by Diana Degnan
CEEPR is delighted to welcome Gilbert E. Metcalf as a Visiting Professor. Professor Metcalf is an economist who has made important contributions to academic scholarship and government policy making, with a focus on applied public finance and energy and environmental economics. He joins CEEPR and the MIT Sloan School of Management from Tufts University, where he has been the John DiBiaggio Professor of Citizenship and Public Service and a professor of economics. Additionally, he continues to serve as a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research and a University Fellow at Resources for the Future. He holds an M.S. in Agricultural and Resource Economics from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard University.
Professor Metcalf has recently dedicated his work to climate finance and economic instruments for climate and energy policy, including carbon taxation, on which he has authored countless journal articles and several books. In addition, Professor Metcalf has devoted his academic expertise to public service, serving as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Environment and Energy at the U.S. Department of Treasury from 2011 to 2012, where he was also the founding U.S. Board Member for the United Nations Green Climate Fund.
Gilbert Metcalf (right) participates in a session on “Pricing Carbon: Is It Useful?” alongside Robert Ritz from the University of Cambridge (center) and CEEPR Director Christopher Knittel (left) at the recent 2022 CEEPR & EPRG European Energy Policy Conference in Brussels, Belgium.
Despite his sizeable accomplishments in these fields, Metcalf was not interested in environmental economics and public finance in college. “I didn’t really have any interest in environmental issues when I was in college. I didn’t have any interest in economics either.” As a math major, Metcalf recalls, “I loved the math. I loved the theory. But I felt like it was devoid of any practical use. I wanted some policy engagement with it. When I discovered economics, I realized this is exactly what I should have been doing since day one.”
Metcalf first got involved in energy and environmental policy after college when he took part in anti-nuclear demonstrations at planned nuclear power projects in Montague, Massachusetts and Seabrook, New Hampshire. His interest in environmental economics deepened when he entered an Agriculture and Resource Economics Master’s program at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Metcalf says, “that was when I really learned a lot of the theory and got to see more broadly all of the interesting issues in this field.”
Metcalf’s interest in tax policy and public finance developed during his Ph.D. at Harvard University. He spent several years working on projects in the area of state and local public finance, particularly the interaction between the federal tax system and state and local budgets. While working as a graduate student at the National Bureau for Economic Research, Metcalf met a fellow researcher and Ph.D. student, Kevin Hassett. “Kevin and I started talking, and we realized there were some really interesting questions to tackle around how the federal tax code affects energy policy. We wrote a number of papers in that field, and I’ve stayed in this field ever since,” says Metcalf.
Bridging the gap between academia and policy, Metcalf wrote a book on carbon taxation – “Paying for Pollution: Why a Carbon Tax is Good for America” – that he intended for wider audiences. Metcalf recalls, “I’d spent a fair amount of time talking with policy members in DC, either with members of Congress directly or with their staff. I envisioned the reader of my book as a Congressional Aide. His or her boss would come in and say, ‘Hey what is this thing about a carbon tax? What do I need to know?’ The aide would go and pull my book off the shelf. It was a new challenge and I enjoyed doing it.”
Metcalf recognized the value of providing policymakers with clear, factual assessments to ground their environmental policies. “Policymakers, whether in the Administration or on the Hill, have always been interested in engaging with academics to get new ideas, see if their ideas have problems, or find hidden pitfalls they might not be aware of. There’s any number of lobbyists working for particular interest groups that are happy to meet with members of Congress, their staffs, members of the White House, or the Treasury. But these people have a particular point of view based on who their employer is. Academics have a more arms-length relationship with the issues and can be a little more objective. This is often very helpful for policymakers,” Metcalf says.
While at the Treasury in 2011 and 2012, Metcalf oversaw the U.S. government’s involvement in all multilateral environment, climate, and energy funds. He led the Treasury team at annual international climate negotiation meetings, including at the United Nation’s annual Conference of the Parties (COP). “Part of what is going on in international climate change committees is you’re talking about making commitments to reduce emissions, but you’re also talking about providing finance for developing countries to help them do that mitigation. Anything involving finance fell under the purview of the Treasury,” Metcalf says.
Metcalf was integral in developing a framework for the Green Climate Fund at COP 17. Looking back, Metcalf remembers, “that was a really difficult negotiation. You have developing countries that want as much money as possible to go into the fund with as few strings attached as possible. Some of that is understandable; they don’t want to be micromanaged by developed countries. But on the other hand, you have developed countries that want to make sure we get the biggest bang for our buck and make sure their money isn’t being wasted. I also would have to be able to go back to Congress and make sure Congress would give us the funding to put in the fund. It was a real challenge to thread the needle there.”
Despite his extensive experiences in academia and policy making, Metcalf remembers his time as a professor most fondly: “The most impactful role has been being a teacher. In particular, I’ve loved teaching graduate microeconomics. It’s an incredible delight when you see [students] get that ‘Aha!’ moment.” Looking forward to his work at CEEPR, Professor Metcalf is excited to conduct research with his new MIT colleagues on how climate policies are likely to affect the broader economy. “I think where CEEPR is heading now is quite exciting. If I can contribute to that, that’s great,” he anticipates.