Economic growth futures, climate change, and society

GDP per capita is highly connected to many important measures of societal being, including poverty rates, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and capacity for adaptation, to name three. The range of expert projections of world GDP per capita in 2100 spans nearly an order of magnitude, and authoritative forecasts have often over-projected growth and under-projected inequality in the past. With this much uncertainty, how can we adequately plan for future climate change and other societal challenges? We are working on developing new approaches to forecasting economic growth, improving projections of GHG emissions, and anticipating societal challenges that may arise under various future economic growth trajectories.

Featured publications:

Pielke Jr. R, Burgess MG, Ritchie J. 2021. Most plausible 2005-2040 emissions scenarios project less than 2.5 degrees C of warming by 2100. SocArXiv: m4fdu.

Burgess MG, Carrico AR, Gaines SD, Peri A, Vanderheiden S. 2021. Preparing developed democracies for long-run economic slowdowns. SSRN 3789982.

Burgess MG*, Ritchie J*, Shapland J, Pielke Jr. R. 2021. IPCC baseline scenarios have over-projected CO2 emissions and economic growth. Environmental Research Letters 16: 014016. (*Equal contribution)

Burgess MG, Langendorf RE, Ippolito T, Pielke Jr. R. 2020 Optimistically biased economic growth forecasts and negatively skewed annual variation. SocArXiv preprint: vndqr.

Burgess MG, Gaines SD. 2018. The scale of life and its lessons for humanity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115: 6328-6330.

Fig. 2 from Burgess, Ritchie, et al. Environmental Research Letters 16: 014016 (2021): Baseline scenarios prepared for the IPCC's Fifth and forthcoming Sixth Assessment Reports have overprojected 2005-2017 energy-related CO2 emissions as a result of over-projecting per-capita GDP growth and carbon intensity.

Mathematical modeling of human-environment systems

Effectively managing natural resources is essential to food security, livelihoods, and sustaining diverse and productive ecosystems. Yet resource management is caught between needs for complexity and simplicity. On the one hand, the complexity of coupled social-ecological systems pulls natural resource science towards complex models and data-hungry assessment approaches. The need for often large-scale cooperation to achieve management targets, which are as dynamic as the science, pulls resource management towards institutionally complex and (economically) expensive management. On the other hand, many systems lack the data, and financial and institutional capital to implement even the simplest existing approaches to natural resource science and management.

We are interested in developing pragmatic and interdisciplinary approaches to studying and managing natural resources, with explicit considerations of financial, scientific, and institutional constraints. Within this theme, some overarching questions are: (i) Can we find useful theoretical insights that are not data-dependent or system-specific? (ii) How strong are tradeoffs between different resource management objectives? (iii) Are there approaches to assessment or management that are relatively easy to implement and produce 'pretty good' outcomes (as Hilborn says) in many different social and ecological contexts? (iv) Are there existing but untapped data sources that might provide insightful information?

Featured publications:

Hegwood M, Langendorf RE, Burgess MG. 2021. Why win-wins are rare in complex environmental management. SocArXiv: cfp43.

Rao A, Burgess MG, Kaffine D. 2020. Orbital-use fees could more than quadruple the value of the space industry. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 117: 12756-12762.

Burgess MG, Clemence M, McDermott GR, Costello C, Gaines SD. 2018. Five rules for pragmatic blue growth. Marine Policy 87: 331-339.

Burgess MG, Giacomini HC, Szuwalski CS, Costello C, Gaines SD. 2017. Describing ecosystem contexts with single-species models: A theoretical synthesis for fisheries. Fish and Fisheries 18: 264-284.

Fig. 2 from Hegwood et al. SocArXiv: cfp43 (2021): The figure (and paper) shows why tradeoffs become more severe--as measured by the maximum simultaneously achievable fraction of all single-objective maxima [X(n )]--as the number of objectives (n ) increases. We show that the limit of X(n ) as n approaches infinity does not depend on the tradeoff surface's curvature.

Reducing political polarization of environmental issues

In the U.S. and some other developed democracies, political polarization might be the single biggest obstacle to widespread and long-lasting action to address climate change. We are working to understand how we can move past this polarization, by examining past success in bipartisanship at the state level and trends in public opinion polls, and by convening dialogs among politically diverse community members.

Featured publications:

Burgess M, Marshall R. What if a presidential candidate ran on what most Americans actually wanted? (Arc Digital, July 25, 2020. Additional background at:

More coming soon!

Mechanistic approaches to conservation

Current approaches to assessing threats of collapse and extinction to species are predominantly phenomenological, inferring threats from past population declines, high current mortality rates, species rarity, or life history characteristics correlated with threat histories of other species. We develop mechanistic approaches to measuring conservation threats, which quantify combinations of biological and socioeconomic conditions that are likely to eventually cause high mortality rates and population declines. Mechanistic approaches have two key advantages. First, they can identify threats of future extinction and severe population decline before the declines occur. Second, mechanistic approaches can be used to quantify tradeoffs and synergies between conservation and other social and ecological objectives. We have found that the nature of these tradeoffs is sometimes counterintuitive.

Featured publications:

Burgess MG*, McDermott GR*, Owashi B, Peavey Reeves LE, Clavelle T, Ovando D, Wallace BP, Lewison RL, Gaines SD, Costello C. 2018. Protecting marine mammals, turtles, and birds by rebuilding global fisheries. Science 359: 1255-1258. (*Equal contribution. Code here.)

Burgess MG, Costello C, Fredston-Hermann A, Pinsky ML, Gaines SD, Tilman D, Polasky S. 2017. Range contraction enables harvesting to extinction. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114: 3945-3950. (Cover article. Open-access arXiv version here.)

Fig. 1 from Burgess et al. Science 359: 1255 (2018): The reductions in fishing pressure needed to maximize profits from target fish stocks globally would be sufficient to halt the declines of roughly half of the marine mammal, turtle, and bird populations we examined