How political science can advance climate models

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From heat domes in the Pacific Northwest to floods in Henan, China, 2021 has been a year riddled with extreme weather events. Identifying appropriate ways to tackle climate change is more crucial and timelier than ever.  

With the conclusion of the climate talks at the United Nations General Assembly, the world’s eyes are shifting to the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), the outcomes from which will be critical for the world’s climate future. 

Decisions made at the conference will, in part, be based on findings from scientific papers that employ what are known as “integrated assessment models” (IAMs), which “combine different strands of knowledge to model human society alongside parts of the Earth system.” 

Existing IAMs have integrated economic, technological and biophysical processes that produce greenhouse gas emissions. While politics play a significant role in shaping climate-related policies and trajectories, political scientists have not been actively involved in developing integrated assessment models, and by extension, the scientific foundation to climate policymaking. That needs to — and can — change. 

The missing contribution from political science to climate modeling is likely due to two main factors: Lack of exposure and meaningful interaction between political and climate scientists and great difficulty modeling political phenomena. Indeed, when I was a doctoral student at Stanford taking classes on climate modeling in 2017, I was told to be the first from political science to do so. 

While some have already voiced concern about the lack of realism in model representation, actual design and implementation to address those concerns have been scarce. After all, it is very challenging and time-consuming, requiring — at the minimum — intimate knowledge of the political world, familiarity with models and knowledge about what can feasibly be incorporated, and the technical expertise to implement.  

I believe political scientists can contribute to climate modeling in specific areas. My recently published exercise, which conceptualizes and implements the internalization of a key political concept — human security — offers lessons in how that can be accomplished. 

Making reasonable assumptions about political behaviors can provide essential insights into alternative future climates. A critical step towards achieving that goal is conceptualizing and quantifying core political science ideas such as power, violence and preferences such that they can be incorporated into IAMs. Not all core ideas are amenable for incorporation, but some recently published econometric studies — which “turns theoretical economic models into useful tools for economic policymaking,” according to the International Monetary Fund — are paving the way. I posit that political scientists have much to contribute to answering two core questions. 

First, what would be optimal? Political scientists can improve the estimation of the optimal carbon price — the price at which the net social benefit of carbon emissions would be maximized — by internalizing the costs of important social impacts not previously accounted for 

An example is the cost of climate-induced violence. My recent study uses econometric estimates of the costs of human violence and the climate-violence relationship and an established model called MERGE. It finds that such internalization can substantially influence the optimal carbon price. The impact can be significant and Sub-Saharan Africa is estimated to be the biggest beneficiary in terms of avoiding damages related to climate-induced violence. As future researchers adjust the approach taken in the study, they can incorporate other missing, but potentially substantial, social damages. One promising candidate could be those from climate-induced migration. 

Second, what would be feasible? Climate policies are about distributive politics, so the second area is to introduce and adjust the representation of political constraints in IAMs based on the preferences of the constituency, the electoral incentives of the incumbent, the ideology or party orientation of the incumbent, and the presence of powerful interest groups, among other factors. 

In democracies, voters would support a climate policy if they calculate it to be in their interest and oppose it if otherwise. However, voter preferences are not accommodated equally by career-minded incumbents who, when eligible for re-election, would pursue the set of policies that could maximize their electoral returns. Furthermore, governments generally value a core group of constituents’ well-being more than they would opposing groups’ and would be more inclined to accommodate the preferences of powerful interest groups. A modeling goal would be to represent such considerations to reach a feasible set of alternatives.  

While none of this is easy, integrating political science into climate modeling is meaningful and long-overdue. As statistician George Box once said, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” Political scientists can help make climate models more real and useful and contribute more substantially to climate policy-making. 

Dr. Shiran Victoria Shen is a political scientist and environmental engineer, a Hoover National Fellow, and an assistant professor at the University of Virginia.

Tags Climate change Climate change policy Economics of climate change Environmental science Environmental social science Integrated assessment modelling Political economy Politics of climate change
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