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Resources for the Future

Resources for the Future (RFF), based in Washington DC, launched its Climate Economics and Policy Program late in 1996 to increase understanding and knowledge of the complex issues of global climate change that must be addressed to design appropriate, cost-effective policies in the United States and abroad.

Resources for the Future's program responds to both the ongoing debate about climate change, and the specific debates surrounding the negotiations being carried out under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Michael Tebo of Resources for the Future describes the work of this new program and an innovative online publication, Weathervane, developed in parallel.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change involves an agreement among 154 countries to develop programs and cooperate in slowing climate change, and to consider climate change in its management of agriculture, energy, and water and natural resources.

"Policy makers around the world are paying increasing attention to climate change, as well they should," says Resources for the Future President Paul R Portney. "The stakes are potentially enormous on all sides of this complicated issue, and it is essential that careful analysis complements the political calculations that so often drive decisions."

There is a substantial amount of controversy surrounding global climate change. There are differing opinions, domestically and internationally, about the seriousness of risks posed by climate change, about the costs of responding to these risks, and who should be responsible for bearing the costs to curb those risks. Advocates warn that climate change is one of the greatest threats facing humankind and urge immediate and strong responses to reduce greenhouse gases. Sceptics contend that there is inadequate scientific documentation of the risks of climate change, and that little action should be taken today other than more research and continued development of technological options.

Global climate change can be caused by an increase in the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases which transmit or reflect different types of radiation from the sun. They include carbon dioxide, water vapour, methane, and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). The increased concentrations of greenhouse gases result in part from human activity such as deforestation, the burning of fossil fuels such as gasoline, oil, coal and natural gas, and the release of CFCs from refrigerators, air conditioners etc.

Disagreements over the scientific evidence relating to climate change and its consequences, together with differing national interests, surface frequently in the ongoing efforts of the international community to negotiate goals and actions under the Framework Convention on Climate Change. The publication of the Second Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1995, however, has signalled the beginning of a broader agenda of research and debate. While there is still scientific uncertainty about the magnitude of climate change risks, the world's policy makers are now shifting more of their attention to debating appropriate policy responses.

Portney notes that Resources for the Future brings to this debate a well recognized and respected reputation for objectivity. Over its 45-year history, Portney says, Resources for the Future researchers have tackled the most difficult issues in environmental policy, including the value of undisturbed wilderness areas, the design of more cost-effective pollution control measures, and the best way to prevent resource scarcity. It is only natural that they now address the challenges of climate change, he says.

Integrating the various aspects of climate change with a substantial amount of ongoing and future research at Resources for the Future on energy markets, water and forest resource management, air pollution, environmental regulation, and sustainable development, Resources for the Future's Climate Economics and Policy Program focuses on five main areas:

  • the economic and environmental consequences of climate change and policies to deal with climate change;
  • domestic and international policy design issues;
  • interactions between climate change and other policies;
  • equity, efficiency, and other criteria used in decision making; and,
  • development of analytical tools.

Resources for the Future's initial set of research projects underway address: effective environmental policy in the presence of distorting taxes; the carbon consequences of US tax reform; the vulnerability of low-income households to the hydrologic effects of climate change; implications of climate change mitigation on other environmental problems; the environmental consequences of restructuring in the US electricity industry; and, how to factor uncertainty when calculating climate change risks.

The organization will also issue a series of short papers on a variety of issues related to policy design that will provide topical, timely, and non-technical information and analysis. The first paper in the series, "Climate Change Risks and Policies: An Overview," was issued in March 1997. It discusses a "decision framework" which is a way of organizing and evaluating information.

Authored by Michael Toman, director of Resources for the Future's climate program, the paper also outlines key policy lessons and touches on the "US Draft Protocol Framework" issued by the Clinton Administration in January 1997. The draft protocol embraces a number of policy ideas that, if implemented, could significantly enhance the cost-effectiveness with which any emissions reduction targets are achieved.

The issues briefs do not seek to resolve the controversies about climate change, Toman says. Rather, they outline ways for policy makers to think about climate change and its key issues and explain the crucial role economics can play in addressing them.

Forthcoming briefs will examine issues related to:

  • domestic emissions trading programs;
  • revenue-raising and non-revenue-raising policy instruments;
  • revenue-raising and non-revenue-raising policy instruments;
  • the scheduling of emissions reductions over time;
  • the potential for technical innovation to substantially lower the cost of limiting greenhouse gases; and,
  • different modelling approaches for assessing the economic costs of limiting emissions of greenhouse gases.

Resources for the Future will regularly share its climate change research findings with members of the academic, business and environmental communities, and representatives of local, national and international governments by publishing and disseminating discussion papers and convening educational forums on selected topics.

Weathervane, an Internet forum dedicated to climate change policy, is a complement to Resources for the Future's Climate Economics and Policy Program. The digital forum aims to provide the news media, legislators, opinion leaders and the interested public with neutral analysis and commentary on United States and international policy initiatives designed to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

Weathervane can be found on the Internet at:

To support a well-informed public, Resources for the Future will provide regular reports of its climate change activities to the news media, post program updates, activities and issues briefs at its Internet site, and provide educational materials for lay audiences on the economics of climate change.

Further information

Michael Tebo, Resources for the Future, 1616 P Street NW, Washington, DC 20036, USA. Fax: 1-202-9393460. Email:

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