Innovation Snowballing and Climate Law

78 Pages Posted: 6 Mar 2017 Last revised: 17 Nov 2017

See all articles by Zachary D. Liscow

Zachary D. Liscow

Yale University - Law School

Quentin Karpilow

Yale University, Law School, Students

Date Written: May 4, 2017


Findings at the frontier of economics suggest startling implications of an under-appreciated fact about technological development: innovation builds on itself, developing path dependencies in which past innovations attract similar, but more advanced, innovations. Innovation snowballs. The world economy is poised to undergo a dramatic transformation to avoid the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change. Policy to encourage this transformation should be sensitive to innovation snowballing.

The conventional policy view has long been that, to address a social harm like pollution, the right response is simply to tax the behavior causing the harm, leading to a variety of responses including induced technological change. The Article shows that this view is incomplete. Rather, the most efficient response to climate change — and likely other social harms — requires a combination of taxes and a big push of government support to specifically redirect innovation toward technologies that alleviate social harm. Without a big push in cleantech innovation to change the trajectory of innovation, energy technology will tend to stay stuck in its high-pollution path.

For climate policy and likely other pressing policy issues, the Article suggests a paradigm shift in the role of innovation policy: from broad to targeted. Otherwise, the transition to clean energy will be longer, more expensive, and riskier for the global climate. The Article shows how to efficiently deploy innovation policy to meet this challenge.

Keywords: Environmental Law, Tax Policy, Innovation, Law and Economics, Intellectual Property

Suggested Citation

Liscow, Zachary D. and Karpilow, Quentin, Innovation Snowballing and Climate Law (May 4, 2017). Washington University Law Review, Vol. 95, No. 385, 2017, Available at SSRN: or

Zachary D. Liscow (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

127 Wall St.
New Haven, CT 06511
United States

Quentin Karpilow

Yale University, Law School, Students ( email )

127 Wall Street
New Haven, CT 06511
United States

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