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On Welfare Frameworks and Catastrophic Climate Risks

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  • Antony Millner
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    Abstract

    Recent theoretical work in the economics of climate change has suggested that climate policy is highly sensitive to ‘fat-tailed’ risks of catastrophic outcomes (Weitzman, 2009b). Such risks are suggested to be an inevitable consequence of scientific uncertainty about the effects of increased greenhouse gas concentrations on climate. Criticisms of this controversial result fall into three categories: The first suggests it may be irrelevant to cost benefit analysis of climate policy, the second challenges the fat-tails assumption, and the third questions the behaviour of the utility function assumed in the result. This paper analyses these critiques, and suggests that those in the first two categories have formal validity, but that they apply only to the restricted setup of the original result, which may be extended to address their concerns. They are thus ultimately unconvincing. Critiques in the third category are shown to be robust, however they open up new ethical and empirical challenges for climate economics that have thus far been neglected - how should we ‘value’ catastrophes as a society? I demonstrate that applying results from social choice to this problem can lead to counterintuitive results, in which society values catastrophes as infinitely bad, even though each individual’s utility function is bounded. Finally, I suggest that the welfare functions traditionally used in climate economics are ill-equipped to deal with climate catastrophes in which population size changes. Drawing on recent work in population ethics I propose an alternative welfare framework with normatively desirable properties, which has the effect of dampening the contribution of catastrophes to welfare.

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    File URL: http://www.cesifo-group.de/portal/page/portal/DocBase_Content/WP/WP-CESifo_Working_Papers/wp-cesifo-2013/wp-cesifo-2013-10/cesifo1_wp4442.pdf
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    Bibliographic Info

    Paper provided by CESifo Group Munich in its series CESifo Working Paper Series with number 4442.

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    Date of creation: 2013
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    Handle: RePEc:ces:ceswps:_4442

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    Related research

    Keywords: climate change; catastrophes; welfare; uncertainty; social choice; population;

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    References

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    1. Chichilnisky, Graciela, 2000. "An axiomatic approach to choice under uncertainty with catastrophic risks," Resource and Energy Economics, Elsevier, vol. 22(3), pages 221-231, July.
    2. Broome, John, 2006. "Weighing Lives," OUP Catalogue, Oxford University Press, number 9780199297702, September.
    3. Thomas Sterner & U. Martin Persson, 2008. "An Even Sterner Review: Introducing Relative Prices into the Discounting Debate," Review of Environmental Economics and Policy, Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, vol. 2(1), pages 61-76, Winter.
    4. Richard T. Woodward & Richard C. Bishop, 1997. "How to Decide When Experts Disagree: Uncertainty-Based Choice Rules in Environmental Policy," Land Economics, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 73(4), pages 492-507.
    5. John C. Harsanyi, 1955. "Cardinal Welfare, Individualistic Ethics, and Interpersonal Comparisons of Utility," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 63, pages 309.
    6. Martin L. Weitzman, 2010. "GHG Targets as Insurance Against Catastrophic Climate Damages," NBER Working Papers 16136, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    7. Dasgupta, Partha, 2001. "Human Well-Being and the Natural Environment," OUP Catalogue, Oxford University Press, number 9780199247882, September.
    8. Antony Millner & Simon Dietz & Geoffrey Heal, 2010. "Ambiguity and Climate Policy," NBER Working Papers 16050, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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    11. Gilboa, Itzhak & Schmeidler, David, 1989. "Maxmin expected utility with non-unique prior," Journal of Mathematical Economics, Elsevier, vol. 18(2), pages 141-153, April.
    12. William D. Nordhaus, 2011. "The Economics of Tail Events with an Application to Climate Change," Review of Environmental Economics and Policy, Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, vol. 5(2), pages 240-257, Summer.
    13. Li, Chuan-Zhong & Lofgren, Karl-Gustaf, 2000. "Renewable Resources and Economic Sustainability: A Dynamic Analysis with Heterogeneous Time Preferences," Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, Elsevier, vol. 40(3), pages 236-250, November.
    14. Partha Dasgupta, 2008. "Discounting climate change," Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, Springer, vol. 37(2), pages 141-169, December.
    15. Simon Dietz & Nicholas Stern, 2008. "Why Economic Analysis Supports Strong Action on Climate Change: A Response to the Stern Review's Critics," Review of Environmental Economics and Policy, Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, vol. 2(1), pages 94-113, Winter.
    16. Stephen Newbold & Adam Daigneault, 2009. "Climate Response Uncertainty and the Benefits of Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reductions," Environmental & Resource Economics, European Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, vol. 44(3), pages 351-377, November.
    17. Geweke, John, 2001. "A note on some limitations of CRRA utility," Economics Letters, Elsevier, vol. 71(3), pages 341-345, June.
    18. Martin L. Weitzman, 2007. "A Review of the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 45(3), pages 703-724, September.
    19. Gilboa, Itzhak & Postlewaite, Andrew & Schmeidler, David, 2009. "Is It Always Rational To Satisfy Savage'S Axioms?," Economics and Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, vol. 25(03), pages 285-296, November.
    20. Louis Kaplow & David Weisbach, 2011. "Discount rates, social judgments, individuals’ risk preferences, and uncertainty," Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, Springer, vol. 42(2), pages 125-143, April.
    21. Geoffrey Heal, 2009. "Climate Economics: A Meta-Review and Some Suggestions for Future Research," Review of Environmental Economics and Policy, Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, vol. 3(1), pages 4-21, Winter.
    22. Kenneth Arrow, 2009. "A note on uncertainty and discounting in models of economic growth," Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, Springer, vol. 38(2), pages 87-94, April.
    23. Arrow, Kenneth J, 1974. "The Use of Unbounded Utility Functions in Expected-Utility Maximization: Response," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 88(1), pages 136-38, February.
    24. William D. Nordhaus, 2007. "A Review of the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 45(3), pages 686-702, September.
    25. Harsanyi, John C, 1978. "Bayesian Decision Theory and Utilitarian Ethics," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 68(2), pages 223-28, May.
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    Citations

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    Cited by:
    1. Edilio Valentini & Paolo Vitale, 2014. "Optimal Climate Policy for a Pessimistic Social Planner," Working Papers 2014.33, Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei.
    2. W. Botzen & Jeroen Bergh, 2014. "Specifications of Social Welfare in Economic Studies of Climate Policy: Overview of Criteria and Related Policy Insights," Environmental & Resource Economics, European Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, vol. 58(1), pages 1-33, May.
    3. Martin L. Weitzman, 2014. "Fat Tails and the Social Cost of Carbon," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 104(5), pages 544-46, May.
    4. Hwang, In Chang, 2014. "Fat-tailed uncertainty and the learning-effect," MPRA Paper 53671, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    5. Geoffrey Heal & Antony Millner, 2013. "Uncertainty and Decision in Climate Change Economics," NBER Working Papers 18929, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    6. Marc Fleurbaey & Stéphane Zuber, 2014. "Fair management of social risk," Université Paris1 Panthéon-Sorbonne (Post-Print and Working Papers) halshs-00973480, HAL.
    7. 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.
    8. Marc Fleurbaey & Stéphane Zuber, 2014. "Discounting, Risk and Inequality: A General Approach," Université Paris1 Panthéon-Sorbonne (Post-Print and Working Papers) halshs-00973471, HAL.
    9. Adler, Matthew & Treich, Nicolas, 2014. "Consumption, Risk and Prioritarianism," TSE Working Papers 14-500, Toulouse School of Economics (TSE).
    10. 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.

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