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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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Bibliographic Info

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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References

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  1. Robert S. Pindyck, 2010. "Modeling the Impact of Warming in Climate Change Economics," Working Papers 1001, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Robert S. Pindyck, 2009. "Uncertain Outcomes and Climate Change Policy," Working Papers 0907, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research.
  6. Robert S. Pindyck, 2009. "The Economic and Policy Consequences of Catastrophes," Working Papers 0912, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research.
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Citations

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Cited by:
  1. 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).
  2. Richard S.J. Tol, 2012. "Targets for Global Climate Policy: An Overview," Working Paper Series 3712, Department of Economics, University of Sussex.
  3. Stavins, Robert N., 2010. "The Problem of the Commons: Still Unsettled After 100 Years," Discussion Papers dp-10-46, Resources For the Future.
  4. 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.
  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. Boyarchenko, Svetlana & Levendorskii, Sergei, 2010. "Discounting when income is stochastic and climate change policies," MPRA Paper 27998, University Library of Munich, Germany.
  8. Benjamin Jones & Michael Keen & Jon Strand, 2013. "Fiscal implications of climate change," International Tax and Public Finance, Springer, vol. 20(1), pages 29-70, February.
  9. 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.
  10. Hwang, In Chang, 2014. "Fat-tailed uncertainty and the learning-effect," MPRA Paper 53671, University Library of Munich, Germany.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  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.

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