Forum engages climate scientists and economists

The only ground rule for discussion at Thursday’s conference on climate change was: “Keep it civil.”

One day after Yale students voted to support divesting the University endowment from fossil fuels, the Yale Climate & Energy Institute hosted a daylong forum at Kline Geology Laboratory aimed at fostering dialogue between climate scientists and environmental economists. While both sides recognize the gravity of climate change, the two often remain siloed in their own disciplines, said Michael Oristaglio, a Yale research scientist and event organizer. Presentations from 15 experts in the field — including professors from Yale, Harvard and MIT — covered specific topics ranging from quantifying climate sensitivity and to policy making.

“We have moved beyond debating whether climate change exists, now it’s about quantifying the uncertainty,” said Ken Gillingham, a Yale economics professor and event organizer.

Despite growing evidence for climate change, predictions for the course of global warming are not becoming more precise, Gillingham said. In September, the fifth report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that the atmospheric temperature will rise anywhere from 1.5 to 4.5 degrees Celsius given a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But the previous report, released in 2007, projected a narrower increase of 2 to 4.5 degrees. Gillingham said this lack of consensus about the trajectory of climate change, despite increasing research in the area, inspired holding the conference.

For Yale professor of economics Tony Smith, the event presented an opportunity to hear from climate scientists on how he should tweak his models of global warming. During one of the five discussions sessions throughout the eight-and-a-half-hour event, Smith discussed the importance of precipitation in his models with multiple climatologists.

Towards the end of the afternoon, Director of the Yale Climate & Energy Institute Mark Pagani said he plans to collaborate with economists on either an academic article or an op-ed about reducing uncertainty in projections of climate change.

The event met its goal in breaking down barriers between climate scientists and economists, said Mark Pagani, director of the Yale Climate & Energy Institute. Trude Storelvmo, a Yale professor of geology and geophysics, said the event was an important first step in the conversation between the two sides, since both economists and climatologists are working towards projecting climate change.

Still, some disagreements between the climatologists and economists remain. At the event, many economists focused on the most extreme predictions that the atmospheric temperature will increase 6 to 10 degrees in atmospheric temperature. Climatologists responded that even a 4-degree increase implies a rise in sea levels, more intense storms and ecological destruction.

Some climatologists at the event debated whether economists have the right tools for modeling climate change.

“I’m not sure how economists can deal with these issues,” said Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. “You can’t put numbers and statistics on the world in meaningful ways.”

According to NASA, global sea levels have risen 6.7 inches over the last century.

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