Gernot Wagner

Thomas Stoerk, Gernot Wagner, and Robert ET Ward. 6/4/2018. “Recommendations for Improving the Treatment of Risk and Uncertainty in Economic Estimates of Climate Impacts in the Sixth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Assessment Report.” Review of Environmental Economics and Policy. Publisher's VersionAbstract
Large discrepancies persist between projections of the physical impacts of climate change and economic damage estimates. These discrepancies increase with increasing global average temperature projections. Based on this observation, we recommend that in its Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) improve its approach to the management of the uncertainties inherent in climate policy decisions. In particular, we suggest that the IPCC (1) strengthen its focus on applications of decision making under risk, uncertainty, and outright ambiguity and (2) estimate how the uncertainty itself affects its economic and financial cost estimates of climate damage and, ultimately, the optimal price for each ton of carbon dioxide released. Our hope is that by adopting these recommendations, AR6 will be able to resolve some of the documented inconsistencies in estimates of the physical and economic impacts of climate change and more effectively fulfill the IPCC’s mission to provide policymakers with a robust and rigorous approach for assessing the potential future risks of climate change.
Aseem Mahajan, Dustin Tingley, and Gernot Wagner. 5/2018. “Fast, cheap, and imperfect? U.S. public opinion about solar geoengineering.” Environmental Politics. Publisher's VersionAbstract
Solar geoengineering, which seeks to cool the planet by reflecting a small fraction of sunlight back into space, has drawn the attention of scientists and policymakers as climate change remains unabated. Unlike mitigation, solar geoengineering could quickly and cheaply lower global temperatures. It is also imperfect. Its environmental impacts remain unpredictable, and its low cost and immediate effects may result in “moral hazard,” potentially crowding out costly mitigation efforts. There is little understanding about how the public will respond to such tradeoffs. To address this, a 1,000-subject nationally representative poll focused on solar geoengineering was conducted as part of the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) of the US electorate in October-November 2016. The importance that individuals place on solar geoengineering’s speed and cost predicts their support for it, but there is little to no relationship between their concerns about its shortcomings and support for its research and use. Acquiescence bias appears to be an important factor for attitudes around solar geoengineering and moral hazard.
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.
Kristina Mohlin, Jonathan R. Camuzeaux, Adrian Muller, Marius Schneider, and Gernot Wagner. 2/12/2018. “Factoring in the forgotten role of renewables in CO2 emission trends using decomposition analysis.” Energy Policy, 116, Pp. 290–296. Publisher's VersionAbstract
This paper introduces an approach for separately quantifying the contributions from renewables in decomposition analysis. So far, decomposition analyses of the drivers of national CO2 emissions have typically considered the combined energy mix as an explanatory factor without an explicit consideration or separation of renewables. As the cost of renewables continues to decrease, it becomes increasingly relevant to track their role in CO2 emission trends. Index decomposition analysis, in particular, provides a simple approach for doing so using publicly available data. We look to the U.S. as a case study, highlighting differences with the more detailed but also more complex structural decomposition analysis. Between 2007 and 2013, U.S. CO2 emissions decreased by around 10%—a decline not seen since the oil crisis of 1979. Prior analyses have identified the shale gas boom and the economic recession as the main explanatory factors. However, by decomposing the fuel mix effect, we conclude that renewables played an equally important role as natural gas in reducing CO2 emissions between 2007 and 2013: renewables decreased total emissions by 2.3–3.3%, roughly matching the 2.5–3.6% contribution from the shift to natural gas, compared with 0.6–1.5% for nuclear energy.
J. Paul Kelleher and Gernot Wagner. 2/2018. “Ramsey discounting calls for subtracting climate damages from economic growth rates.” Applied Economics Letters. Publisher's VersionAbstract
The Ramsey equation ties the utility discount rate and the elasticity of marginal utility of consumption together with per capita consumption growth rates to calculate consumption discount rates. For many applications, per capita consumption growth rates can be approximated with per capita output growth rates. That approximation does not work for climate change, which drives an ever-increasing and increasingly uncertain wedge between output and consumption growth. NAS (2017), in a central recommendation and illustrative example, conflates the two. The correct, consumption-based discounting method generally decreases consumption discount rates and, thus, increases the resulting Social Cost of Carbon Dioxide (SC-CO2).
Paul Bodnar, Caroline Ott, Rupert Edwards, Stephan Hoch, Emily F. McGlynn, and Gernot Wagner. 12/4/2017. “Underwriting 1.5°C: competitive approaches to financing accelerated climate change mitigation.” Climate Policy. Publisher's VersionAbstract

Delivering emission reductions consistent with a 1.5°C trajectory will require innovative public financial instruments designed to mobilize trillions of dollars of low-carbon private investment. Traditional public subsidy instruments such as grants and concessional loans, while critical to supporting nascent technologies or high-capital-cost projects, do not provide the price signals required to shift private investments towards low-carbon alternatives at a scale. Programmes that underwrite the value of emission reductions using auctioned price floors provide price certainty over long time horizons, thus improving the cost-effectiveness of limited public funds while also catalysing private investment.

Taking lessons from the World Bank’s Pilot Auction Facility, which supports methane and nitrous oxide mitigation projects, and the United Kingdom’s Contracts for Difference programme, which supports renewable energy deployment, we show that auctioned price floors can be applied to a variety of sectors with greater efficiency and scalability than traditional subsidy instruments. We explore how this new class of instrument can enhance the cost-effectiveness of carbon pricing and complementary policies needed to achieve a 1.5°C outcome, including through large-scale adoption by the Green Climate Fund and other international and domestic climate finance vehicles.

Key policy insights

  • Traditional public climate finance interventions such as grants and concessional loans have not mobilized private capital at the scale needed to decarbonize the world economy consistent with the 2°C target, much less 1.5°C, and will likely face ongoing constraints in the future.
  • Auctioned price floors – subsidies that offer a guaranteed price for future emission reductions – maximize climate impact per public dollar while incentivizing private investment in low-carbon technologies.
  • This new subsidy instrument, if applied at scale via the Green Climate Fund and other domestic and international climate finance vehicles, can promote private sector competition to bring down technology costs and drive innovation, thereby supporting a longer term transition to regulation and sector- or economy-wide carbon markets.
  • To facilitate the transition from public subsidy to the market-based support of climate mitigation, auctioned price floors should work in tandem with carbon pricing and complementary policies, using the same accounting and monitoring, reporting and verification toolkits.
Jonas Meckling, Thomas Sterner, and Gernot Wagner. 11/13/2017. “Policy sequencing toward decarbonization.” Nature Energy. Publisher's VersionAbstract
Many economists have long held that carbon pricing—either through a carbon tax or cap-and-trade—is the most cost-effective way to decarbonize energy systems, along with subsidies for basic research and development. Meanwhile, green innovation and industrial policies aimed at fostering low-carbon energy technologies have proliferated widely. Most of these predate direct carbon pricing. Low-carbon leaders such as California and the European Union (EU) have followed a distinct policy sequence that helps overcome some of the political challenges facing low-carbon policy by building economic interest groups in support of decarbonization and reducing the cost of technologies required for emissions reductions. However, while politically effective, this policy pathway faces significant challenges to environmental and cost effectiveness, including excess rent capture and lock-in. Here we discuss options for addressing these challenges under political constraints. As countries move toward deeper emissions cuts, combining and sequencing policies will prove critical to avoid environmental, economic, and political dead-ends in decarbonizing energy systems.
Dustin Tingley and Gernot Wagner. 10/31/2017. “Solar geoengineering and the chemtrails conspiracy on social media.” Palgrave Communications, 3, 12. Publisher's VersionAbstract
Discourse on social media of solar geoengineering has been rapidly increasing over the past decade, in line with increased attention by the scientific community and low but increasing awareness among the general public. The topic has also found increased attention online. But unlike scientific discourse, a majority of online discussion focuses on the so-called chemtrails conspiracy theory, the widely debunked idea that airplanes are spraying a toxic mix of chemicals through contrails, with supposed goals ranging from weather to mind control. This paper presents the results of a nationally representative 1000-subject poll part of the 36,000-subject 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), and an analysis of the universe of social media mentions of geoengineering. The former shows ~ 10% of Americans declaring the chemtrails conspiracy as “completely” and a further ~ 20–30% as “somewhat” true, with no apparent difference by party affiliation or strength of partisanship. Conspiratorial views have accounted for ~ 60% of geoengineering discourse on social media over the past decade. Of that, Twitter has accounted for >90%, compared to ~ 75% of total geoengineering mentions. Further affinity analysis reveals a broad online community of conspiracy. Anonymity of social media appears to help its spread, so does the general ease of spreading unverified or outright false information. Online behavior has important real-world reverberations, with implications for climate science communication and policy.
David W. Keith, Gernot Wagner, and Claire L. Zabel. 9/1/2017. “Solar geoengineering reduces atmospheric carbon burden.” Nature Climate Change, 7, Pp. 617–619. Publisher's VersionAbstract

Solar geoengineering is no substitute for cutting emissions, but could nevertheless help reduce the atmospheric carbon burden. In the extreme, if solar geoengineering were used to hold radiative forcing constant under RCP8.5, the carbon burden may be reduced by ~100 GTC, equivalent to 12–26% of twenty-first-century emissions at a cost of under US$0.5 per tCO2.

Jeremy Proville, Daniel Zavala-Araiza, and Gernot Wagner. 3/27/2017. “Night-time lights: A global, long term look at links to socio-economic trends.” PLoS ONE, 12, 3. Publisher's VersionAbstract
We use a parallelized spatial analytics platform to process the twenty-one year totality of the longest-running time series of night-time lights data—the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) dataset—surpassing the narrower scope of prior studies to assess changes in area lit of countries globally. Doing so allows a retrospective look at the global, long-term relationships between night-time lights and a series of socio-economic indicators. We find the strongest correlations with electricity consumption, CO2 emissions, and GDP, followed by population, CH4 emissions, N2O emissions, poverty (inverse) and F-gas emissions. Relating area lit to electricity consumption shows that while a basic linear model provides a good statistical fit, regional and temporal trends are found to have a significant impact.