Current Research Projects and Interests

International Governance of Climate Geoengineering

Given increasing alarm about continuing failure to adopt policies that can achieve the required large reductions of global greenhouse-gas emissions, and persistent uncertainties about the likely rate and impacts of climate change, many scientists have recently begun advocating research and development on climate geoengineering approaches to limit climate change: technological interventions to modify global-scale processes to offset some of the aggregate warming from greenhouse gases. This project examines the novel and difficult challenges of governance posed by the prospect of these capabilities.

The Relationship between Environmental Regulation and Technological Innovation

This project examines the relationship between environmental regulation and technological innovation, drawing on formal modeling and historical case studies.

The principal output of the project is a book (now in revision), tentatively titled Feasible Improvements: Technological Uncertainty and Strategic Behavior in Environmental Regulation, co-authored with Prof. Jennie C. Stephens of Clark University.

The book's main focus is the role of technological uncertainty – uncertainty about what technological options are available to reduce a particular environmental burden, how well they work, what they cost, and what other environmental, health, or safety problems they might carry – in making environmental regulation, and in resultant environmental performance. The core of the book consists of a set of historical case studies of parallel developments of policy and technology on six environmental issues for which arguments over technological feasibility and cost played prominent roles in the policy debate.

The cases include air pollution from automobiles, ozone-depleting chemicals, the agricultural pesticide methyl bromide, chlorine effluent from pulp mills, emissions of high-intensity greenhouse gases from the aluminum industry, and industrial exposures to vinyl chloride.

In environmental policy debates, information about technological capabilities is often held asymmetrically: firms usually know more than regulators about technological options, their promise, and their costs. A prominent theme of the book is this asymmetry of information, and the strategies firms and regulators employ to deal with this asymmetry and pursue their disparate objectives for environmental policy.

Opening and closing chapters provide a theoretical context for the cases, and develop a set of general theoretical propositions regarding firms and regulators' strategies and the results of their interactions for environmental performance. These provide new insights into several questions of importance to both scholarly understanding and professional practice, including:

  1. How arguments over technical feasibility are provisionally resolved in particular regulatory decisions, and how they adjust over time.
  2. What means regulators use to try to erode firms' information advantage and how firms try to maintain their advantage.
  3. The conditions associated with the pursuit, and success, of technology-forcing regulation.

Draft chapters are available upon request.

Adaptive Management of Long-term Energy/Environmental Issues

This project examines the dynamic and inter-temporal aspects of managing long-term issues, particularly environmental issues such as climate change that will require sustained attention to long-term goals over many decades, under changing political, economic, and knowledge conditions.

It studies these long-term problems from both an analytical perspective (e.g., what uncertainties limit our ability to do long-term planning, and what systems can be designed to assimilate future information as it becomes available into optimal inter-temporal decision pathways; in designing a system for future adaptation of decisions, what are the costs of adjusting more versus less frequently and how should they be balanced?); and from an institutional and legal perspective (e.g., how, and how much, is it feasible or legitimate for today's decision-makers to attempt to bind their successors? What institutions and procedures are likely to be most effective in balancing today's interests in keeping future decision-makers faithful to a long-term objective, while also being appropriately responsive to their additional knowledge, changed conditions, and autonomy?

The project was launched with a workshop, entitled "The Long Haul: Managing the Energy Transition to Limit Climate Change," which was held in August 2008 in Victoria, BC with sponsorship from the University of Victoria and its Centre for Global Studies, the US National Science Foundation, and the Climate Decision-Making Center of Carnegie-Mellon University.

The workshop convened about 30 international experts from diverse disciplines to examine how to navigate the huge, multi-decade transformation of world energy systems that will be needed to limit risks of climate change. The workshop sought to frame questions and themes for a subsequent program of collaborative research and analysis, by identifying current knowledge relevant to this problem from diverse fields, identifying insights current knowledge offers for near-term public and private decisions, and sharpening questions for research and analysis, to improve guidance for future decisions.

Market Creation as a Policy Tool for Transformational Change
with Robert Lempert and Steven Popper (RAND), Barry W. Ickes (Penn State)
funded by US National Science Foundation, program on Human and Social Dynamics, 2007-2010.

Economics provides an excellent understanding of the efficiency-enhancing potential of markets, but the introduction of markets often also leads to significant changes in society's values, technology, and institutions. Such market-induced transformations are less well understood.

Using historical case studies and formal simulation models, this project aims to improve understanding of such market-induced transformations and develop policy-analytic tools that include their potential effects.

Specifically, this project seeks to:

  1. Integrate and advance the understanding of market-induced transformations. We will examine how the potential for such transformations can lead to different outcomes (some beneficial some perhaps less so) than might be expected when considering only the most narrowly defined efficiency-enhancing potential of markets.
  2. Exploit this understanding by developing a set of policy analytic tools to compare and assess the effects of alternative policies that seek to achieve their goals by fostering market-induced transformations. In particular, we will examine how consideration of market-induced transformation might affect the appropriate design of policies to reduce emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases.

Science and Scientific Assessment: Influence and Credibility

Scientific knowledge, scientific consensus, and scientific assessment processes play prominent roles in shaping law, policy, and political debates on climate change and other environmental issues. The influence of science on these outcomes has been both real and constructive, although less stark and operating by more complex and nuanced mechanisms than sometimes claimed.

Moreover, scientific knowledge and institutions on climate change have recently come under forceful political attacks, which seek to reduce their credibility and influence on policy debates. Extending prior work on scientific influence and scientific assessments, this project examines the strategic, knowledge, and political conditions associated with constructive influence of scientific assessments on environmental or other policy debates, and the factors that increase or decrease the perceived credibility of science in policy debates.

Research Affiliations

Contact Information

Hutchins Hall 432
625 South State Street
Ann Arbor, MI, 48109
Phone: 734-763-6133
Fax: 734-763-9375
E-mail: parson(at)umich.edu

Assistant: Laura Harlow
Phone: 734-763-0957
E-mail: harlowl(at)umich.edu