On the origins of the Beahrs ELP

The Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program [ELP] is celebrating its 15th anniversary. Every summer, we bring about 40 up-and-coming leaders from mostly developing countries to a 3 week intensive training and exchange program. We cover topics such as environmental policy, conflict resolution, management of climate change, impact assessment, and the participants also take tours of California. The program emphasizes peer-to-peer learning and has already established an alumni network of close to 600 members. I have been co-director of the ELP since its inception, and people frequently ask me “how did it start?,” and I think it has an interesting story.

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The idea for a program like the ELP originated from my cousin, Ora Slor, who visited Berkeley 25 years ago with her husband, a visiting professor at UCSF, and I told her that I was working on environmental economics and sustainability. She said that it sounded interesting…but wondered what it was all about. She had some free time, and asked if she could study it. I told her that she could audit classes on natural resource management, environmental policy, and the basics of forestry and sustainable agriculture.

She made a comment that if someone could package these classes into a 2-3 week program, she was sure many would pay to participate. I thought it was a brilliant idea and, of course, that it should start at Berkeley! (You have to realize that among Israelis, like Ora and me, there is a saying that “if you must live in the diaspora, it should be in Berkeley” (not Stanford or New York City).

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About five years later, our College engaged in an effort to build an agricultural university in Russia. The basic idea was to convert a biological research institute that specialized in biological weaponry into a full-fledged university for agriculture. I travelled there with Dick Beahrs and others, and we spoke about what was needed. But it was clear that some faculty needed a crash course on social sciences and the environment, so I suggested this three-week course idea. People bought into it, including some funding agencies, and we interviewed 30 potential participants that seemed incredibly excited, bright and enthusiastic.

I returned to Berkeley and began recruiting faculty to speak about various topics, and soon realized that most were excited to volunteer to give lectures and contribute to the effort. Like everything else that involves Russia, things didn’t work perfectly and instead of 30 people, we only had 9. Some we hadn’t met before (later on I learned that some of their resumes included a stint in the KGB), but altogether the course was a success, the students grasped the technical material well, and we even went to a baseball game (while they didn’t understand the game so well, they enjoyed the refreshments). The quality of the lectures was outstanding, and it was clear that when it comes to geography and natural sciences, the Russians grasp everything well; but when it came to economics they needed some applied training.

So I went to College Ave. and spoke with several shop owners, asking them to speak on how they ran their business, and the students loved it. I remember how impressed I was to learn that the liquor store near us developed a strategy of providing cheap sandwiches to attract people to the store, and these same people bought expensive wine while waiting for their food.

The next year, I decided to repeat the course and placed an ad in the Economist magazine. We received 150 inquiries, and with the help of a grad student, we were able to get 10 to come to Berkeley. Then when we tried it for a third time, we were overwhelmed with the work and decided that to continue this effort, the big challenge was to establish a permanent staff to run it: helping with visas, selection of students, etc. The good thing about Berkeley is that we have enough great faculty that we were able to provide new and innovative content for the program each year.

In the meantime, I developed what was called the Center for Sustainable Resource Development program. The program focuses on payment for ecosystem services and climate change, and one of our participants was none other than Dick Beahrs. Dick was always saying that Berkeley did not do enough to engage with the rest of the world. I also realized that many practitioners in the environmental field could benefit from the extra knowledge and skills that Berkeley had. Dick one day asked me ‘what would you do with a one million dollar gift?’ I suggested developing an environmental leadership program with an alumni network and small grant initiatives as well as satellite centers… and he delivered.

We were very fortunate to have a lot of support, because Berkeley is known to produce self-inflicted hurdles. At the time the College of Natural Resources dean was Gordon Rausser, who was incredibly supportive, as wereother faculty like Vince Resh, Andy Gutiérrez, Alain deJanvry, Jeff Romm and Jerry Siebert. Chancellor Berdahl participated in our opening ceremony and his remarks to the participants, “we will learn from you at least as much as you will learn from us,” were prophetic.

The journey that led to the establihment of the ELP would not have been possible without the assistance of our staff. Emery Roe, who was my partner in the pre-ELP days when we brought the Russians to Berkeley, took them to the baseball game and recruited the best faculty to give lectures and drink vodka. Robin Marsh, who was instrumental during the early days of the ELP, helped to build the foundation of the program, establish the certificate, recruit faculty, help with the curriculum, etc. Lesley Corral, who was our first program administrator, was a wonderful artist and designed our t-shirts, and provided warmth and welcome to our participants, dealing with very complex matters. Elna Brockhurst helped to solidify the program and her international experience was an immense asset to the ELP. Sarah Sawyer and Andy Lyons were graduate students that brought new ideas and dynamism to the curriculum and helped to connect the program to Berkeley. Anita Ponce, who is leaving us now to go across the pond to UCSF, was our model administrator, related seamlessly to the students, improved every aspect of the program, and balanced the books. Now the ELP is part of the College’s International & Executive Programs, headed by Mio Katayama-Owens.

Fifteen years is when you really take off and begin life as a budding adult. I believe that the ELP will grow and have a long and prosperous future. We are fortunate that after 15 years the ELP is as vigorous as ever. I am now looking forward to our 25th anniversary.

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Dining in Slovakia – and thinking about food security

I arrived in Bratislava to participate in a workshop for FoodSecure, a EU project on food and nutritional security in the developing world. Bratislava is the capital of the young republic of Slovakia. It is only 60 kilometers from Vienna, and has a rich and turbulent history of its own. It was a border town of the Roman Empire, was conquered by the Turks, and was the capital of the great Hungarian empire.

I took a tour of the city, and learned that 19 Hungarian kings and queens were coroneted in a beautiful church in Bratislava between 1563-1916, including Maria Theresa, the Austro-Hungarian parallel of Queen Elizabeth I, and Katherine the Great of Russia, perhaps the most important ruler of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

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During the tour, I also learned where every famous composer (Beethoven, Heiden, Mozart, and Liszt to name a few) played when he was in town, and was introduced to some of the famous and beautiful squares, palaces and churches in the old city, including the one where Maria Theresa lived. The dominating structure in the city is a castle overlooking the Danube River, which was able to stand attacks by the Mongols in the 13th century and Turks in the 16th century, and held the crown jewels of the Hungarian Monarchy.

Since the fall of communism, Slovakia has gone through a process of revitalization and renewal. Slovakia has become a major producer of vehicles and has grown much faster than most other EU countries (admittedly not a tough benchmark). Slovakia separated from the Czech Republic in 1993, and one can observe nationalism typical of a new state: flags everywhere and people explaining to you, without being asked, the differences between the Czech and Slovak people, which they present as being huge and unbridgeable.

To the nations’ credit, the division of Czechoslovakia was peaceful. Peaceful divorces between nations are rare (As Jo Swinnen aptly pointed out, one of the reasons Slovakia and Czechs could split peacefully was because they did not share a capital. The capital of Czechoslovakia (Prague) was 100% part of the Czech Republic, which was not contested by the Slovaks.) Hopefully we can reach such a peaceful outcome in the Holy Land.

Bratislava has been largely rebuilt in the last 30 years – since the communists’ demise. In downtown you see modern shops and high-rise buildings among enormous older brick and cement buildings, remnants of the communist era. The old city boasts large piazzas, impressive statues, clever art (including the statue of a Napoleonic spy with whom I took a picture).

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While there are obvious pockets of poverty — one can observe beggars, homeless people, and drably dressed mostly older people, there are many more hip youngsters and elegantly dressed professionals, junk food outlets, and gourmet restaurants — all signs of growing prosperity. The food is very good here; the dumplings, soups, and my favorite dish, fish with almonds, are especially good. The place is not far from Vienna, and the restaurants feature appetizing cakes, making it very difficult to keep my diet. However, in my humble opinion, the cakes look better than they taste (and are nothing compared to my wife’s baking). However, I am not qualified to comment on food, but it becomes common for people to venture beyond their area of expertise. For example, food critics (in the NY Times, for example) tend to comment constantly on agricultural policy and farming technologies.

FoodSecure: a fascinating project

FoodSecure, the reason for my venture to Slovakia, is a fascinating project. It has four elements: research on the state of food nutrition and development in developing countries, models for predictions, scenario analysis, and outreach. In the workshop, I learned that food security is improving in the sense that the percentage of people that are malnourished is declining (from 24% in 1990 to 14% in 2013). This is because of economic growth in the developing world as well as enhanced trade. Still, the situation varies across countries, and the number of malnourished people is in the hundreds of millions, and we are challenged to eradicate it.

As most people consume sufficient amounts of calories, obesity has become a major nutritional threat and the emphasis of nutritional interventions has been shifting from providing calories to improving the intake of micronutrients and protein. A less encouraging finding is that the gap in the growth productivity of farmers between high and low-income countries is increasing, suggesting a growing income gap and continuing rural poverty. I also learned that attitude towards biofuels has somewhat changed — the high prices they caused seemed to be short lived and the negative perceptions mostly dissipated over time.

In some cases the higher prices actually helped some farmers. The media attention on the high prices helped raise awareness to challenges facing agriculture and enhanced investment in agriculture. As usual, agricultural biotechnology was a main talking point — while some studies found that it has actually made significant positive contributions through increased yields, increased farm incomes, and reduced pesticide exposure in places it has been adopted, attitudes towards it among many are still negative.

It was encouraging to see that the capacity of models to combine biological and weather information to reasonably predict the impacts of various policies is improving. What I found even more encouraging is that the access of policy-makers that are on the ground in developing countries to these modeling tools is increasing as computer technology continues to advance. But one needs to realize that these mechanical tools are decision aids and do not replace human judgment. Furthermore, their use requires continuous education of decision-makers and the general public.

The more I become engaged in this type of policy work, the more I appreciate the value of literacy in economics. Basic economics should not be an elective you can select late in high school, but a part of the required educational curriculum. In such forums, I continue to realize how much we need to learn in order to improve our analyses of developing countries’ situations. We need to understand the role of basic supply chains in development, the link between nutrition and cognitive ability, the interaction between economic and political systems, etc.

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In many ways, the visit to Bratislava provided a most valuable lesson in economics and politics. Speaking with our delightful host, we learned that only 30 years ago this wonderful city was terribly polluted, grim, and much poorer. Of course, Slovakia has its problems, but increased personal freedom, introduction of democracy and rule of law, market institutions, and integration with the EU have contributed to form the lively and elegant city we enjoyed.

Keystone Pipeline and the Carbon Tax: A shotgun marriage that can work

We recently learned that Senators Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) suggested amending a bill that approves the building of the Keystone pipeline and abolishes the corn ethanol mandate. This is a very unwise proposal. If Congress needs a face-saving way to approve the Keystone pipeline, it should be done in a way that enhances the national interests rather than erode them.

I suggest an alternative amendment of a 50 cent gasoline tax (or better, an equivalent carbon tax) with the proceeds going towards infrastructure, reducing the burden of student loans, and/or reducing the burden of other taxes. In other words, keep the mandate and tax greenhouse gases.

There are interesting linkages between the Keystone pipeline, biofuel, and a carbon tax in my proposal. The Keystone pipeline that carries Canadian crude oils to the Gulf of Mexico is obviously unappealing. It provides a mechanism to move carbon-intensive petroleum and increases the profitability of producing oil from tar sands, and its existence is likely to enhance greenhouse gas emissions.

However, it is quite clear that the fuel will be utilized with or without it, and it will be shipped by means that are even ‘dirtier’ and more dangerous if it is not built. We recently witnessed a tragedy where 47 people were killed as a train full of fuel derailed in Quebec. The Keystone pipeline may decrease the likelihood of such events. Thus, from an environmental and public health perspective, the net benefit of the pipeline is questionable, even though I am quite sympathetic to those opposing it.

However it seems that if the pipeline is built to move, say, American oil produced from South Dakota to the Gulf, it probably would have been approved already. As I understand it, the legal system did not find the ‘smoking gun’ that justifies rejecting the pipeline, so the debate is political.

It seems that the U.S. environmental community and our administration are trying to impose standards on other countries that we cannot keep ourselves. We have to realize that we didn’t sign the Kyoto Protocol and the world remembers.

However British Columbia, a Canadian province, is the first region in North America that established a carbon tax, and we can learn from their example. Not supporting the pipeline might offend our Canadian neighbors for years to come. This stark political reality is likely to lead to an approval. The President has threatened to veto a proposed bill to allow the pipeline and he needs a face-saving way to justify not exercising the veto that will also satisfy the environmental community. But an amendment eliminating biofuel standards is the wrong choice. A carbon tax would be a real contribution to the health of the planet.

The investment in infrastructure to produce oil from tar sands, including the Keystone pipeline, was introduced because oil producers expected high oil prices. Such investments would be curtailed if expected future prices will be reduced–here is where the carbon tax becomes important. It will produce a wedge between the price consumers pay at the pump and price that producers receive, discouraging the expansion of GHG-intensive fossil fuels, and encouraging conservation and low-carbon alternative energy.

Corn biofuel has proven itself to be a viable alternative fuel. I was among the first who was alarmed by the food price effect of biofuel, and indeed food prices rose drastically around 2008. But, to their credit, corn producers adopted technologies that increased supply, and now with the mandate, the prices of corn have stabilized. If tomorrow the corn biofuel mandate is eliminated, the price of corn will plummet and politics will require introducing a heavy subsidy to the growers, and there will be new pressure to increase the price of oil.

Corn biofuel is not ideal from a GHG perspective (it reduced GHG emissions by 20 or 30% relative to gasoline), so it does not deserve a big subsidy, but still it makes a contribution. More importantly, the mandate encourages investment in renewable fuels because it is assured a market for the product, requiring oil refineries to use the fuel and potentially reducing their profits. Now there is evidence that the corn biofuel program has been effective and no longer needs an explicit subsidy, but the mandate provides protection against the producers of fossil fuels that represent their competition. While there is evidence that subsidies for some biofuels have been excessive, performance of corn ethanol assured investors that biofuels and renewables can be viable, and after a few years of support, they can stand on their own. I don’t expect the mandate to last forever, but it should be evaluated on its own merit within a larger context, rather than hastily written into a Keystone bill.

Because of biofuel and fracking, the monopoly power of OPEC has been reduced; this contributes to their reluctance to reduce oil production and to increase prices. When prices are low, there is no incentive to invest in production, but consumers may increase their demand, which will lead to an increase in future prices, spurring new investments in fossil fuels. A carbon tax will increase the price consumers pay, slowing their demand. Since consumers have become used to paying much higher prices for gasoline, their objection to a carbon price now will be much lower than if it was introduced during a period of high prices. Since cleaner fuel would be subject to a lesser tax (or be exempt altogether), it will give them an advantage in the market and encourage the energy sector to ‘think outside the barrel’.

If the country has to swallow the Keystone ‘pill’, we should use it as an opportunity. Some GOP lawmakers are rumored to support a carbon tax and tying it to the Keystone would provide additional political cover. So a bill approving the Keystone with a carbon tax amendment will maintain our friendly relations with Canada and benefit the environment.