Publications

    Gernot Wagner and Martin L. Weitzman. 7/2018. “Potentially large equilibrium climate sensitivity tail uncertainty.” Economics Letters, 168, Pp. 144-6. Publisher's VersionAbstract
    Equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS), the link between concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and eventual global average temperatures, has been persistently and perhaps deeply uncertain. Its ‘likely’ range has been approximately between 1.5 and 4.5 degrees Centigrade for almost 40 years (Wagner and Weitzman, 2015). Moreover, Roe and Baker (2007), Weitzman (2009), and others have argued that its right-hand tail may be long, ‘fat’ even. Enter Cox et al. (2018), who use an ’emergent constraint’ approach to characterize the probability distribution of ECS as having a central or best estimate of 2.8℃ with a 66% confidence interval of 2.2-3.4℃. This implies, by their calculations, that the probability of ECS exceeding 4.5℃ is less than 1%. They characterize such kind of result as “renewing hope that we may yet be able to avoid global warming exceeding 2[℃]”. We share the desire for less uncertainty around ECS (Weitzman, 2011; Wagner and Weitzman, 2015). However, we are afraid that the upper-tail emergent constraint on ECS is largely a function of the assumed normal error terms in the regression analysis. We do not attempt to evaluate Cox et al. (2018)’s physical modeling (aside from the normality assumption), leaving that task to physical scientists. We take Cox et al. (2018)’s 66% confidence interval as given and explore the implications of applying alternative probability distributions. We find, for example, that moving from a normal to a log-normal distribution, while giving identical probabilities for being in the 2.2-3.4℃ range, increases the probability of exceeding 4.5℃ by over five times. Using instead a fat-tailed Pareto distribution, an admittedly extreme case, increases the probability by over forty times.
    Sebastian D. Eastham, David W. Keith, and Steven R. H. Barrett. 3/9/2018. “Mortality tradeoff between air quality and skin cancer from changes in stratospheric ozone.” Environmental Research Letters, 13, 3. Publisher's VersionAbstract
    Skin cancer mortality resulting from stratospheric ozone depletion has been widely studied. Similarly, there is a deep body of literature on surface ozone and its health impacts, with modeling and observational studies demonstrating that surface ozone concentrations can be increased when stratospheric air mixes to the Earth's surface. We offer the first quantitative estimate of the trade-off between these two effects, comparing surface air quality benefits and UV-related harms from stratospheric ozone depletion. Applying an idealized ozone loss term in the stratosphere of a chemistry-transport model for modern-day conditions, we find that each Dobson unit of stratospheric ozone depletion results in a net decrease in the global annual mortality rate of ~40 premature deaths per billion population (d/bn/DU). The impacts are spatially heterogeneous in sign and magnitude, composed of a reduction in premature mortality rate due to ozone exposure of ~80 d/bn/DU concentrated in Southeast Asia, and an increase in skin cancer mortality rate of ~40 d/bn/DU, mostly in Western Europe. This is the first study to quantify air quality benefits of stratospheric ozone depletion, and the first to find that marginal decreases in stratospheric ozone around modern-day values could result in a net reduction in global mortality due to competing health impact pathways. This result, which is subject to significant methodological uncertainty, highlights the need to understand the health and environmental trade-offs involved in policy decisions regarding anthropogenic influences on ozone chemistry over the 21st century.
    Ilissa B. Ocko, Steven P. Hamburg, Daniel J. Jacob, David W. Keith, Nathaniel O. Keohane, Michael Oppenheimer, Joseph D. Roy-Mayhew, Daniel P. Schrag, and Stephen W. Pacala. 5/5/2017. “Unmask temporal trade-offs in climate policy debates.” Science, 356, 6337, Pp. 492-493. Publisher's VersionAbstract

    Global warming potentials (GWPs) have become an essential element of climate policy and are built into legal structures that regulate greenhouse gas emissions. This is in spite of a well-known shortcoming: GWP hides trade-offs between short- and long-term policy objectives inside a single time scale of 100 or 20 years (1). The most common form, GWP100, focuses on the climate impact of a pulse emission over 100 years, diluting near-term effects and misleadingly implying that short-lived climate pollutants exert forcings in the long-term, long after they are removed from the atmosphere (2). Meanwhile, GWP20 ignores climate effects after 20 years. We propose that these time scales be ubiquitously reported as an inseparable pair, much like systolic-diastolic blood pressure and city-highway vehicle fuel economy, to make the climate effect of using one or the other time scale explicit. Policy-makers often treat a GWP as a value-neutral measure, but the time-scale choice is central to achieving specific objectives (2–4).

    Robert E. Kopp, Rachael Shwom, Gernot Wagner, and Jiacan Yuan. 7/2016. “Tipping elements and climate-economic shocks: Pathways toward integrated assessment.” Earth's Future. Publisher's VersionAbstract

    The literature on the costs of climate change often draws a link between climatic ‘tipping points’ and large economic shocks, frequently called ‘catastrophes’. The phrase ‘tipping points’ in this context can be misleading. In popular and social scientific discourse, ‘tipping points’ involve abrupt state changes. For some climatic ‘tipping points,’ the commitment to a state change may occur abruptly, but the change itself may be rate-limited and take centuries or longer to realize. Additionally, the connection between climatic ‘tipping points’ and economic losses is tenuous, though emerging empirical and process-model-based tools provide pathways for investigating it. We propose terminology to clarify the distinction between ‘tipping points’ in the popular sense, the critical thresholds exhibited by climatic and social ‘tipping elements,’ and ‘economic shocks’. The last may be associated with tipping elements, gradual climate change, or non-climatic triggers. We illustrate our proposed distinctions by surveying the literature on climatic tipping elements, climatically sensitive social tipping elements, and climate-economic shocks, and we propose a research agenda to advance the integrated assessment of all three.

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