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Fat Tails, Thin Tails, and Climate Change Policy

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  • Robert S. Pindyck

Abstract

Climate policy is complicated by the considerable uncertainties concerning the benefits and costs of abatement. We do not even know the probability distributions for future temperatures and impacts, making benefit--cost analysis based on expected values challenging to say the least. There are good reasons to believe that those probability distributions are fat-tailed, which implies that if social welfare is based on the expectation of a constant relative risk aversion utility function, then we should be willing to sacrifice close to 100 percent of gross domestic product to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I argue that unbounded marginal utility makes little sense and that once we put a bound on marginal utility, this implication of fat tails goes away: Expected marginal utility will be finite even if the distribution for outcomes is fat-tailed. Furthermore, depending on the bound on marginal utility, the index of risk aversion, and the damage function, a thin-tailed distribution can actually yield a higher expected marginal utility (and thus a greater willingness to pay for abatement) than a fat-tailed one. Copyright 2011, Oxford University Press.

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Article provided by Association of Environmental and Resource Economists in its journal Review of Environmental Economics and Policy.

Volume (Year): 5 (2011)
Issue (Month): 2 (Summer)
Pages: 258-274

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Handle: RePEc:oup:renvpo:v:5:y:2011:i:2:p:258-274

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  1. Pindyck, Robert S., 2012. "Uncertain outcomes and climate change policy," Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, Elsevier, vol. 63(3), pages 289-303.
  2. Robert S. Pindyck, 2010. "Modeling the Impact of Warming in Climate Change Economics," NBER Working Papers 15692, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  3. Robert S. Pindyck & Neng Wang, 2013. "The Economic and Policy Consequences of Catastrophes," American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, American Economic Association, vol. 5(4), pages 306-39, November.
  4. Geoffrey Heal & Bengt Kriström, 2002. "Uncertainty and Climate Change," Environmental & Resource Economics, European Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, vol. 22(1), pages 3-39, June.
  5. Adam Daigneault & Steve Newbold, 2009. "Climate Response Uncertainty and the Unexpected Benefits of Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reductions," NCEE Working Paper Series 200806, National Center for Environmental Economics, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, revised Mar 2009.
  6. Pindyck, Robert S., 2002. "Optimal timing problems in environmental economics," Journal of Economic Dynamics and Control, Elsevier, vol. 26(9-10), pages 1677-1697, August.
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Cited by:
  1. In Chang Hwang & Richard S.J. Tol & Marjan W. Hofkes, 2013. "Active Learning about Climate Change," Working Paper Series 6513, Department of Economics, University of Sussex.
  2. Robert N. Stavins, 2010. "The Problem of the Commons: Still Unsettled after 100 Years," Working Papers 2010.131, Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei.
  3. Tack, Jesse, 2013. "A Nested Test for Common Yield Distributions with Applications to U.S. Corn," Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics, Western Agricultural Economics Association, vol. 38(1), April.
  4. Jones, Benjamin & Keen, Michael & Strand, Jon, 2012. "Fiscal implications of climate change," Policy Research Working Paper Series 5956, The World Bank.
  5. Xepapadeas, Anastasios & Ralli, Parthenopi & Kougea, Eva & Spyrou, Sofia & Stavropoulos, Nikolaos & Tsiaousi, Vasiliki & Tsivelikas, Athanasios, 2014. "Valuing insurance services emerging from a gene bank: The case of the Greek Gene Bank," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 97(C), pages 140-149.
  6. Simon Dietz & Anca N. Matei, 2013. "Is there space for agreement on climate change? A non-parametric approach to policy evaluation," Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment Working Papers 136, Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.
  7. Hwang, In Chang & Reynès, Frédéric & Tol, Richard S. J., 2011. "Climate Policy Under Fat-Tailed Risk: An Application of Dice," Papers WP403, Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI).
  8. David Martimort & Stéphane Straub, 2011. "How to Design Public-Private Partnerships in a Warming World? - When Infrastructure Becomes a Really “Hot” Topic," Working Papers 2011/25, Maastricht School of Management.
  9. Richard S.J. Tol, 2012. "Targets for Global Climate Policy: An Overview," Working Paper Series 3712, Department of Economics, University of Sussex.
  10. Matthew J. Holian & Matthew E. Kahn, 2014. "Household Demand for Low Carbon Public Policies: Evidence from California," NBER Working Papers 19965, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  11. Pycroft, Jonathan & Vergano, Lucia & Hope, Chris & Paci, Daniele & Ciscar, Juan Carlos, 2011. "A tale of tails: Uncertainty and the social cost of carbon dioxide," Economics - The Open-Access, Open-Assessment E-Journal, Kiel Institute for the World Economy, vol. 5(22), pages 1-29.
  12. In Chang Hwang & Richard S.J. Tol & Marjan W. Hofkes, 2013. "Tail-effect and the Role of Greenhouse Gas Emissions Control," Working Paper Series 6613, Department of Economics, University of Sussex.
  13. Boyarchenko, Svetlana & Levendorskii, Sergei, 2010. "Discounting when income is stochastic and climate change policies," MPRA Paper 27998, University Library of Munich, Germany.
  14. Kousky, Carolyn & Kopp, Robert E. & Cooke, Roger, 2011. "Risk premia and the social cost of carbon: A review," Economics Discussion Papers 2011-19, Kiel Institute for the World Economy.
  15. Hwang, In Chang, 2014. "Fat-tailed uncertainty and the learning-effect," MPRA Paper 53671, University Library of Munich, Germany.

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