News Story

February 28, 2011

On Acting in Time: An Interview with HKS Dean David Ellwood

David Ellwood ’75, has been dean of Harvard Kennedy School since 2004. One of the nation’s leading scholars on policy and welfare, he also played an important role in developing and implementing social policy while serving in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services during the Clinton administration. Harvard Center for the Environment Director Daniel P. Schrag interviewed Ellwood on October 28, 2010. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Daniel Schrag:  When you think about Harvard’s role in the broad challenges of energy and environment, it is Harvard’s impact on policy and the real world that really sets it apart from other universities. The focal point for that effort is the Kennedy School. Your own background in domestic social policy and poverty is obviously quite different from climate change or energy policy. Yet, you’ve been a strong supporter of the Center for the Environment and of the involvement of your faculty. I suspect there are lessons that you can bring from your own experience in terms of translating scholarship into policy, and policy into action.
David Ellwood:  Let me start by commenting on something that I know you’ve been quite involved with, Dan, which is the Acting in Time project. [The AIT project, begun by Ellwood, is developing a body of research on how leaders and citizens can recognize and respond to pending disasters before they become calamities.] When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, there was an outcry about the poor government response: the sense that it was slow, that federal agencies didn’t notice that there were people left in the Civic Center, and so on. We should have done better, although I think we understand why that was an unusual situation: it turns out that our emergency response units other than the Coast Guard are not pre-pared for dealing with water everywhere.    
   But that is not the tragedy of Katrina, in my view. The tragedy of Katrina is that everyone knew it would happen. Everyone had New Orleans as one of the top two or three most likely places where a natural disaster would cause immense destruction.

Schrag:  The Friday before Katrina, there was an excellent article in the New York Times that explained exactly what was going to happen in New Orleans.
Ellwood:  There had been articles in the Times Picayune in New Orleans. A year before, there had even been simulation exercises. Indeed, the press release from that exercise reads just like the press release from the real thing. And the real thing wasn’t as bad as the exercise had projected. By the time Katrina hit, it was only a category three hurricane. Modest improvements in the levees would have prevented the disaster and yet, for whatever reason, we were
unable or unwilling to act.
   I call that an “act anytime” problem: a problem you can see coming a mile away, but for some reason, you are unwilling or unable to act. It turns out that there is a whole class of such issues out there. Certainly, the most important among them is energy and climate change because there is just no doubt that there is a very serious risk. Even if the odds aren’t one hundred percent, the
potential danger is catastrophic.
   Even more notable is that the climate problem has a nonlinearity to it, a set of feedbacks that could lead to an uncontrollable runaway effect. Waiting longer makes the problem much more expensive to deal with, so acting soon is critical.
   To make that happen, you need science. You need engineering. But you also need to involve business, government, and civil society. None of the remarkable engineering scholarship that goes on in universities as well as in private industry will be useful unless some other set of forces is moved to action. Solving this problem means raising the effective price of carbon. It means advancing technology in places where the private sector won’t do it on its own. It means thinking about a whole series of strategies that are clearly going to involve government, often as the leader, and certainly as a major player. There is just no scenario in which private industry and civil societies come together and say, “We are going to do this; we are just going to stop emitting carbon.” This is a problem where it is absolutely essential to bring all these parties together.
   Harvard is a perfect place to attempt this. We have spectacular people in science and engineering. The President’s chief science advisor is the Kennedy School’s Heinz professor of environmental policy John Holdren—I had a fascinating discussion with him just a couple of days ago—who also holds a joint appointment [as professor of environmental science and public policy] in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The school also has economists who work on environmental issues and think about what kind of policies might actually work to effect change. The University has people focused on technology and on energy. It has a whole range of people thinking about sustainable development. It has the Business School and the School of Public Health, since the health implications of climate change are enormous. There is not only an opportunity for a place like Harvard to take on these long-term challenges, but an unbelievable responsibility to do so.

Schrag:  Three years ago, it looked like climate change was no longer going to be a partisan issue. Now, suddenly it is more partisan than ever. In the most recent election, it was reported that 29 out of 31 republican senatorial candidates officially didn’t believe in climate change. The Tea Party seems to think that climate change is fiction, that somehow it is part of a liberal socialist elitist agenda.
   In the sense that climate change policy has become politicized, it mirrors tax policy and other domestic social policies in a variety of ways. I am interested in how these issues are becoming commingled in the United States. Based on your experience in domestic social policy, how do you think about action on climate change?  
Ellwood:  Most of my work has been on social policy, and poverty and welfare reform in particular. I was one of the people leading the efforts for welfare reform during the 1990s. And it was an unbelievably partisan issue. Welfare was a code word for liberal. There was a huge underlying racial facet to it. When people ran for office, they would talk about welfare queens. Ronald Reagan used to talk about that.

Schrag:  A woman on welfare driving an expensive car.
Ellwood:  Exactly. It was the classic divisive issue. Politicians would just attack welfare mercilessly. Part of what happened in welfare reform was that a group of liberals figured out that maybe the welfare system was part of the problem; that government shouldn’t be in the check-writing business, it should be in the help-people-help-themselves business; and that there might be an alternative that would involve more support for working people, but that would probably mean cutting back on the traditional check writing aspect and saying, “Okay, at some point, you are going to have to go to work. We’ll make sure you have a job and training.” That changed the dialogue completely. A bill was passed—one that I was not entirely happy with—but you never hear anybody talk about welfare queens anymore.  
   So, part of what has to happen is you have to advance an issue so that it no longer falls along traditional fault lines. I would urge people not to generalize from the recent election. We are in a really tough economic situation. People are hurting and frankly, tackling climate change is going to cost us.

Schrag:  Fighting climate change will be a fifty- or a hundred-year battle. Still, it is discouraging to postpone it.
Ellwood:  And very costly. Comparing it to some of the other problems we’ve been studying as part of the Acting in Time project, climate change is interesting because it carries every one of the markers associated with making a problem tough. Marker number one is uncertainty in the scientific or professional community. Human beings are terrible at dealing with uncertainty, especially when it entails sacrifices. People think, “The experts can’t even agree.”

Schrag:  That didn’t stop us from going into Iraq.
Ellwood:  I would say that Iraq is a very different kind of issue because it came on the heels of a rather dramatic event in New York City. If there were some sort of catastrophic climate event, the world would change instantly on the politics.

Schrag:  Absolutely. My optimistic view is that some climate-related crisis might occur, and that this would wake people up. This happened briefly in Australia. Climate change was low on the political agenda and then they had record droughts that really scared people. Suddenly, climatechange was an important issue. Now, interest is waning again. That is the problem. For many of the issues studied as part of the Acting In Time project, a crisis is a great opportunity to act. The problem with climate change is that it requires doing something persistently for several decades at least, if not beyond. Political memory is short.
Ellwood:  You’ve got two choices. You can go home, pack your bags and say, “This is terrible, I am going to find really high ground.” Or we can say, “The hardest, most important problems in the world are important and hard and that is why we haven’t solved them.” Climate change involves a really tough set of issues, but there are a few insights here that you can use.   
   Number one is that you have to do something to make the problem vivid. That’s vital. So, if there is a drought or a series of hurricanes, you should use that to make things vivid.
   But another interesting point to remember is that politics can make strange bedfellows. You have to bring unusual coalitions together that break down some of the traditional boundaries. Remember the hole in the ozone layer?  

Schrag:  Yes, DuPont came to the table on that issue.
Ellwood:  DuPont came to the table. Why did they come to the table?  Because they invented an alternative to CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons that broke down the atmosphere’s protective ozone layer).

Schrag:  Yes, that has influenced my thinking. In fact, I’ve been giving talks here at the Kennedy School about the role of the natural gas industry, because by emitting the least carbon dioxide per unit of energy among the fossil fuels, they are the winners under a carbon tax.
Ellwood:  Exactly. Another interesting question of particular relevance to this University is one that I have asked around the world: “What institution, group, or individual in your country has so much credibility that if they said ‘This is a problem that we must deal with,’ everyone would sit up and listen?” We used to have that: Walter Cronkite was often introduced as the most trusted man in America. When he said, “Vietnam was a mistake,” the world changed.
   But it turns out those institutions are rare. In a few places that trusted role will be held by the church. In other places, it may be an individual. Sometimes it is a group. Universities at their best have that kind of credibility, but to have an influence, they have to work in ways that are seen as honest and straightforward. Veritas is our motto. That is what we are all about at universities. Investing in high-quality university work that also engages with business and engineering enhances that credibility.

Schrag:  In terms of the ramifications of addressing climate change, I think about domestic social policy and poverty. White flight from urban areas was driven in many ways by the transportation act, a Cold War effort to dilute cities, build highways, and suburbanize America. All of the racial and poverty issues, tax issues, and much of the social wrangling of the sixties, seventies, and eighties were a consequence of policies that had implications for energy and the environment. We are talking about reversing those: reurbanizing; changing transportation systems. The social and political implications of that are profound.
Ellwood:  I think you make the point very vividly. If we think this is just an engineering challenge, or just a matter of convincing people that there is a problem, we are not going to get anywhere. We have to recognize that this is a very real, right-in-the-center-of-the-gut kind of problem that we have to understand, think through, and provide answers for. We must try to understand what is going to make a difference, how it is going to affect people’s lives, and how we can mitigate the impacts. Or how we can make it work in an exciting and compelling way. This is as hard a problem as there is, but it is an important problem, and that is why I think it is the work of great scholars, great scientists, great schools, and great universities. That is one of the reasons I am so excited to be a part of this effort.

This article originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2011 issue of Environment@Harvard.

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