“Actually, the governments are lagging behind the people”
When it comes to climate change, 2018 Economic Sciences Laureate William D. Nordhaus believes that policies are “miles –miles –miles” behind the science and what needs to be done. Telephone interview with William D. Nordhaus following the announcement of the 2018 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Media.
Transcript of the interview
William Nordhaus: Hello.
Adam Smith: Oh hello, may I speak with William Nordhaus please.
WN: This is he.
AS: My name is Adam Smith. I’m calling from Nobelprize.org which is the website of the Nobel Prize in Stockholm.
WN: Good morning.
AS: Good morning. Well congratulations on the award of the Prize in Economic Sciences.
WN: Thank you.
AS: How did the news actually reach you?
WN: The news reached me when one of my children called, actually a few minutes ago. We were asleep and then we woke up, the phones were ringing, and talked to my daughter.
AS: What a lovely way for the news to come.
WN: Yes it was, it’s a very nice way.
AS: It’s a striking coincidence that the news of your prize comes on the same day that we’re hearing about the IPCC special report highlighting enormous transformations that are going to be needed if we’re going to keep within reasonable temperature rises.
WN: If you called on almost any day there would be a story somewhere in the newspaper and the science journals, in the economic journals about climate change and its causes and its impacts, and that’s a sign of its ubiquitous nature. So I know this is a report, it’s a useful report and it’s … it’s collecting together what we have been studying and learning over the last, actually, 30 or 40 years, and it’s an important reminder of the dangers we face and the things that need to be done.
AS: And does your work make you hopeful that we can do what needs to be done?
WN: I’d say my most recent work has made me somewhat concerned about the fact that we’re doing so little. The most recent work I’ve done is studying actual trends in abatement and in policies, suggests we’re doing much less than needs to be to reach any of the targets, whether it’s a 1.5 degree, or 2 degree, or even a 3 degree target. There’s… I think the policies are lagging very, very far – miles, miles, miles – behind the science and the need to … what needs to be done. So it’s hard to be optimistic. And also we’ve fallen behind because of the policies – we’re actually going backwards in the United States with the … with the disastrous policies of the Trump administration. I never use the word ‘pessimism’, I always use the word ‘realism’, but I’d say it’s a kind of dark realism today.
AS: Yeah, and it’s not just the United States that may be pulling out of these accords – there are others on the horizon.
WN: Yeah, different places are doing different things. It’s not too late, but the steps we have to take are more difficult now than if we’d started earlier.
AS: And would you highlight one thing as being the single most important thing for people to do?
WN: Well, the first thing is that people have to come to grips with the difficulties we face. I think the scientists have, and many of the people have, but the governments have to. And then the second thing that’s most important is that we take some kind of economic steps. I have advocated for many years a carbon tax as a way of implementing policies. And then the third thing is we’ll have to have a significant technological transformation. Of course those first two would help the third but those three have to go together. You can’t do it without public support, but you can’t do it without some kind of economic signals in the form of a carbon tax. And then all of those will help induce the technological changes that are necessary to make a transition to a low carbon world.
AS: And all that is difficult enough to achieve if you believe that this is what needs to be done, but if you don’t believe, goodness, where do you start?
WN: Well, as I say, that’s the … the first thing, you can’t do it without, without the public awareness. I think … I think actually we have a fair amount of progress on public awareness if you look at what the surveys suggest and what people say. I think it’s actually the governments are lagging behind the people here.
AS: Yeah. I do want to just ask what was your daughter’s reaction when she told you the news?
WN: Oh, she said … she said: ‘This is so nice’.
AS: Says it all!
WN: You know, I can’t capture the tone of voice. It was a very sweet, a very sweet announcement.
AS: I think it probably goes down as one of the best.
WN: [Laughs]. Yes.
AS: We very much look forward to Stockholm in December.
AS: So, thank you very much.
WN: Look forward to seeing you.
AS: Thank you. Once again, congratulations.
WN: Thank you.