at the Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley. She is the Program Director of the National Bureau of Economic Research's Environment and Energy Economics Program, Faculty Director of The E2e Project, a research organization focused on energy efficiency and a research affiliate at the Energy Institute at Haas. She is also an affiliated faculty member of in the Agriculture and Resource Economics department and the Energy and Resources Group at Berkeley.
Wolfram has published extensively on the economics of energy markets. Her work has analyzed rural electrification programs in the developing world, energy efficiency programs in the US, the effects of environmental regulation on energy markets and the impact of privatization and restructuring in the US and UK. She is currently implementing several randomized controlled trials to evaluate energy programs in the U.S., Ghana, and Kenya.
She received a PhD in Economics from MIT in 1996 and an AB from Harvard in 1989. Before joining the faculty at UC Berkeley, she was an Assistant Professor of Economics at Harvard.