Cameron Hepburn


Dealing with uncertainty: Response-resilient climate change mitigation polices for long-lived and short-lived climate pollutants

Climate change solutions are subject to many inherent uncertainties. One of the most important is the uncertainty over the magnitude of the physical response of the climate system to external forcing. The risk of extremely large responses to forcing, so called “fat-tail” outcomes, cannot be ruled out from the latest science and offer profound challenges when creating policies that aim to meet a specific target of global temperature change. This study offers examples of how mitigation policies can be made resilient to this uncertainty in the physical climate response via indexing policies against an attributable anthropogenic warming index (the magnitude of the observed global mean warming that is can be traced to human activities), the AWI, instead of against time directly. We show that indexing policy measures that influence the total stock of carbon in the atmosphere (such as the fraction of extracted carbon sequestered) against the AWI can largely eliminate the risk of missing the specified warming goal due to unexpectedly large climate responses as well as the risk of costly over-mitigation if the physical response turned out to be lower than expected. We offer further examples of how this methodology can be expanded to include short-lived climate pollutants as well as long-lived carbon dioxide. Indexing policies against the AWI can have important consequences for the actions of governments acting to design national climate mitigation policies as well as private sector investors looking to incentivise the transition to a climate-stable economy. We conclude with some thoughts on how these indexes can help focus attention on the long-term perspective that is consistent with the conclusions of the latest climate science on what is required to ultimately stabilise the global climate system.

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