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Sociopolitical Feedbacks and Climate Change

By Peter Howard and Michael A. Livermore
March 6, 2019

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Filed under Climate Change and Energy Policy, Academic Articles/Working Papers

This article, published in the Harvard Environmental Law Review, investigates sociopolitical feedbacks in the economy-climate system. These feedbacks occur when climate change affects the social or political processes that determine mitigation or adaptation levels, which in turn affect future climate damages. Two possible feedbacks are an economic disruption pathway and a political disruption pathway. In both, climate damages earlier in time undermine mitigation and adaptation policies, which exacerbates future climate damages. Using data on participation in multilateral environmental agreements, the article explores the political disruption pathway.

Coupled with prior work demonstrating the potential for climate damages to exacerbate civil conflict, empirical analysis indicates that climate-induced political disruptions may impede climate policymaking, increasing the threat of future damages. We estimate how feedbacks of this sort affect predictions of temperature change and damages in the Dynamic Integrated Climate Economy (DICE) model. We find that, especially if feedbacks affect participation in international emissions reduction efforts, anticipated temperature change and damages are substantially higher than currently estimated. Finally, we discuss how policymakers can respond to the existence of these feedbacks, especially by facilitating the resilience of climate policies and governance to climate related shocks.