Climate–Society Feedback Effects: Be Wary of Unidentified Connections

International Review of Environmental and Resource Economics (2021) 15 (1-2) 33-93

Peter Howard and Michael A. Livermore

Feedbacks within the climate-economy system are complex. The research analyzing the relationship between human activities and the climate is considerable, with particular focus on intra-system feedback effects: environmental tipping points, and climate-triggered social tipping points, like migration, to a lesser extent.

Due to their cross-disciplinary nature, two-way interactions between the environment and society, whereby movement in either system can trigger inter-system feedbacks as humans respond to a changing environment thereby further changing the environment, have only recently received attention by a growing inter-disciplinary research community. With the aim of improving climate policy and its tools, such as the social cost of carbon, we describe these social-ecological system (SES) feedbacks and place them in the existing taxonomy for tipping points applied by mainstream climate-economy models. Drawing lessons from SES research and related interdisciplinary literatures, we discuss the value of and method by which to modify social-cost integrated assessment models (SC-IAMs), like Nordhaus’ DICE. As it is critical that climate policy include these risks to the stability of the climate-economy system, we conclude with a research agenda for the identification, quantification, and integration of climate-society feedbacks into SC-IAMs.

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