Bridging science and economics in the study of contemporary Arctic issues

by Michelle Dvorak
25 June 2017

I am a 24-year old and recent graduate from the UW School of Marine and Environmental Affairs. I came to University somewhat reluctantly, after finishing my Bachelor’s in chemistry and spending four months abroad on an extended skiing and climbing vacation. I was born and bred in the Pacific Northwest, and a big part of me lives to experience the mountains – it was difficult to return to academia with this kind of appetite for lofty adventure. However, it was precisely my love for the outdoors that pushed me to study at that intersection of natural science and policy in which the College of the Environment is nested. The study of our climate is never dull, and the problems, never more pressing. I came to the UW with a central question: how do we make decisions that affect the natural world, better? Over time, this question was refined in a reflection of my northerly spirit and my concern for the alluring land of snow and ice that is rendered most vulnerable to human activity: how do we make decisions that affect the Arctic, better?

Current research in climate science suggests that the Arctic is responding strongly to anthropogenic global warming. At the same time, melting sea ice expands oil and gas exploration and development opportunities, but these activities present risks to the environment and to human well-being. Needless to say, oil development in the Arctic is a thorny issue.

Being both objective and well-informed is, I believe, imperative to making good decisions. Economic analysis can provide a tool for objective valuation by taking into consideration all costs and benefits associated with projects that involve substantial social and environmental trade-offs, while science is key to becoming better informed. Too often these two disciplines are placed at total odds, with science suggesting the need for immediate reductions in carbon emissions and economics suggesting benefits from oil that are too big to ignore. However, if scientific understanding of the effects of climate change is considered in economic analyses of Arctic oil development, these disciplines together can provide a powerful tool for addressing contemporary policy dilemmas.

The goal of my capstone project was to present a nuanced yet objective perspective on the value of Arctic oil development in the context of advancing climate change and ecological risks. Personally, I chose this format for my capstone because I am somewhat timid, and it was my goal to speak effectively to a public audience on a subject that crossed multiple disciplines.

The graduate certificate in climate science has provided me with the knowledge and opportunity necessary to speak intelligently about climate science and its role in public decision-making. Instrumental to this task was a class I took through the PCC, called “Fundamentals of Climate Change,” taught by Professor Kyle Armour. I found every lecture intellectually-stimulating, and the research assignments challenging and rewarding; overall, it was one of the best classes I have taken over the course of my graduate studies at UW. Through a combination of deeply engaging classes, graduate-level research in climate science, and the communication of current issues in climate policy and economics, the GCeCS has been key to my professional development at UW.