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Richard B. Howarth The Foundation for a Livable Future

Richard B. Howarth is a Professor of Environmental Studies

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The Foundation for a Livable Future

Rich Howarth’s work integrates economics, the environment and more

Today he’s a Dartmouth Professor of Environmental Studies—but Rich Howarth was in graduate school in 1987 when Our Common Future, a watershed report by the World Commission on Environment and Development, put the concept of sustainability on the map of world thought.

In Howarth’s own evolving education at that time, this notion fit right in. Since his undergraduate days at Cornell, where he majored in the interdisciplinary program Biology and Society, Howarth had been blending and building on his own academic interests: natural resource science, economics, and energy issues and policy. Now the emerging notion of sustainability sought to combine the economic, environmental and social aspects of study and policy. The goal was to find ways to strengthen the present without damaging the future: to meet the world’s human needs for growth and prosperity while also preserving or even renewing the world’s resources.

“That was fascinating in all kinds of ways,” Howarth says. “That formulation changed the ways that social scientists, economists, and all of us go about understanding what environmental policy is all about, and what resource and energy policy is about.”

Today “sustainability” can sometimes seem a watered-down word. But to Howarth it retains its meaning and is a useful frame for understanding his work—which still has multiple currents as he explores and tests ways of reclaiming environmental quality while benefiting the economy and human society, for both present and future generations.

“I’m interested in the big-picture question of how we manage the long-run relationship between economic growth and environmental quality,” he says. “I’m an environmental economist, and I’m interested in the interface between environmental economics and environmental studies. My whole work is about how these two fields interconnect and interrelate.”

Into this mix Howarth also blends some moral philosophy, some mathematical modeling, a bit of psychology and a recent focus on tax policy, as he seeks to contribute to the wider work of building the intellectual foundation of a livable future.

Engaged in Creating the Subject

Since completing his Ph.D. in 1990 at the University of California at Berkeley and joining the Dartmouth faculty in 1998, Howarth has coauthored the book Status, Growth, and the Environment, with Norwegian academic Kjell Arne Brekke, issued by Edward Elgar Publishing in 2002. He co-teaches Environmental Studies 3, “Environment and Society,” an integrative course he helped develop in his first teaching job at the University of California at Santa Cruz and brought with him to Dartmouth. He also teaches Environmental Studies courses that bring interdisciplinary perspectives to bear on energy issues and policy, and on natural resource economics.

“The teaching goes well with the kind of scholarship that I do,” Howarth observes. “If you’re interested in how economic theory hooks up with broad, cross-cutting, interdisciplinary ways of understanding environmental problems, that’s fundamentally what being a professor of environmental studies is all about.”

In fact, in this relatively new field, any good teacher has to be creating as he or she goes.

“Environmental studies isn’t a 100-year-old field where I can just pull textbooks off the shelf and say, ‘This is what it’s all about,’” Howarth says. “Instead, when I’m teaching the subject, I need to be actively engaged in creating the subject.”

His research and writing career have been similar, evolving as they have alongside the notion of sustainability. Having grown up in a small New Hampshire town, where he remembers writing booklets about pollution as a grade schooler, Howarth earned his A.B. at Cornell in 1985. He took a master’s degree focused on energy policy at the University of Wisconsin in 1987, then collected his Berkeley doctorate in 1990. His Ph.D. dissertation focused on the economics of natural resource scarcity, and on managing the interrelationship among environment and economy in ways that are fair to both present and future generations.

“My years at Berkeley were transformative for me,” Howarth recalls. “With a strong background in environmental studies, science and technology studies, and energy and environmental policy, I went there specifically to work with my major professor, Richard Norgaard, an economist whose research program focused on issues of natural resource scarcity. At Berkeley I studied economic theory and its links to natural resource and environmental management.

“Quite early on, Norgaard and I started thinking and writing about issues of intergenerational fairness and their ties to economic theory,” he explains. “That early work still gets a fair amount of attention; and it also set the stage for much of my later research.”

Tools to Help Heal the Atmosphere

Working as a researcher from 1990–93 at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Howarth dealt in part with energy policy as a tool for addressing the problem of climate change. From then till now, a key focus of his research has been climate change—in particular, the strategy of taxing greenhouse gas emissions as a way of curbing global warming.

“I’m doing work on that now,” Howarth says. “It’s coming together.” Since human society and industry today produce about 10 tons of atmosphere-eroding greenhouse gases per year, levying a tax on emissions would produce “a lot of revenue,” he notes. If such taxes helped to reduce emissions, their benefit to future generations seems plain. But could these revenues be used in ways that also benefit the present-day economy and society?

Howarth believes they can. He argues, and uses mathematical modeling to predict, that relatively stiff taxes on greenhouse gas emissions today can have real benefits today, if their revenues are used to make optimal reductions in other types of taxes, particularly capital taxes.

In a 2003 paper, Howarth predicted that aggressive greenhouse gas emissions taxes, levied at amounts rising from $69–$713 per ton of emissions over the next 400 years, would impose “a net cost that rises from $0.1 trillion to $1.5 trillion per year between 2000 and 2070. After 2140, however, the policy yields positive net benefits that rise to a level of $8.3 trillion per year in the long-run future.”

If those predictions hold true, future generations—if they had a vote today—would surely vote for emissions taxes at levels like those. But what about the decision makers of today? Can current policymakers and economists be persuaded that levying a fairly stiff tax on industrial production and related activity will be worth the investment?

Part of Howarth’s answer is in urging that these tax revenues be used to cut capital taxes. That would greatly stimulate investment, economic growth, and people’s sense of well-being, he suggests. After all, with 10 billion tons of emissions per year, “you’re looking at a lot of revenue.

“The point is that if we use environmental tax revenues to reduce other taxes, we’re taxing something that’s harmful, giving people an incentive to emit less. At the same time we’re able to reduce tax rates on other things—and that’s something we see as being good and beneficial.”

The larger question is still whether investing in environmental repair for tomorrow, and for future generations, is worth the expense and effort today. That gets into a big part of Howarth’s work: the debate over discounting.

“Changing the Dials” of the Economy

“The theory of discounting is based on the assumption,” Howarth has written, “that people’s observed behavior in markets for savings and investment reveals their subjective preferences regarding tradeoffs between present and future economic benefits.” In other words, we tend to discount the value of investing in long-term returns. Psychology suggests that people are simply impatient. Also, Howarth writes, the future is uncertain—and though we might invest today to earn more in the future, the money we earn that way might not be worth as much then.

When we apply discounting to the economics of strategies to reduce climate change, we are indeed looking at “short-run costs and long-term benefit,” Howarth writes. But should we apply the same figuring to this type of investment that we might to a stock market play? In order to decide if it’s worthwhile to invest our resources in climate change, should we expect returns of about six percent per year, as we might from average-earning stocks?

No, Howarth argues. The choices an individual makes over whether to invest his or her money, he says, ought not to be seen as equivalent to the decisions policymakers make toward the shared welfare of present and future generations.

To build this case, Howarth turns to Utilitarianism, the philosophy founded by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. “According to Utilitarians, social decisions (and hence climate change policies) should seek to maximize the total level of well-being (or ‘utility’) experienced by all present and future persons,” Howarth says. What’s more, he notes that, as others have written, the costs of emission controls will “fall principally on affluent people living in industrialized nations, while the impacts of climate change would fall hardest on future peasant farmers living in developing countries, who lacked the resources required to adapt to altered environmental conditions.”

In sum, Howarth makes the case that investing aggressively in an emission-tax mechanism for curbing greenhouse gases today can, if done right, benefit today’s economy while creating massive long-term benefits. But that’s not all. It is also our moral responsibility to deliver to our children and grandchildren a world that’s at least as healthy as it was when we received it. Further, since it’s not always in our personal psychology to dig deep today for a better world well in the future, policymakers are wise to view what’s good for us all in a broader frame, with this same eye toward multi-generational fairness.

And the sacrifice, he concludes, doesn’t have to be that dramatic.

“We’re not talking about a tradeoff between more or less growth. What we’re talking about is fine-tuning policies,” Howarth says. “We can ‘change the dials’ of the economy to direct us toward less of an emphasis on public consumption, and to attach more weight to public good and environmental quality than we’re accustomed to doing.”

To Use Without Injuring

Personally, Rich Howarth is an outdoorsman. He bicycles, cross-country skis, hikes and canoes. Professionally, his work aims to help build the rationale for changes that he knows are needed, and that he believes are our responsibility to make. If greenhouse gas emissions are permitted to grow in business-as-usual ways, his modeling shows they will rise from about 10 billion tons in 2000 to 31 billion tons in the long-term future, mostly in the current century. The costs this will bring, he predicts, will equal 10 percent of long-term economic output—along with very visible impacts like rises in sea levels, loss of land, intensified storms and increased levels of disease.

“There is a longstanding tradition in English and American thought that says the natural environment is the joint patrimony of present and future generations,” he says. “Thomas Jefferson wrote, in a letter to Madison, that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living.”

“In usufruct” means the right to use something without injuring the thing itself. Jefferson wrote that letter in 1789.

In other words, the notion of sustainability is not at all new. In Rich Howarth’s complex, ambitious and integrative work, he is doing what he can to give substance, meaning, and power to a concept whose time he and many others believe has come.

Sidebar

It is also our moral responsibility to deliver to our children and grandchildren a world that’s at least as healthy as it was when we received it. “We can ‘change the dials’ of the economy to direct us toward less of an emphasis on public consumption, and to attach more weight to public good and environmental quality than we’re accustomed to doing.”

 
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