This past winter, University of Chicago economist Amir Jina had to flip his climate policy class “on its head.” The election of President Joe Biden suddenly brought the United States toward environmental optimism—a shift that energized Jina’s students.
An environmental and development economist at Harris Public Policy, Jina stresses that the next decade could be our last chance to prevent the worse outcomes of climate change, making the Biden administration’s priorities all the more important. Earlier this year, he authored a chapter on climate change and the U.S. economic future, part of a new policy roadmap released by the Energy Policy Institute at UChicago.
Jina, whose research focuses on how environmental changes shapes societies, is also a founding member of the Climate Impact Lab—an interdisciplinary collaboration examining the global socioeconomic impacts of a warming planet. In the following Q&A, he discusses the challenges ahead for the climate, the importance of having a variety of experts in policymaking, and much more.
You’re active with the Climate Impact Lab. What is the Climate Impact Lab currently working on?
The Climate Impact Lab measures the real-world costs of climate change, leveraging a first-of-its-kind, evidence-based, data-driven approach. During the previous presidential administration in the United States, the members of the Lab began working on research that could inform what an administration that cared deeply about environmental policy would need to focus on, and what tools they would need to advance progress. Our efforts ended up being even more timely than we anticipated due to the moment we find ourselves in now, and the specific administration that got elected.
We’re now working hard to ensure that several important pieces of analyses, recommendations and new tools from the Lab will be public in the coming months. These include estimates of local and global economic impacts of climate change on health, labor productivity, energy use, and agriculture. And perhaps most importantly from the point of view of a policymaker, a way to aggregate all impacts and arrive at a social cost of carbon.
How has the Biden administration changed your teaching?
I taught a class in Winter Quarter, “International Climate Policy,” that was flipped on its head as a result of the new administration. From the pessimistic view of international climate talks of the last few years, we’re in a world of optimism now, and I tried to bring these major developments into class earlier in the quarter. We were able to focus dialogue around real-time developments such as the flurry of executive orders and major personnel appointments that arrived in the first few weeks of class. The students seemed to appreciate and be energized by the shift in real time.
How optimistic are you about the new administration’s approach to climate policy?
If the Biden administration is serious about playing a true leadership role with the Paris Climate Accords, and about John Kerry’s role as United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, we could find a very different state of play in the world.
There has been an expansion of climate policy, to the point where it has become a central pillar of the new administration’s work. Following through on the early promise will be difficult, but all signs point towards an administration (and a whole community of researchers) ready and eager to do the hard work. The appointments of John Kerry and Gina McCarthy, both reporting to the president directly, shows a very novel approach to climate work.
I don’t think climate change has been elevated to this level of importance before in the United States. There’s also a qualitative change in how the issue is being thought about. There’s been an unprecedented focus on environmental justice, climate justice, and ethics, and a recognition that the impact of climate degradation falls disproportionately on minorities and less affluent communities both here in the U.S. and around the world.
While there’s demand for pure economic expertise, the space has widened to include many other points of view, which is actually a positive. Despite sometimes calling myself an economist, I believe that economists tend to dominate policy more than they should in this area. New points of view will ensure that policy analysis won’t be so narrowly focused. For example, economic cost-benefit analyses might broaden to start including the risks people face or the inequality in who experiences both the costs and the benefits of a policy rather than favoring the polluters as is often the case.