PUBLISHED:September 18, 2015

Scholars work to factor inequality into climate change mitigation policy

Scholars from the fields of law, environmental science, economics, philosophy, and public policy gathered at Duke Law School in May to discuss new methods for factoring inequality into emerging national and international climate change mitigation policy. The conference was hosted by the Center on Law, Economics and Public Policy.

The two-day conference, titled “Inequality and the Economic Analysis of Climate Change,” focused on the complex Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs) that are used to assess the costs and benefits of climate change mitigation, and new theories with which those models might better take account of global economic inequality.

“The impacts of climate change will be borne here and abroad, and the extent to which people are affected will depend on how well off they are,” said Matthew Adler, the Richard A. Horvitz Professor of Law and Professor of Economics, Philosophy, and Public Policy, who directs the center. “People talk about the possible impact of sea-level rise on Bangladesh, which is an extreme example, but we saw how inequality affects outcomes with [Hurricane] Katrina, too. People who are poorer are less able to move away or engage in various kinds of adaptation measures.”

Scholars from across Duke University such as Jonathan Wiener, the William R. and Thomas L. Perkins Professor of Law and Professor of Environmental Policy and Professor of Public Policy, and others from the Sanford School of Public Policy, the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, and the Nicholas School of the Environment, joined colleagues from such institutions as Berkeley, Harvard, Penn State, Stanford, the Rand  Corporation, Bocconi University,  the London School of Economics, the Toulouse School of Economics, and the University of Oslo to discuss how to shape climate change policy more equitably.

“Duke is so strong in terms of climate change and environmental economics, so part of the idea was to include people at all the different Duke schools who work in these areas,, and then have them interact with leading scholars from other universities,” said Adler.

SCRiM, a National Science Foundation-sponsored research network for sustainable climate risk management headquartered at Penn State, helped organize the conference.

“The group from Penn State is really an earth sciences climate change group, these are scientists as opposed to the economists and policy people, and they know a lot about these models,” Adler said. “It was an effort to bring together the straight climate scientists and those who think more about policy, such as law and policy professors, with a   focus specifically on the issue of inequality.”

Scholars involved in running the IAMs that are used to inform national and global climate change policy, including Valentina Bossetti from Bocconi University in Milan and David Anthoff from the University of California, Berkeley took part in the conference, much of which focused on tweaking those models according to differing ethical and philosophical theories.

Adler has focused much of his interdisciplinary scholarship on the theory of prioritarianism, which is a way of adding extra weight to those who are worse off when calculating the costs and benefits of governmental policies, such as those that might be adopted to address climate change and mitigation.  For example, where current models  calculate the present dollar equivalent of future costs caused by one ton of carbon — the so-called “social cost of carbon” — incorporating a prioritarian formula into the models  could more accurately measure the cost borne by the poor, the middle class, and the wealthy and thus yield a better estimate of the “social cost of carbon.”

“Prioritarianism has been a philosophical concept for about 25 years, and governments have started using it in tax policy and healthcare allocation, but it is an emerging idea in climate change and environmental policy generally,” Adler said.

Specific methods for accounting for inequality have been discussed, but one of the goals of the conference was to get people working on developing the formulas necessary to factor inequality into the models, and then running the numbers, Adler said. “The idea is now to work it through in terms of concrete policy applications.”

A group of those who attended the conference have begun those analyses, he said.