Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 01/2009

The Economics of Inaction on Climate Change: A Sensitivity Analysis

Frank Ackerman, Ian J. Finlayson

October 2006

Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University


Economic models of climate change often take the problem seriously, but paradoxically conclude that the optimal policy is to do almost nothing about it. We explore this paradox as seen in the widely used DICE model. Three aspects of that model, involving the discount rate, the assumed benefits of moderate warming, and the treatment of the latest climate science, are sufficient to explain the timidity of the model's optimal policy recommendation. With modifications to those three points, DICE shows that the optimal policy is a much higher and rapidly rising marginal carbon price; that higher carbon price has a greater effect on physical measures of climate impacts. Our modifications exhibit nonlinear interactions; at least at low discount rates, there is synergy between individual changes to the model. At low discount rates, the inherent uncertainty about future damages looms larger in the analysis, rendering long-run economic modeling less useful.