Climate Change Science and Economics

Denise Eby Konan, Dean of Social Sciences and Professor, Department of Economics (konan@hawaii.edu); Julia M. Morgan, Lecturer, Department of Philosophy (jmmorgan@hawaii.edu), University of Hawai’i at Mānoa

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The Hawaiian Archipelago is the most geographically isolated set of islands in the world, and as such, hosts a wealth of frontier natural science and social science research, specifically in the area of climate change. A large indigenous population adds to the ethical and decision-making complexity of the islands. Recognizing opportunity and kuleana (Hawaiian word for responsibility), Denise Eby Konan and Mary Tiles developed and taught this upper level, non-major, economics class, leveraging many of Hawaii’s unique, accessible resources as they relate to climate change.

The course emphasizes climate science, human economic behavior, and the role that policy plays in balancing issues of nature, humanity and social justice. In addition to lectures, a number of guest speakers from the community discuss with students global climate change as it directly affects the region.

Climate Change and Economics

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Initially piloted as ECON 496: Contemporary Economics Issues, this course was approved in Spring 2009 as ECON 332: Economics of Climate Change. The course has been offered numerous times at University of Hawaii at Manoa (UHM) and once at the American Business School, Paris France and is now a regular part of the Department of Economics summer course offerings, where it is taught by Julia Morgan.

Linking Science and Social Issues

The course covers the nature and causes of global climate change, the natural and human impacts, economic solutions, policy-making, and ethical considerations.
To see a chart detailing how the course’s disciplinary content is taught “through” civic issues, see the attached file:

Linking Content to Civic Questions

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UHM’s ocean and earth sciences research is ranked among the nation’s best. Leading experts on the causes and effects of climate change present various topics in guest lectures. Lead author of the IPCC chapter on oceans and feature scientist on Discovery Channel, Dr. David Karl, presents on microbial oceanography and the role that oceans can play as a carbon sink. Geologist and award-winning science communicator, Dr. Charles (Chip) Fletcher, presents frontier science on sea level rise and impacts on Pacific Islands and Hawai’i. NSF researcher and leading textbook author, Dr. Fred Mackenzie, shares his field experiments on ocean acidification and the dramatic impacts that anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are having on coral reefs and other calcifying organisms. The class also hosts Dr. Gerard Fryer of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, who presents on the management of natural disasters, especially focusing on the unique position of this isolated island chain. Additional topics included the scientific basis for global warming, scientific modeling, sources of and methods to account for GHG emissions, triggers for increases in severe weather (eg El Niño), and so on.

In addition to science topics, leading economics experts are tapped to discuss the economics of global climate change, especially the effects of climate change on the economy of Hawaii. Professor Denise Konan, Prof. Nori Tarui, and Prof. Makena Coffman lecture on the economics of climate change and its impacts. Topics include intertemporal valuation of climate change impacts and the debate on the optimal rate of GHG emissions reduction (Sir Nicolas Stern and Dr. Nordhaus); the difference between carbon tax, cap and trade, and command and control policy instruments; energy policy including OPEC as well as local energy policy and governmental decisions; engineering cost-benefit analysis; and methodologies for evaluating intergenerational equity, income distribution, and other social welfare analyses. Mechanism designs for international cooperation and their potential success for Hawaii are evaluated. Issues of risk assessment and risk management also are covered, especially as they relate to small economy of scale, highly vulnerable island communities. Woven throughout the course, are lectures and thought experiments on environmental ethics, value, and distributive justice, demonstrating that each question we ask, whether it be scientific or economic, has ethical and justice implications. Experts on conflict management present on options for managing the unavoidable conflict that necessarily will arise as global climate change begins to limit resources (including land for housing) in island communities. In addition, experts in kanaka maoli (Hawaiian) culture, science, and conflict management give students valuable tools into the culture- and place sensitive-issues that are unique to the island chain.

Students assimilate the science, economics, and ethics of climate change knowledge and create a policy to address climate change impacts. Early in the semester, the class uses Open Space Technology (OST), a facilitation technique, by which students identify topics about which they are passionate. Students self-organize into teams around a climate science challenge that will serve as the focal point for semester research projects. Giving ownership and leadership responsibility energizes students and helps them to develop core competencies in project management, scientific research, economics, policy-making, and ethics. Students incrementally work on teams to conduct a literature review, develop a concept note, write a draft and final White Paper, and a press release. Students provide a variety of presentations including a scientific lecture and a policy presentation in the form of a governor’s speech. Students are graded on, not only innovation and creativity, but also on how well they incorporate the issues of science, economics, and ethics into their final policy suggestions.

The Course

Econ 332 Syllabus

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Class Schedule

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Sample Assignments:

Speech Assignment

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Business Organization Speech

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Conflict Management Speech

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Climate Change Scenario

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Risk Scenario

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This course explores economic and ethical issues underlying the threat of global climate change. Students will develop a climate change platform for Hawai’i based on an analysis of economic and ethical impacts. The course will cover the nature and causes of global climate change and economic solutions. Topics include intertemporal valuation of climate change impacts, energy and resource linkages, mitigation solutions, societal adaptation, and international cooperation.

The course emphasizes Hawai’i’s unique conditions. In addition to lectures, a number of guest speakers from the community discuss with students global climate change as it directly affects the state of Hawaii. Students write and present several shorter speeches, designed to culminate in a final assignment, which is to formulate a global climate change policy for the State of Hawaii. The final assignment consists of three parts: an informative and persuasive speech to be given by the Governor to the State Legislature, detailing the substance of the proposal; a shorter persuasive speech to be given by a representative of the Governor’s Office to a community organization of the group’s choosing; and a press release, which will be handed out after the Governor’s speech. Students work collaboratively as well as independently.

Evaluating Learning

Formal assessment of the class revealed:

  1. A class addressing pertinent science-based social issues could be taught and well received at the undergraduate level. Moreover, students would accept the opportunity and willingly meet the challenge of incorporating science, economics, and ethics into a policy solution.
  2. Non-science majors would be willing to engage much more closely with “hard” scientific data and science majors would be willing to engage more closely with economics and ethics (the “soft” sciences) in the process of crafting their final policy suggestions if they were given the tools to access, understand, and utilize the data and theories from these fields.
  3. Campus faculty, local experts, and business leaders were willing to participate.
  4. Students who took the class would be willing to continue their research and work on the project beyond the deadlines of the semester. (Two students hired for summer GHG research, and two students registered for GHG research credit Fall, 2009. Additional students were funneled into other related projects, with two presently working on PhD’s in economics and policy.)
  5. The popularity and success of the class is due, in part, to using area experts to present their climate change niche.
  6. Students are equally receptive to the science presentations as they were to the business presentations.

Background and Context

The course is offered as an upper division elective in Economics. The course fulfills elective requirements for the Economics major and “Social Sciences” graduation requirements for non-majors.

The course is designed to fulfill the hallmarks for the Contemporary Ethical Issues (E) focus requirement. The E-focus requirement is a unique feature of the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa graduation requirements for the baccalaureate degree. E-focus courses give students disciplinary tools for responsible deliberation and ethical judgment. Students must complete one E-focus course in order to graduate.

Related Resources and Results

Econ 332 has recently been approved as one of the possible courses students can take to fulfill a requirement in the new Sustainability Studies major at the University of Hawai’i.