Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder

Matthew Burgess

Research Interests

I am an Assistant Professor in Environmental Studies, with a courtesy appointment in Economics. My research focuses on economic growth futures and their impacts on the environment and society, mathematical modeling of human-environment systems, and political polarization of environmental issues. I use a combination of mathematical and computer modeling, data synthesis, and collaboration with stakeholders, in order to make conceptual advances and link them to practice.

Current Research

My current research focuses on three broad questions:

(1) How can we improve forecasts of 21st-century economic growth, and better understand the implications of future growth for the environment and society?

GDP per capita is highly connected to many important measures of societal being, including poverty rates, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and capacity for adaptation, to name three. The range of expert projections of world GDP per capita in 2100 spans nearly an order of magnitude, and authoritative forecasts have often over-projected growth and under-projected inequality in the past. With this much uncertainty, how can we adequately plan for future climate change and other societal challenges? My lab is working on developing new approaches to forecasting economic growth, improving projections of GHG emissions, and anticipating societal challenges that may arise under various future economic growth trajectories.

(2) How can we best manage complex human-environment systems with limited data and governance capacity?

Environmental management is caught between conflicting pulls toward complexity and simplicity. On one hand, human-environment systems are becoming increasingly understood as complex, multi-scale, and interconnected, suggesting a need to manage them holistically. On the other hand, the complexity of management is in practice heavily constrained by the limits of available data, and capacity for monitoring, administration, and enforcement. Thus, a key challenge is to find management approaches that are robust to complexity—including complexity that is not fully understood by the manager—and that are also feasible with commonly available data types and governance capacities. My lab is approaching this challenge using mathematical and computational models, and other tools from complexity science.

(3) How can we reduce political polarization of environmental issues, especially climate change?

In the U.S. and some other developed democracies, political polarization might be the single biggest obstacle to widespread and long-lasting action to address climate change. My lab is working to understand how we can move past this polarization, by examining past success in bipartisanship at the state level and trends in public opinion polls, and by convening dialogs among politically diverse community members.

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