The Naked Truth About US Climate Policy

10 Pages Posted: 11 Dec 2018 Last revised: 16 Dec 2018

See all articles by Richard Richels

Richard Richels


Gary Yohe

Wesleyan University - Department of Economics

Henry D. Jacoby

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - Sloan School of Management

Date Written: December 9, 2018


The paper is in two parts. The first is a fable starring Ripley Van Winkle, an eminent Scientist; and, the Nation’s Leader, who needs no introduction. “Rip” is disturbed about the nature and direction of current climate policy and wants to know why people are ignoring the naked truth about what is turning out to be a dire threat to the country.

She discovers part of the problem when she encounters a tailor who has been tasked with making a new set of clothes for the country’s egotistical Leader. He is told that the clothes must not only be the “best”, but the “best ever.” The tailor makes the clothes from a see-through fabric, but the Leader is hesitant to acknowledge that he appears to be naked because to do so would be to admit that he is not the wisest Leader ever. The current state of US climate policy echoes the Leaders arrogance. It reflects an extraordinary predisposition to ignore, misinterpret, or misrepresent the data and underlying science. It risks poisoning the new global climate regime just getting underway.

Rip also discovers that, in addition to the lack of political Leadership, people are confusing greenhouse gases with more conventional pollutants. Climate change is a very different type of environmental problem. Even if we were to stop emissions immediately, its impacts would be felt far into the future; and, that the risks from continuing to emit GHGs are great, both in terms of the magnitude and the nature of the damages. Thus, to do nothing would be sheer folly; persistent inaction would only court existential catastrophe.

Rip proceeds to take a very long nap and will awake to one of two worlds. In the first, the nation has stayed with the status quo. In the second, the nation has aggressively pursued a more constructive path - one that not only moves toward stopping GHG emissions, but also deals with their aftermath through adaptation.

The second part of the paper describes what the US can do to help put climate policy on the right path. We explain how it is in the US’ own self-interest to do so. We cannot afford to sleep, like Rip, through the critical years ahead. We must be more awake than we have ever been if we are to address the risks of climate change while we still can. Time is running out.

Suggested Citation

Richels, Richard and Yohe, Gary and Jacoby, Henry D., The Naked Truth About US Climate Policy (December 9, 2018). Available at SSRN: or

Gary Yohe

Wesleyan University - Department of Economics ( email )

238 Church Street
Middletown, CT 06459-0007
United States

Henry D. Jacoby

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - Sloan School of Management ( email )

Cambridge, MA 02142
United States
617-253-6609 (Phone)
617-258-6855 (Fax)

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