Environmental and Resource Economics

, Volume 62, Issue 2, pp 279–308 | Cite as

Prioritarianism and Climate Change

  • Matthew D. AdlerEmail author
  • Nicolas Treich


Prioritarianism is the ethical view that gives greater weight to well-being changes affecting individuals at lower well-being levels. This view is influential both in moral philosophy, and in theoretical work on social choice—where it is captured by a social welfare function (“SWF”) summing a concave transformation of individual well-being numbers. However, prioritarianism has largely been ignored by scholarship on climate change. This Article compares utilitarianism and prioritarianism as frameworks for evaluating climate policy. It reviews the distinctive normative choices that are required for the prioritarian approach: specifying a ratio scale for well-being (if the prioritarian SWF takes the standard “Atkinson” form); determining the degree of concavity of the transformation function (i.e., the degree of social inequality aversion); and choosing between “ex ante” and “ex post” prioritarianism under conditions of risk. The Article also sketches some of salient implications of a prioritarian SWF for climate policy—with respect to the social cost of carbon, the social discount rate, optimal mitigation, and the “dismal theorem.” Finally, it discusses the issue of variable population.


Climate change Social choice Social welfare function Prioritarianism Risk and uncertainty Population 



This article grows out of presentations by the authors at conferences on climate change held at Duke University, Goteborg University, and Princeton University; at the conference of the European Association of Environmental and Resource Economists (EAERE); and at the Snowmass modelling workshop. Thanks to participants in those events for their comments, and to two anonymous referees. Nicolas Treich acknowledges funding from the chair “Finance Durable et Investissement Responsable” (FDIR).


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Duke University School of LawDurhamUSA
  2. 2.Toulouse School of Economics (LERNA, INRA)ToulouseFrance

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