From college philosophy student to Peace Corps volunteer, Robert Stavins discusses his path to environmental economics at Harvard and the pragmatic questions that motivate him
By Erin Harleman, Harvard University Center for the Environment
Although his path to a career as an environmental economist was hardly linear, for Robert Stavins, sorting out the right questions to ask has informed his choices along the way. As an undergraduate student at Northwestern University, Stavins set out to study astrophysics, but found himself drawn to questions about cosmology, which prompted one of his professors to suggest philosophy. If you're wondering how one makes the leap from philosophy to economics, Stavins says, ""I had a mathematical approach to learning, and economics provided a way to address important social questions quantitatively. I still believe that what is most important is the set of questions that we ask, because the questions we ask limit tremendously the scope of feasible answers. I remain aware of that in the work I'm doing today.""
What set the course for Stavins' lifetime of work as an environmental economist was a post-undergraduate detour to Africa. With a philosophy degree in hand, Stavins joined the Peace Corps and spent four years working in Sierra Leone, West Africa on agricultural extension projects—specifically, rice paddy development. ""West Africa brought me face to face with the tradeoffs between economic development and environmental quality because it's quite dramatic in developing countries. You really see the stage of development where society evolves from agrarian to industrial, and as a result, goes from a pristine environmental state to a state of substantial environmental pollution,"" says Stavins. With a new lens through which to view the world, Stavins returned to the United States to pursue an M.S. degree in agricultural economics at Cornell University. From there, Stavins moved to California to work as an Environmental Defense Fund staff economist. ""At that point, there was a fork in the road. One fork was a law degree, which at the time was the most conventional path for an environmental advocate. But I was interested in taking a more quantitative approach, and that led me to Harvard to pursue a Ph.D in economics. And I never left!"" says Stavins.
As the A.J. Meyer Professor of Energy & Economic Development at the Kennedy School, where Stavins has been teaching courses on environmental and natural resource economics and policy since he graduated in 1988, Stavins' work focuses on both domestic and international climate change policies. Domestically, Stavins has examined policies affecting California and West Coast water supply and demand, and the costs and benefits of implementing various emissions-reducing policies. On a global scale, Stavins thinks about some of the key issues that remain for the 2016 Paris Agreement to achieve its full potential. Over his 30-year career, Stavins' research has focused on diverse areas of environmental economics and policy, including examinations of: marketÔÇæbased policy instruments; regulatory impact analysis; innovation and diffusion of pollutionÔÇæcontrol technologies; environmental benefit valuation; policy instrument choice under uncertainty; competitiveness effects of regulation; depletion of forested wetlands; political economy of policy instrument choice; and costs of carbon sequestration.
At Harvard, Stavins also serves as Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program (HEEP), which he also launched; Director of Graduate Studies for the Doctoral Program in Public Policy and the Doctoral Program in Political Economy and Government; Co-Chair of the Harvard Business School-Kennedy School Joint Degree Programs; and Director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements. He has published over 100 scholarly articles, and has contributed to dozens of books. Since 2009, Stavins has authored the blog, An Economic View of the Environment, and in 2019 he launched the podcast Environmental Insights, where he discusses policy and practice with the HEEP community and leading academics and policy makers beyond Harvard.
A unifying theme of Stavins' work is that he remains deeply interested in and committed to applying economic models and methods to solve real-world problems. ""I'm very pragmatic. My approach to the environment is not ethical or religious—and it's not an advocacy approach. I'm much more interested in reducing pollutant emissions than I am in demonizing the bad guys, which sometimes brings me into conflict with advocates and even with impassioned students,"" explains Stavins, who considers himself politically bipartisan and has worked with both Republican and Democratic administrations and lawmakers.
Stavins' pragmatic worldview extends beyond applying market-based tools to evaluate, design, and implement environmental policies. A longtime lover of wine, in 2006 Stavins became a founding editor of The Journal of Wine Economics, a triannual publication that examines all economic aspects of wine production and consumption, by and for self-proclaimed ""wine freaks."" Naturally, Stavins applies a simple economic model to a question many people ponder: what bottle of wine should I buy? ""For one thing, it depends upon one's income. If I was a billionaire, I would be drinking Romanée-Conti (Burgundy) on a regular basis. I've never tasted a bottle and I never will, because I'm not going to spend $18,000 on a bottle of wine. But if you drew a plot, and fitted a line to it, you would see a positive correlation of the better wines being more expensive,"" says Stavins, who offers a hopeful economic truth for the budget-minded: ""Fortunately, there are always outliers—you just have to know what you're looking for."