Responding to climate change

Managing climate change and sustaining what nature has provided is a complex problem requiring understandings from multiple perspectives and close coordination among groups within and across every nation on earth. As this is vital, and urgent, we must learn how to overcome those challenges.

The health of the planet and all its inhabitants hangs in the balance.

In 2022, the United Nations declared “access to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment” one universal human right − one long and increasingly further threatened by pollution and by poverty.

Harnessing the power of policy analysis, Sanford researchers have been shaping narratives towards solutions, propelling the school to a No. 2 ranking in energy-and-environmental policy and a key partner in Duke’s Climate Commitment. Faculty design and help to evaluate the impacts of policies to combat climate change and conserve nature.

Economic analysis can help combat climate change by understanding the behaviors of individuals and countries.

Professor Alex Pfaff − with colleagues in Colombia, China, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Malawi, Mexico, and Uruguay − examines how economic incentives added to varied social and institutional contexts succeed or fail to combat net forest loss, a key for climate and species.

“For economic development alongside the sustainability of nature, we must motivate informed shifts in local decisions from large agribusiness to the poorest farmer,” Pfaff said. “With strong design, conservation incentives are a powerful tool in this fight.” His research on policy, as well as syntheses of the drivers of critical changes, feed many outputs including the 2019 IPBES (Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) Global Assessment.


Amplified by Duke’s Climate Commitment, launched in 2022, Sanford researchers are tackling climate change from every angle.


With the support of the Oak Foundation, Sanford has continued to add faculty and students over the years, including in coordination with closely related and distinct but complementary faculty across Duke. Such collaboration will now be amplified by Duke’s Climate Commitment, with Sanford researchers helping to tackle climate change from every angle in ways that overlap every piece of Duke. For instance, studies of critical individual behaviors draw on behavioral psychology, while explorations of corporate roles overlap the business school and examination of key public institutions overlaps our political science colleagues. Sanford almost uniquely embraces all of these overlaps, achieved through our diversity in scholarship.

For instance, Professor Subhrendu Pattanayak has added to the focus on forests and Latin America with Pfaff – demonstrating that conserved forests provide health benefits – while more generally highlighting the interactions between nature and human health and adding some regional focus in Asia. In Indonesia, with co-authors he found long-term losses of human capital, including stunting of the growth of children, exceed the short-term financial benefits associated with using fire to clear land for the oil palm industry. Linked to both forests and air quality, he has also demonstrated how upgrading cooking stoves for people in developing countries could improve livelihoods, especially for women, while fighting climate change.

The latter work overlaps significantly with energy research by Professor Marc Jeuland, who in turn also links to Duke’s Energy Access Project and continues this economic assessment of the benefits and costs from reducing pollution and, more generally, diverse touted interventions. For air pollution, their tool is a core element of the World Health Organizations’ Clean Household Energy Solutions Toolkit and this area offers an important venue for Jeuland and colleagues to support gender equity and just energy transitions along with colleagues at Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability. One case explores how solar mini-grids boost lives of farmers in Ethiopia by powering water pumps more cheaply and cleanly than with expensive fossil fuels. Such interventions can, then, support both diets and nature.


Sanford is taking a leadership role at the state and local level to provide value on energy and environment policy.

Climate change challenges those agricultural livelihoods, however, and Professor Sarah Bermeo has been assembling a multi-faceted research program to understand adaptation to climate through the movement of communities, i.e., migration due to climate factors. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says over 3 billion people are highly vulnerable to climate change given their locations and circumstances. Professor Bermeo and partners at Duke have launched a Program on Climate-Related Migration to better understand the complex links between climate and mobility to inform better policies.

Professor Robyn Meeks both overlaps such studies of individual actors – such as farmers and their energy as well as water needs -- and brings her energy research up a scale, to the utility level, within developing countries. She too, then, confronts nuanced challenges of supporting local economic development while lowering its environmental damages. Working closely with public actors, and thus directly giving inputs regarding local policies, she has coordinated much documentation and evaluation of innovative policies.

Challenging tradeoffs are a feature of best environment-and-energy policies in the United States as well. Professor Billy Pizer has covered all of these scales, from the design of international climate frameworks to careful empirical documentation of the distribution of the economic costs of environmental regulations such as taxing gasoline, which in some but not all countries land most on the poorest households. Sanford is taking leadership roles at the state and local level in the U.S. as well. For instance, Professor Tim Profeta testified before the Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change of the U.S. House Committee on Energy & Commerce in 2019, proposing strategy to support and facilitate the distinct vital roles of states.


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Examples of impact in energy and environment policy


Climate Justice Journalism

Cameron Oglesby MPP’23 led events at Duke that commemorated the 40th anniversary of environmental justice. Since graduation, Oglesby was awarded Covering Climate Now's Student Journalist of the Year for reporting on Black and Indigenous communities contending with environmental racism and climate injustice across the U.S. Read the story.

Cameron's video

Modern Energy

Alumnus Ben Abram is CEO of Modern Energy, a diversified energy company that invests in renewable energy businesses with the goal of “helping the world reach a net-zero carbon economy.” He studied public policy and civil and environmental engineering at Duke.

Ben's story

Protecting National Spaces

Lindsey Kurnath MPP’08 is Deputy Superintendent of Fire Island National Seashore in New York.

Lindsey's story

Protecting Oceans

Jainey Bavishi PPS’03 was confirmed in 2023 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as its new Assistant Secretary of Commerce and Deputy NOAA Administrator. In this role, she implements climate solutions for those most in need.

Jainey's story

Climate Action

Sanford students have played many roles too — for instance, participating at the United Nations Climate Change Conferences, including the recent COP28 in Dubai.

Student Story

Strategic Policy

Professor Alex Pfaff details five hurdles that have tripped policymakers and advocates up in the past when it comes to reversing environmental loss.

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Climate 21

Since 2019, faculty Tim Profeta co-chaired the Climate 21 Project in 2020 to recommend climate policies based on the expertise of over 150 experts with high-level government experience — including nine former cabinet appointees.

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Climate-related Migration

Professor Sarah Bermeo created an entire research program offering multiple angles on understanding migration driven by climate. This has led to numerous opinion pieces, plus chances to offer policy inputs, including a workshop in DC.

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Calculating Cost

Billy Pizer has added up the costs of climate change. Pizer says the financial impact of climate change will depend on where you live.

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Food Waste

Norbert Wilson is studying how wasted food contributes to climate change and how one simple change – better food date labels - can help address the problem.

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Calculating Solar Benefit

Bobby Harris, Ph.D. Environmental Economics and Policy’22 contributed to a paper showing that rooftop solar's benefits vary greatly across the U.S. He also has work related to solar and benefits received by households of color.


Podcast Series: Climate Change Solutions

Season 8 of Ways & Means focused on Climate Change Solutions. This season was made possible thanks to support from the Office of the Provost at Duke University.

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Faculty: Energy & Environment

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