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MacArthur Foundation awards planning grant to improve decision-making in energy policy

The University of Chicago is launching a large-scale collaboration to develop a computational modeling tool that will help a wide range of organizations in climate and energy policy decision-making.

A $350,000 planning grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation supports the effort, called CIM-EARTH (Community Integrated Model of Economic and Resource Trajectories for Humankind). Additional internal support comes from the University and Argonne National Laboratory.

"Governments, industries and individuals worldwide are linked in a single energy system whose emissions affect climate worldwide," said Ian Foster, Director of the Computation Institute, a joint effort between Argonne and the University. "Yet none have a direct economic incentive to act alone in curbing emissions. Overcoming these hurdles to ensure a long-term, sustainable and equitable energy future is arguably the single biggest challenge facing humankind today."

Foster, the Arthur Holly Compton Distinguished Service Professor in Computer Science, will lead the project, working closely with Elisabeth Moyer, Assistant Professor in Geophysical Sciences; Kenneth Judd, the Paul H. Bauer Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, a public policy research center associated with Stanford University; David Weisbach, the Walter J. Blum Professor of Law and Kearney Director of the Program in Law and Economics; and Todd Munson, a Computational Mathematician at the Computation Institute and Argonne.

The new modeling framework will analyze and predict the effects of climate policy decisions, designed to alleviate the environmental impacts of energy use (for example, a carbon tax) on the global economy. Understanding the relationship between the earth's physical systems and human economies as well as social behavior lies at the heart of the need for this kind of modeling tool.

According to Foster, this is because policy decisions impact, and in turn, are impacted by "the global economy, agriculture, environment, public health and international security (each a complex system in its own right), which depend on yet further interactions and will have widely varying effects across different economic sectors and geographic regions."

Said University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer, "There is a growing urgency for energy policy reform, but it would be short-sighted to make any serious changes without a thorough understanding of the technical, economic and social implications. CIM-EARTH will equip policymakers around the globe with a multi-dimensional analysis of their options, which is our best chance at implementing effective, long-term solutions."

Over the last decades, models of human economic and social behavior linked with climate models have emerged as vital tools for policymakers. However, these existing models, according to Judd, have major shortcomings.

"Their ability to address key issues is limited by computational methods that do not exploit high-performance architectures," said Judd. "This has resulted in oversimplifications of complex economic interactions. They can solve the models, but do not address the uncertainties inherent in the parameter estimates."

Using supercomputers housed at Argonne, the CIM-EARTH group will combine the best of modern computational, physical and economic science to construct the most sophisticated and accessible tool available. The tool will allow for more complex and realistic modeling of economic and social behavior, including human adaptation and responses to climate change.

The group seeks not only to create a new tool, but also to create a new "community modeling framework" by making all code open-source. This open approach will allow scientists from around the world in such culturally diverse disciplines as economics, social sciences, climate science and computational science to participate in the model's refinement. "Those outside of the modeling community will also work together to create and implement the model," Foster said.

With this grant, the CIM-EARTH team will engage in a 12-month planning process focused on refining the scientific plan, assembling a global team of scientific collaborators, engaging policymakers and potential funders, and testing key assumptions through prototypes.

They will work with a variety of individuals from non-scientific constituencies, including non-governmental organizations, governmental agencies, think tanks, international organizations, industry and philanthropists, who will be involved in shaping this project from its earliest stages.


Contact: Steve Koppes
University of Chicago

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