News & Stories

A Conversation With Scott Barrett: Lenfest-Earth Institute Professor of Natural Resource Economics

Posted Dec 04 2011

By Nicholas Jackson, The Atlantic

December 5, 2011

As the Lenfest-Earth Institute Professor of Natural Resource Economics at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and the Earth Institute, Scott Barrett is focused on transnational and global challenges, ranging from infectious disease eradication to climate change. In addition to teaching and research, Barrett has advised a number of international organizations, including the European Commission, the World Bank, and the United Nations. He is the author of Environment and Statecraft: The Strategy of Environmental Treaty-Making and Why Cooperate? The Incentive to Supply Global Public Goods.

Here, Barrett discusses the tragedy of the commons; why we should ask why political will is lacking for a problem like climate change when it wasn't lacking for a problem like protecting the ozone layer; and why the issue of international cooperation will become more and more important in the coming decades.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

I say I work on saving the world. I'm a professor who studies international cooperation -- what works, what doesn't, and why. Much of my work is theoretical -- I use game theory to understand international relations. But I'm also involved in applying these ideas to real problems like climate change, polio eradication, and high seas overfishing. These are problems that can only be addressed by countries acting multilaterally.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on international cooperation?

The idea of global public goods is catching on. An example is protection of the ozone layer. If the ozone layer is protected for one country, every country benefits -- even the countries that played no role in protecting it. You can see the incentive problem here. If I benefit without contributing, why should I contribute? Of course, if no one contributes, the ozone layer would be heavily depleted. So how can we get countries to contribute? That's the essential problem I work on.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your area of expertise?

Most people understand the need for international cooperation, but they then throw up their hands and say that it will never happen for lack of political will. We need to think more positively. We should ask why political will is lacking for a problem like climate change when it wasn't lacking for a problem like protecting the ozone layer. We also need to ask how political will can be created. The world has achieved great things in the past (the eradication of smallpox, the defeat of the axis powers, the end of the slave trade). Many of these achievements seemed impossible before they occurred. One thing we know is that, if we believe something can't happen, it won't happen.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the prospects for international cooperation?

Not long ago, there were two superpowers. For a brief period, there was one. In the future, there will be many powers capable of having global impact. The U.S. still leads militarily, but for many issues this is of little consequence. There are emerging technologies that, if developed and deployed by just one country, would affect everyone. Who gets to decide? These problems of governance will become more and more important in the coming decades.

What's a global cooperation trend that you wish would go away?

Because of the failure of large-scale treaty negotiations like the recent Copenhagen talks on climate change, many people now emphasize the importance of bottom-up approaches. Let countries decide for themselves what they want to do. I think there is much that countries can and should do on their own, but the incentive problems in getting countries to cut back on their emissions of greenhouse gases are huge. They can only be addressed through international treaties. We shouldn't abandon the treaty approach. We should instead design new kinds of treaties. This is the main focus of my work -- how to design treaties that will make a real difference.

What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

As a Ph.D. student I became enamored with complicated mathematical models. It seemed to me that trying to be more sophisticated was the right way to go. I later came to the opposite view. Models are structured ways of imagining the world. All models are wrong. The best models are simple. To be useful, they need to yield insights that people can understand. The very best models produce insights that people can remember.

Who are three people or organizations that you would put in a Hall of Fame for your field?

Thomas C. Schelling, awarded the Nobel Prize in economics in 2005, has contributed more than anyone to our understanding of the questions raised here. D.A. Henderson did something more practical. He led the global effort to eradicate smallpox, probably the greatest collective achievement in human history. Richard E. Benedick also made an extraordinary practical contribution. As chief U.S. negotiator of the Montreal Protocol, he helped negotiate a treaty that would ultimately phase out ozone-destroying chemicals worldwide. All three men have written books on international cooperation that are true classics.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

Wildlife biology. When I first went to university I imagined myself studying animals in the wild. I quickly realized, however, that "the wild" only existed because people allowed it to exist, and that man's domination of the planet was nearly complete. So I decided instead to study humans in their environment. I realized that this environment was not "wild," but constrained by institutions built by humans. So the focus of my attention turned to understanding these institutions, and how they could be designed for the purpose of making people everywhere better off. This included protecting the wilds, or conserving biodiversity, but it also included a lot more. Our institutions determine whether there is war or peace, freedom or subjugation, prosperity or hunger, disease or health.

What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?

I am fortunate to have electronic access to the Columbia University library, which means that nearly all the knowledge accumulated over the arc of human existence is available to me at any time, from any place. I only need to know what to look for.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

Natalie Merchant's version of Randy Newman's "Political Science."