Confronting Deep and Persistent Climate Uncertainty

The massive uncertainties afflicting climate change should be a prod to policy action.


Deep-seated, persistent uncertainty is a pernicious feature of climate change. One key parameter, equilibrium climate sensitivity, has eluded almost all attempts at pinning it down more precisely than a ‘likely’ range that has stalled at 1.5–4.5°C for over thirty-five years.

The marginal damages due to temperature increase rise rapidly. Thus, uncertainty in climate sensitivity significantly raises the expected costs of climate change above what they would be if the temperature increases were known to be close to a mean value 3.0°C. The costs of this uncertainty are compounded given that the distribution of possible temperature changes is strongly skewed toward higher values.

Full text: “Confronting Deep and Persistent Climate Uncertainty” (version: 4 August 2016)

Slides for Harvard Kennedy School Energy Policy Seminar, 24 October 2016.


Wagner, Gernot and Richard J. Zeckhauser. “Confronting Deep and Persistent Climate Uncertainty” HKS Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP16-025 (4 August 2016).

Up Next

Tipping elements and climate-economic shocks: Pathways toward integrated assessment

Potential thresholds in climatic and social systems play an important role in estimates of climate damages

More Academics

Keep in touch.