Law professor at the University of Virginia interviewing a wide range of guests on topics in law, politics, philosophy, science, the environment, and AI.
S1E30. Host Mike Livermore on Interdisciplinary Engagement
Host Mike Livermore concludes Season 1 of Free Range with a solo episode on the value of interdisciplinary engagement.
Livermore begins with the theory behind the podcast—speaking with guests with various perspectives and backgrounds relating to the environment and sustainability—and the tradeoffs between being a generalist rather than a specialist. (0:43 – 4:32) In this episode, he wants to explore the questions around interdisciplinary scholarship and engagement: Why do people do it? How is it useful? How is it done in a productive way? (4:37 – 11:20)
To begin, it is useful to understand why disciplines exist in the first place. A functional defense of disciplines is that they help us structure our knowledge production. (11:22 – 15:27) There is utility in modeling the world at different scales and reducing complexity of the models. Even though boundaries are somewhat arbitrary, they can help provide needed structure, and porous boundaries allow for productive crossover. Disciplinary boundaries also often seem to track something important about our world and how we understand it. (15:28 – 25:07). In the humanities, the boundaries are not as clearly world-tracking as they are within the sciences but may be more related to how we understand the world. (25:08 – 29:21) The value of disciplines is the creation of collections of people who share knowledge and research questions and methods, which promotes the progressive production of knowledge over time. (29:28 – 39:39)
Notwithstanding the value of disciplines, there is a place for interdisciplinary engagement. The value of such research is to combine various perspective. But while certain projects can be of interest to all fields involved, finding research that is rewarding for researches in many diverse fields is a big challenge in interdisciplinary collaboration. (39:40 – 56:23)
Livermore wraps up his thoughts on what makes interdisciplinary collaboration work, such as respect for one another’s disciplines, taking the time to understand what motivates them, and knowing the difference between normative and empirical questions. He concludes the episode with what motivates him personally, describing interest and appreciation in interdisciplinary engagement as an ‘aesthetic of knowledge.’ The overarching goal of Free Range is to create an opportunity to appreciate all of the interesting and difficult work being done across disciplines in the area of sustainability and the environment. (56:25 – 1:02:17)
S1E29. Rich Schragger on the Power of Cities
On today’s episode of Free Range, Michael Livermore speaks with UVA Law colleague Rich Schragger a leading expert on local government, federalism, and urban policy and the author of City Power: Urban Governance in a Global Age.
Schragger begins the episode by discussing the idea of ‘city power,’ which is meant to challenge the usual narratives about local governments and cities. (0:42 - 2:41)
Livermore and Schragger turn to one view, of cities as selling a suite of policies and amenities. In his book, he discusses the mistake of misinterpreting sorting as a theory of economic growth. Schragger is skeptical of claims that a city has failed because of a decrease in population, which can have other causes. He argues that even in an economic downturn, cities need to provide good municipal services. (2:44 – 10:40)
They discuss theories of growth in cities, debating if growth is a policy independent processes. Schragger elaborates on the relationship between institutions and growth, saying that they will have a relationship but at what scale? He explains his attraction to Jane Jacobs’s ideas on why economic development happens in cities. (10:45 – 18:41)
Schragger explains two common views of cities: that they are products in markets or that they are byproducts of large-scale social forces. He prefers to think of a city as a process akin to an organic phenomenon. (18:42 – 28:07)
Schragger argues that we are still radically unsure what causes economic growth in a city. He emphasizes that cities should provide basic municipal services to their people as a matter of social justice, not as a matter of growth seeking. (28:10 – 31:47) He sees the lack of control over growth as in some ways liberating. Cities are free to implement policies such has a minimum living wage, and environmental regulations because ultimately these policies will not hurt the growth of the city. (31:48 – 35:17)
The discussion transitions into the distinctions between intercity and intracity competition. Schragger talks about how city population increases/decreases are attributed to the wrong factors. He uses the example of the urban resurgence in Charlottesville wrongly being attributed to the downtown mall. (35:20 – 43:13)
Livermore poses the question about the possibility of ever truly learning how policy affects cities. Schragger re-emphasizes that cities need to invest in services that improve the living of the people already there rather than attracting new people. Schragger argues that cities should act for justice, not growth. (43:20 – 53:01)
Livermore and Schragger discuss their views on redistribution, focusing on minimum wage. Schragger says the living minimum wage movement represents a proof of concept. He describes how large cities, such as Tokyo, New York City, London, have economic power that is used to leverage location advantage to do redistribution. He compares the power differences between city states and nation states, explaining cities’ locational leverage gives them more power to tax and redistribute than nations which flips the narrative of traditional federalism. (53:10 – 1:03:26)
Livermore closes the discussion by describing states as vestigial things in our constitutional system, asking Schragger his thoughts on the value of states. Schragger agrees that US states are in some ways a product of a flawed compromise and have lost their reason for being. He explains how one can be opposed to states but in favor of cities. He expresses that state-based federalism doesn’t work because the actual divide is not between states, but between cities and rural areas in those states. (1:03:31 – 1:11:40)
S1E28. Michael Greenstone on Economics and Environmental Policy
On today’s episode of Free Range, Livermore is joined by Michael Greenstone, the Milton Freedman Distinguished Service Professor in Economics and the Director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. He served as the Chief Economist for President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors and has worked for decades engaged in research and policy development on environmental issues.
Livermore and Greenstone begin by discussion the climate provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act and their policy implications (0:47-4:47) Greenstone offers his take on what the IRA means (if anything) concerning the role of economists in debates over climate policy (4:48-8:49) and the two discuss the relationship between energy prices and politics. (8:50-14:10) Livermore and Greenstone agree that transparency of pricing mechanisms can be both a feature and a bug. Greenstone mentions that while the US is viewed as a free market place, our instinct is to approach the situation as engineers. (14:11-20:20) He then offers thoughts on why the engineering approach won out in the IRA. (20:21 - 25:34)
The two discuss the factors that helped lead to lower technology costs green cleaner energy sources, which helped pave the way for the IRA. (25:35-28:12) The sulfur dioxide trading mechanism in the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments is a classic example of policy that promoted low cost emissions reductions; R&D funding is another area where government is justified. (28:13-30:24)
The two turn to the question of economic forecasting in climate debates. (30:25-34:17) Greenstone discusses the work of the Climate Impact Lab, which he directs, which is improving estimates of climate damages and the social cost of carbon. (34:18-40:55) The two discuss the role of adaptation in climate damage estimates (40:56-47:05) and the role of distributional analysis. (47:06-51:15) The two then discuss an alternative to the social cost of carbon that is based on “marginal abatement costs” associated with achieving a given climate goal. (51:16-57:11)
To conclude, Livermore asks about the potential path forward for global cooperation on climate change. For Greenstone, he focuses on areas of policy that he can influence, and in particular on driving down the difference (delta) between the private cost of clean energy and dirty energy and looking for opportunities to leverage our policies for reductions elsewhere in the world. (57:12-59:36)
S1E27. Gerald Torres on Environmental Justice
On this episode of Free Range, Mike Livermore interviews Gerald Torres, a professor at the Yale School of the Environment and Yale Law School and Director of the Yale Center for Environmental Justice. Torres explores the connections between environmental law and social justice from a scholarly and practical perspective.
The discussion begins with the Yale Center of Environmental Justice and its efforts to link together environmental justice initiatives across the university and community, including with local Native American tribes . (0:53 – 8:02) This raises the question of how to define work that relates to environmental justice. (8:06 – 14:11) This issue partly implicates whether environmental justice issues are a subset of a broader set of social justice claims or if they are distinctive from other areas. For Torres, one distinction is that the environment requires a broader and deeper perspective. (14:15 – 19:30) Another distinction is the focus of the EJ community on governmental decision making processes. (19:35 – 23:39)
The conversation turns to Bill Clinton’s Executive Order 12898 on environmental justice. Torres explains how the Executive Order attempted to create definitions of environmental justice communities and told agencies to incorporate environmental justice concerns in their basic processes. He compares the results of the executive order to the National Environmental Policy Act, which also had an emphasis on improving decision-making. (23:40 – 29:00) Torres emphasizes that the Executive Order responded to a broader social movement that grew out of social activism and communities mobilizing together. (29:01 – 30:57)
Livermore and Torres then discuss the relationship between environmental justice and political polarization over environmental issues. They reflect on the former bipartisan history of environmental protection and conservation and how opposition to environmentalism in the Republican party has grown increasingly intense in recent years. (31:00 – 39:00) Torres worries that the partisan nature of this debate will obscure the environmental successes that have been achieved over the last two generations. (39:01 – 43:48)
A current tension in environmental law is between local impacts of transitioning to clean energy and the need to decarbonize the economy. Torres explains the common complaint that procedural parts of environmental protection slow down decision-making, which increases the cost or permanently delays projects. But these statutes also protect the voice of disadvantaged groups. They discuss how net metering disputes in California have raised important justice issues as well. (43:50 – 54:00).
Torres reflects on the question of how well the current environmental movement has responded to EJ concerns. Torres, who is a trustee for Natural Resources Defense Council and is on the board for Earth Day, says both of these organizations have recognized the importance of integrating environmental justice concerns in the way they think about the environment. (54:02 – 57:45)
The conversation closes with Livermore asking Torres what makes him hopeful in light of the environmental challenges we face. Torres states that the broad recognition that we have to act on these issues, the social commitment in many places to environmental education, and his experience working with environmental justice communities have given him hope. (57:47 – 1:00:52)
S1E26. Katherine Blunt on Energy and Wildfires
On this episode of Free Range, Mike Livermore interviews Katherine Blunt, a journalist at the Wall Street Journal and the recent author of California Burning: The Fall of Pacific Gas and Electric and What it Means for America’s Power Grid.
The conversation begins with the book’s narrative of criminal charges, with Blunt briefly describing the cast of characters and situations in the book that led to prosecutions for a violation of the Federal Pipeline Safety Act and 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter. The latter was one of the first situations in history in which a company was charged with homicide. (0:32-7:06)
Even with these successful criminal prosecutions, many were left with a sense of dissatisfaction. (7:07-10:30) Livermore and Blunt discuss some of the moral complexities of collective criminal liability. (10:31 - 17:45) Blunt highlights the fact that the victims compensation fund is tied to the future stock price of the company; different types of penalties have the potential to weigh on the company’s share price. The two also discuss the difficulty of recruiting new talent to work at a corporation when criminal liability may be at stake. (17:46 - 28:49)
The two move to discuss broader policy issues, including how regulated utilities receive returns on capital but not operating and maintenance (O&M) expenses. Blunt believes that the company had significantly underspent on O&M with serious negative consequences. (28:50 - 33:59)
Blunt discusses possibility that the charge given to PG&E — delivering safe, reliable, affordable, and clean energy — might be an impossible task. (34:00 - 41:21) The two shift to the topic of renewable energy. Blunt describes California’s ambitious targets for carbon reduction. California’s early investments in wind and solar helped create the economies of scale which made these forms of energy are affordable, but California’s ratepayers paid billions of dollars for this power. (41:22 - 45:25)
Livermore asks how people in California should feel about how this has all played out. Blunt responds that California’s contribution to reducing carbon emissions is rightfully a point of pride. But as a leader in climate change efforts, California has incurred a real cost. (45:26- 49:29)
Blunt then discusses the broader implications of the PG&E story. Utilities everywhere are going to have to confront new risks as a result of climate change. PG&E’s story demonstrates that if any company has a narrative of mismanaging risk, it’s going to be very challenging to get ahead of things. The consequences of the failure of the electric system are becoming greater, in both an acute and a broader sense. There are lessons here for every region of the country. (49:30 - 52:10)
A question that comes out of the book is how bad PG&E’s risk management practices were compared to other utilities in California. Blunt highlights the inherent tension between private interests and public good, which is present in every utility company. PG&E is hardly the only utility to mismanage that. Historically, PG&E’s mismanagement has been more acute than others and the consequences have been much greater. (52:11 - 55:55)
Blunt then turns to bigger picture questions of centralized versus distributed energy. In her view, distributed technology will play a role in how we generate and consume power and it has the potential to reduce the amount of large centralized infrastructure in the future. But, it is hard for her to foresee a future without a need for centralized generation and transmission carried over large distances. The model has a lot of challenges which are becoming more acute, but there is no great solution for a substantially different model. The only solution is to work within the parameters of what we have and make it better. (55:56 - 1:01:00)
S1E25. Jonathan Colmer on Environmental Inequality
On this episode of Free Range, Mike Livermore speaks with Jonathan Colmer, an Assistant Professor at the University of Virginia’s Department of Economics and the Director of the Environmental Inequality Lab. His research interests are in environmental economics, development economics, and the distributional impacts of environmental policy.
Colmer begins by discussing a recent paper of his that examines the distributional characteristics of air pollution in the United States and how they have changed over time. Tracking exposure temporally and spatially, they concluded that while there have been air pollution reductions in the last four decades, the disparities have persisted in the same affected areas. (0:40 – 4:15)
Livermore and Colmer discuss the implications of this work for understanding environmental inequality. Colmer explains that the proportional reductions have implications on the allocation of resources we expend on reducing pollution. He also note that reducing total pollution levels also reduces absolute disparities of racial gaps in air pollution. (4:16 – 13:00)
Livermore notes that addressing harms in areas with the highest pollution concentrations would provide the cheapest reductions and the most harm reduction benefits. The two discuss different policies to cut pollution and their distributional effects. (13:02 – 18:35)
Colmer notes that one limitation of his prior work is that they are measuring place rather than individual exposure. The Environmental Inequality Lab, which he directs, has the goal of moving from a place-based to a person-based understanding of environmental inequality. The lab is building a data infrastructure that provides detailed information on the distribution of exposure from many different environmental hazards. Colmer explains how they use confidential data from the U.S. Census Bureau and I.R.S. to deeper understand environmental inequality and the causes of these disparities. (18:40 – 26:15)
Livermore and Colmer discuss the idea of ecological fallacy in Colmer’s research, observing whether or not the inferences made about individuals using place-based data still hold strong when they move to the individual level. (26:20 – 30:57)
Colmer discusses the questions that arise about the causes of these air pollution disparities from an economic standpoint – is it income? Is it racial discrimination or other considerations? He discusses work in progress that shows how results on disparities differ between geographic-level results and individual-level results. (31:02 – 40:55)
The conversation segues from discussing the descriptive to the causal relationships with pollution. Colmer discusses a core causal question they are examining: how much does environmental inequality contribute to income inequality? (40:56 – 56:35)
Livermore closes the discussion by pointing out how historically, we focus on the primary benefit of air quality improvements by the reduction of mortality risk which affects a small concentrated category of people. However, the work Colmer is doing focuses on effects that are more widely shared over a larger population, which may have important consequences for how policies that address environmental pollution are perceived. (56:36 – 1:01:18)
A Special Treat
Listening to this new podcast is learning therapy for me on long walks. I get to learn cool new stuff from the leaders in AI thinking - I hope that there are many many more episodes coming.