Billy Pizer ’86: Solving public policy questions with tools of math and physics

Economist Billy Pizer ’86 holds a joint faculty position at Duke University in environmental policy solutions and public policy.

Billy Pizer ‘86 found his aha moment, or moments, during his undergraduate years at UNC-Chapel Hill. At NCSSM, he excelled in math and science classes and took his first economics class. In college, as a Morehead Scholar, he earned his undergraduate degree in physics. But he found himself increasingly drawn to economics. “It struck me as an interesting discipline because it has the math rigors of physics, but it’s applied to social problems as opposed to physical phenomena and puzzles. Increasingly, I found that appealing. I realized that you could apply the tools of scientific inquiry to solve public policy questions.”

Now a professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and faculty fellow at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, Pizer has weighed in on many public policy questions through the lens of an economist. He was a lead author on the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was the co-recipient along with Al Gore of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. And he served as deputy assistant secretary for environment and energy in the U.S. Department of the Treasury from 2008 to 2011.

At first, Pizer thought he would teach. After graduating from Chapel HIll in 1990, he taught high school physics for a year at Choate, an elite prep school in Connecticut. “It was probably related to admiring my teachers at NCSSM so much,” Pizer says of taking the job. But it was also the times. The national Teach for America program had just launched and the film, Dead Poets Society — in which Robin Williams plays a rookie English teacher who encourages his prep school students to pursue their dreams — had come out.

“If you had told me 25 years ago that I’d be working on climate change policy, and that I’d actually serve in the government doing this, I would have thought you were crazy. What I liked to do was solve math problems. I liked physics, I thought it was cool.”
Billy Pizer ’86, reflecting on his career path

From Choate, Pizer headed to Harvard University and earned a master’s and doctoral degree in economics. After Harvard, he worked for 11 years at the Washington, DC, think tank Resources for the Future, beginning in 1996. “That’s where I formed a strong interest in research and policymaking, in my case as it applied to environmental policy,” he says. He had entered graduate school thinking he would work in economic development, but environmental issues were hitting the global stage in the 1990s. In 1992 the United Nations hosted “The Earth Summit,” or the Conference on Environment and Development, in Rio de Janeiro, resulting in first-ever international agreements to address climate change and biodiversity. At their core, global policies require solid science and evidence to support them.

Pizer took a short leave from the think tank to serve as a senior economist at the White House Council of Economic Advisers from 2001-2002. In 2008, he left Resources for the Future to serve in the US Treasury position on environment and energy. The job “was one of Hank Paulson’s signature creations,” he says of the then-treasury secretary under President George W. Bush. “He was a huge environmentalist. He created the position and hired me.” In his position, Pizer advised the treasury’s role in the domestic and international environment and energy agenda.

In 2011, Pizer accepted the joint position at Duke University, with a focus on global climate change and how environment and energy policies can be designed to be both cost-effective and responsive to the needs of different stakeholders. He balances his research and writing with teaching, advising, and supervising dissertations, as well as outreach and public events. He has also played a leading role in creating an environmental program, including a graduate program and research, at Duke Kunshan University in China.  “It’s incredibly interesting, a big place of opportunity,” he says of working in China. “Their environmental problems are big, like the country itself is big. They’re at a point similar to where we were 30 or 40 years go, so there’s an opportunity to make a big impact, to deal with these issues more effectively than we did in the 1970s.” China needs “well-trained social scientists to grapple with their problems. They’re well trained on the natural science side, but lot of these issues revolve around human behavior, regulatory design, and incentives that give people the context for doing the right thing.”

Among the thorny questions Pizer grapples with in his research, one in particular has to do with calculating the cost or value of future consequences from climate change policy decisions made today. “When you emit a lot of carbon dioxide and it’s staying in the environment for hundreds of years, the consequences are not just for today but for the foreseeable future. So how do you value the consequences of 200 years from now, and what’s the dollar value in 200 years?”

He’s disappointed that North Carolina is not yet the leader it could be on environmental issues. In general, he believes issues of clean air and water can be less politicized and polarizing than other arenas of public policy. Environmental concerns weren’t partisan issues 10 or 20 years ago, he notes. Or earlier: “It was the Republican administrations under Nixon that created the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, and under George H. W. Bush that we negotiated the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.”

How much does Pizer worry about climate change? He does his part — he’s installed solar panels on the roof of his home that generate a third of his power now. He insulated his attic with energy-reducing foam insulation, and he recycles. He doesn’t drive a hybrid, but he’s a fan of bicycle commuting.

But climate change cannot be a singular focus of public policy.  “We face a lot of big problems, like terrorism and radicalization. Antibiotic-resistant bugs scare me. Climate change is a real threat, but we are also developing mitigation and adaptation technologies,” Pizer says. “The hope is, technology is pretty impressive. Solar energy is much less expensive today that it was even ten years ago. Battery powered cars are exciting people — 300,000 people pre-ordered the new Tesla this past summer. People generally are better off now than they’ve been in any time in our history, worldwide. We don’t hear about population explosions or things like that. There’s a lot of reasons to think we can figure out ways to fix climate issues.”

Watch Billy Pizer’s 2012 TEDx NCSSM talk


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