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Harvard Economist Martin Weitzman, Known for Climate Change Scholarship, Dies at 77

Littauer
Littauer Center for Public Administration Building is home to the Economics Department.

As awareness about climate change has grown rapidly in recent years and brought about calls for change, Harvard Economics Professor Martin L. Weitzman forged a path of environmental scholarship in the field of economics.

“Combating climate change is the race of our lifetime. That much, at least, is clear,” wrote Weitzman in his co-authored 2015 book “Climate Shock.” “Indeed, while the danger is grave, climate change also provides opportunities to act, and yes, to profit.”

Weitzman, who died by suicide on Aug. 27 at the age of 77, assured his readers that the climate crisis could be resolved if only people took a serious look at the economics behind it. He published three books and more than 90 articles, turning his research focus to environmental issues in the second half of his career.

In “Climate Shock” — which he co-authored with fellow economist and former student Gernot Wagner ’02 — Weitzman formulated what came to be known as the Dismal Theorem. He hypothesized that normal economic principles do not apply to cases involving unlikely but catastrophic events. Using climate change as his example, he explained that possible environmental disasters could be so cataclysmic that, even if their probability was rather low, they should still be taken into account.

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“His contributions to the once-emerging and now mature global scholarly discipline of environmental economics were unprecedented,” wrote Robert N. Stavins, a professor of energy and environment at the Harvard Kennedy School. “He was there during the formative years of environmental economics, and he continued to shape the field for nearly five decades.”

Weitzman, who earned his Ph.D. in Economics in 1967, taught first at Yale University and MIT before landing a Harvard professorship in 1989. In 2018, Weitzman retired from his teaching position and went on to become a research professor until his death.

Weitzman’s works also shaped some of the national political discourse around climate change, even though he himself did not involve himself in the political arena, according to Kennedy School Professor James H. Stock. President Barack Obama’s administration has cited Weitzman in materials about climate change.

“He was very influential at the highest levels,” Stock said.

Coworkers and friends say they will miss Weitzman, noting his generosity and thoughtfulness. Weitzman leaves behind his wife, Jennifer Brown Baverstam; his daughter, Rodica Weitzman; his stepchildren, Kristian, Madeleine, Sebastian, and Oliver Baverstam; his sister, Babara Sherman; and two grandchildren.

From his time collaborating with Weitzman on their book, Wagner said he got the impression that Weitzman was honest, logical, and a fast thinker.

“He might have been the most rational human being I have ever met,” Wagner said. “There was hardly anything he did that wasn't deeply thought.”

The two spent hours on the phone together, multiple times each week, as they planned out the contents of their book.

“He's a very good, clear writer, also very technical writer,” Wagner said. “‘Climate Shock’ doesn’t have a single equation in it, so in many ways there was a process of 'translating' the book into English, as it were.”

Throughout their meetings, Wagner and Weitzman would bounce ideas off of each other, sharing hypotheticals and possibilities, with Weitzman often repeating the phrase “I don’t know.” Weitzman was not at a loss for knowledge, Wagner explained, but had simply thought through hypothetical solutions so quickly that he had already spotted their negative ramifications.

“He was five steps ahead of you all the time, so he'd thought through the implications long before you got there yourself,” Wagner said.

Wagner first met Weitzman in 1998 when Wagner was a freshman at Harvard. The two conversed for an hour — which Wagner said was an unusually long amount of time for a professor to devote to a freshman — when Wagner first popped into Weitzman’s office hours.

Stock also said that Weitzman was generous with his time. As a relative newcomer to environmental economics, Stock often looked to Weitzman for guidance.

“As I was just learning, as I was miles behind where he was, he was always willing to talk with me, to talk about my work, talk about other people’s work,” Stock said.

Weitzman’s research and writings won him a number of accolades, from being an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to winning three awards from the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists. His colleagues expected him to win the Nobel Prize last year, which instead went to New York University professor Paul M. Romer and Yale professor William D. Nordhaus.

The New York Times reported that the Nobel decision ushered Weitzman into a period of emotional distress, and that the famous economist wrote a note doubting his ability to make further advances in the economic field.

Though the Nobel prize brings prestige and renown, Weitzman had something more valuable, according to Stock — important ideas.

“What really matters is the work you do, and the way you influence people, and the way your ideas progress,” Stock said. “And Marty accomplished all of that in his career.”

—Staff writer Rebecca S. Araten can be reached at rebecca.araten@thecrimson.com.

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