July 26, 2019:
It is with great sadness that we report the death of Frank Ackerman, one of the expert witnesses on behalf of the 21 youth plaintiffs in Juliana v. United States.
The OCT team and the youth plaintiffs in Juliana will always remember the selfless work that Frank did to assist their effort to end the climate crisis. Not only did Frank prepare an extensive, thorough expert witness report, he sat for a deposition by attorneys from the Department of Justice in the sweltering heat in Cambridge, Massachusetts in August 2018. Frank was among the first expert witnesses to be deposed in the Juliana case. In October 2018, Frank was ready to fly to Oregon to testify at trial. Importantly, all of the noble work that Frank did in Juliana was pro bono (or for free).
As an economist, Frank’s expert testimony in Juliana examined the multiple biases in the federal government’s conventional economic analyses of the costs and benefits of climate and energy policies. In his expert report, Frank explained how the U.S. federal government has and continues to knowingly:
materially underrepresent the costs of “business as usual” (enabling and maintaining the fossil fuel energy system) and the resulting costs of climate disruption;
undervalue or devalue the harm that the federal government imposes on the youth plaintiffs and future generations; and
exaggerate the costs of rapid emission reduction and climate recovery that would reduce that climate harm.
Frank’s expert opinion was that this longstanding conduct by the federal government resulted in an ongoing policy and practice that discriminates against the youth plaintiffs and future generations. Frank detailed the multiple reasons for this conclusion in his expert report, which we encourage you all to read.
For example, Frank’s expert report examines how the federal government’s use of inappropriately high discount rates has had an immense influence on economic analyses of climate and energy policies and as a result devalued the climate harm the youth plaintiffs are facing and will face over time. You may be asking, “Why are discount rates important?” Because as Frank explained it, the choice of what discount rate to use in cost benefit analyses answers the question: “How much less are future costs and benefits worth today, solely because they will occur in the future? If a high discount rate is used, the costs and benefits that will be experienced 100 years from now are worth almost nothing today, suggesting that climate mitigation (or other policies that benefit future generations) are not worth spending much on today. At a low discount rate... the present value of future impacts is much more substantial, endorsing policy-making as if the future mattered.”
We would like to share with you one poignant exchange during Frank’s deposition that we think illustrates what an extraordinary person Frank was. In a discussion about the correct discount rate to apply in an intergenerational context, Frank explained that the “pure rate of time preference” would be the discount rate if we knew that future generations would have equal resources and be exactly as wealthy as the current generation today. In this context, the DOJ attorney asked Frank: “What special training do economists have in ethical judgments?” Frank responded:
“What special training do any of us have in thinking about what other human beings are worth? Is that a matter for professional expertise? This is a question about what are future generations worth to us. The pure rate of time preference is a judgment about what you think future generations are worth.
“One climate scientist, who is also not trained in ethics, said the question is whether your granddaughter is less important than your daughter because she’s born a generation later. And she said, they’re both important, then the pure rate of time preference better be pretty close to zero. So I think that a problem like this that threatens lives and livelihoods and futures calls on all of us to make ethical judgments. This is not a matter of professional specialization.…this is something we are all called on to do as human beings.”
Each of the youth plaintiffs and attorneys involved in Juliana sends our most heartfelt condolences and sympathy to Frank’s family, including his wife, children, stepchildren, and grandchildren. We hope his family knows that Frank went above and beyond the call in helping solve the climate crisis, not just in Juliana but with other generous work throughout his life.
Frank had an incredibly keen awareness and assessment of the crisis young people and future generations face. Frank’s death is an enormous loss to the youth plaintiffs and the climate movement as a whole. He will be profoundly missed.