Yes and no.
Larry Summers is widely regarded as a very brilliant economist. I can’t dispute that. He was also the lead horse among the economists in the Clinton administration who were using every trick they knew to undermine any serious effort toward negotiating an international agreement on restricting greenhouse gases in Kyoto, Japan (see here and below).
He appears to remain firmly in the camp of most MEOWs (Mainstream Economists who Opine on Weather) in that he
- Doesn’t understand climate science enough to realize how dire the situation is
- Doesn’t propose remedies that would avert the irreversible catastrophe we face.
That seems clear from his two-part series on climate in the Financial Times in 2007 (Part 1 and Part 2). By his own admission, he proposes polices that are “less dramatic in their immediate claims for emissions reductions” than what the world has been considering. These include more R&D, of course, and an end to energy subsidies, plus:
The US must engage in an energy efficiency programme that takes effect without delay and has meaningful bite. As long as developing countries can point to the US as a free rider there will not be serious dialogue about what they are willing to do. I prefer carbon and/or gasoline tax measures to permit systems or heavy regulatory approaches because the latter are more likely to be economically inefficient and to be regressive
First off, the “and/or” is odd, since the “or” undermines the whole message. A gasoline tax is obviously not going to touch coal, and it is obviously not “economically efficient” if your goal is carbon reductions.
Second, it is odd economics to described an “energy efficiency” program as being driven by price, when high carbon prices primarily drive fuel switching. You would need incredibly high CO2 prices to drive efficiency in transportation (see “Why a carbon cap won’t solve our oil addiction“), something Summers has never endorsed as far as I’ve seen. Also, even his new boss knows a gas tax is a politically dubious strategy for pushing efficiency (see Obama is right: Higher gasoline taxes to boost efficiency would be “a mistake”). Fortunately, his boss also understands that smart regulations make more sense in the transportation sector (see “Obama to push for California waiver that mandates cut in auto CO2 emissions“).
In any case, if Summers won’t specify a domestic emissions target let alone a global one — and won’t specify how high a carbon or gasoline tax he has in mind, then it is impossible to view his policies as a serious addition to the debate or know if he is really serious at all. He is just another mainstream economist opining on a subject that he has not bothered to become knowledgeable enough on to make a useful contribution.
But does it matter that a MEOW, in this case a very clever kitty, is the head of the president’s powerful National Economic Council? The NYT says it does matter a lot in “In Obama’s Team, Two Camps on Climate,” which pits Summers against Carol Browner, who will oversee Obama’s energy and climate policy, and which ignores the rest of his amazing Cabinet.
I argue it does not in my latest Salon piece, “Real science comes to Washington” by way of my experience in the Clinton Administration: