Diversification and Decolonization in a 4°C World: Quantifying the underrepresentation of Global South scholarship in climate economics

Natalie Gubbay

Economists for Future recently completed a project on the underrepresentation of scholarship from the Global South in climate economics. They analyzed the 50 most cited and 50 most recently published articles on climate change in the top 20-ranked economics journals, as identified by a Web of Science search. They linked publicly available biographical information for each author to determine the percentage of contributors who are affiliated with institutions in the Global South— and found less than 1% of authors in both the most cited and most recent articles were based in the Global South. The full report is posted here: https://econ4future.org/research-note/. Below is a summary of their project by Natalie Gubbay.

The limitations of neoclassical approaches in the economics of climate change have been well-documented. The market-based solutions typically proposed by environmental economists are unlikely to deliver emissions cuts with the scale and speed demanded by the climate crisis (E4F, INET). ‘State-of-the-art’ integrated assessment models understate the threat of climate change by excluding human responses to climatic shifts (like migration), focusing only on rising temperature (not natural disasters), and baking in assumptions of full information, rational expectations, and the stability of elasticities across time (Asefi-Najafabady et. al., 2021; Keen, 2020). Then, broader questions emerge around the meaning of “efficient” policy in the dynamic, uncertain context of climate change. As Roos and Hoffart (2020) note, the impact of a warming climate depends greatly on whether or not the Earth system tilts into dangerous feedback loops or past irreversible tipping points—for instance, the complete melting of artic summer sea ice, or in a more extreme case, the collapse of the Gulf Stream. Choosing how to respond to such “inherent unpredictability” requires more than cost-benefit thinking. It requires a value judgement. It is “a philosophy and ethics of science question of how science should deal with uncertainty and the limits of predictability and knowledge” as much as an analytical one (p. 9).

The normative and ethical considerations embedded in climate economics make real commitment to diversification and decolonization in the field a policy imperative. Economists from the Global South face structural barriers to participation across the research and publication processes (Economists for Future, 2020). Key distributional questions have been dismissed as difficult to quantify, even as Southern and indigenous activists make clear that climate change multiplies existing inequities in the political economy and demand climate justice (Gabbatiss & Tandon, 2021).[1]

To learn more, the Economists for Future team examined geographical representation in one key dimension of knowledge production in climate economics– elite journal publications. In March 2021, we used a Web of Science search to pull articles with keywords “climate change”, “global warming”, “greenhouse gasses/GHG”, or “carbon” from the top 20 journals of economics identified by the same platform. Using online, publicly available biographical information, we identified the current home institutions of each author to break down the geographic distribution within highly circulated contributions to the climate economics literature. Additional methodological details, including the full list of journals included in the analysis, can be found in the original publication.

Our findings confirm significant underrepresentation of Global South authors and scholarship in climate economics publications– not one of the authors of the fifty most cited articles in climate economics is affiliated with an institution in the Global South. Such patterns of marginalization may help explain a body of climate economics research that is too often out-of-touch with frontline communities, limited in methodological richness, and ultimately ill-positioned to arrest the planetary emergency.

Geographical Imbalance in Climate Economics Publications

Our research is motivated by the recognition that all knowledge, including scientific research, is shaped by the socio-economic context in which it was produced (Haraway, 1991; Crasnow, 2014). That is, the assumptions, research questions, and methodologies that a researcher chooses are influenced by their own positions within structures of race, gender, class, and nationality, among other identities.

Heterodox scholars across the social sciences have argued that highlighting these dynamics, far from undermining the objectivity of scientific inquiry, yields a more accurate understanding of social reality and the creation of knowledge with liberatory potential. As Dr. Lynne Chester wrote in a recent D-Econ blog, only with positional transparency can an author’s chosen methodology (and thus their research conclusions) be fully and openly evaluated.

For example, Chelwa (2021) interrogates the systematic exclusion of native researchers in economic scholarship on Africa. He identifies four implications of geographical imbalance that apply well in the context of climate research: (1) the formulation of false consensus among isolated pools of academics, (2) a reliance on hegemonic theories as the starting point of analysis, (3) the concentration of research on a small number of questions, and (4) an unquestioning use of data that is variable, limited in scope, or otherwise unreliable.

His work demonstrates how the production of research within a colonized terrain can generate epistemic injustice– a form of injustice in which “someone is wronged specifically in her capacity as a knower” (Fricker, 2007). Such injustices are intensified in the context of the planetary emergency, to which societies in the Global South are far more vulnerable.

Our analysis shows that the prominent literature in climate economics is overwhelmingly produced by authors working in the US and UK, suggesting serious limitations in its ability to center the perspectives of climate-vulnerable populations and address the goals of climate justice.

Of the authors of the 50 most cited articles in climate economics,

            • 82% are affiliated with U.S.-based universities or institutions

            • 91% are affiliated with U.S.- or U.K-based institutions

            •  0% are affiliated with institutions in the Global South

The countries represented in the 50 most cited articles are the United States, United Kingdom, Sweden, Australia, China, Canada, France, Norway, and Switzerland.

The ninety authors represent 49 universities, but the majority (63 percent) are affiliated with just 14 departments of Economics: those at the University of Chicago, Stanford, Yale, Princeton, the London School of Economics, Stockholm University, Harvard, MIT, Northwestern, Duke, Columbia, the University of Maryland, the University of Washington, and the University of California (multiple campuses). The University of California system hosts more contributors to the fifty most cited articles than do all countries outside the U.S. and U.K., accounting for over 15 percent of total authors. Harvard and MIT each account for 6.7 percent of total authors.

Such examples depict a body of thought that is narrowly situated, self-referential, and physically distant from many of climate change’s worst impacts. The countries represented are those in positions of socio-economic power. The figure below shows the GNI per capita in 2019 in countries represented by authors of the fifty most cited articles, relative to the distribution as a whole. All nine have a per-capita income above the global median; eight have a per-capita GNI more than double the global median. Meanwhile, consensus grows that low-income countries will be hit hardest by climate change and are already disproportionately affected by climate-related disasters (e.g., UNFCC, 2018; IPCC, 2018).

A notably stark shortcoming in the climate economics literature has been its failure to consider notions of differentiated responsibility in responding to the climate emergency. Southern scholars, policymakers, and activists have long argued that those countries most responsible for climate change should shoulder the costs of decarbonization, particularly since the benefits of early industrialization are directly related to a country’s position within global structures of power. The unwillingness of the United States to adopt a climate framework consistent with common but differentiated responsibility disrupted climate negotiations in Kyoto (1997) and Paris (2016), and has remained a sticking point in international mitigation efforts. Looking at the above chart, it is difficult not to suggest that the field’s Northern-centrism explains its silence on the matter.

The 50 most recent articles show increased geographic diversity without fundamental disruption to the patterns of exclusion present in the most cited literature.

Our decision to conduct the same analysis for the most recently published climate literature was motivated in part by the intensity of geographical concentration we observed in the most cited research. We wondered: have we seen movement toward greater diversity in climate publishing alongside the growing magnitude of the climate crisis?

Of the authors of the fifty most recently published articles (as of March 2021),

            • 49% are affiliated with U.S.-based universities or institutions

            • 51% are affiliated with U.S.- or U.K.-based institutions

            • Less than 1% are affiliated with institutions in the Global South

The dominance of the U.S. and U.K. is attenuated in the more recent dataset, but the results are far from radical change. The fifty most recently published articles include only one author from the Global South, at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. It’s also not clear whether the (somewhat) increased geographic representation indicates a true shift in the mainstream conversation, or rather reflects bias in citation patterns and research engagement. Alternative cut points may be relevant– for instance, Heckman and Moktan (2020) document the “tyranny” of the top 5 journals in economics, Ghosh (2020) and Subramanian and Kapur (2021) implicate the disproportionate influence of major RCT conductors, such as JPAL-IPA, in shaping policy agendas.

The full author counts by country within the most recent and most cited datasets can be found below.

50 Most Cited Articles 50 Most Recent Articles
 CountryN. Authors  CountryN. Authors
 United States74  United States60
 United Kingdom8  Germany15
 Sweden2  Norway6
 Australia1  Australia5
 China1  Canada5
 Canada1  China4
 France1  France4
 Norway1  Netherlands4
 Switzerland1  South Korea3
    United Kingdom2


At Economists for Future, our mission is to mobilize economists, and the influence they have, to arrest the planetary emergency. The climate crisis presents a profound intellectual challenge– and opportunity– for economists to drive transformative change across economic, social, political and natural systems and embrace pluralist approaches in doing so. Our work thus far suggests the economics profession is not meeting that opportunity. Research and publication on topics related to the climate or biosphere remain scant, comprising 0.4% of publishing on average (Butler-Sloss & Beckmann, 2021). Where mainstream economists have engaged, they have worked within isolated subfields, evaded questions of social responsibility, and– the results of this analysis add– have done so from the vantage point of institutions in the Global North. We can now say with some confidence that climate research in the economics profession is limited by geographical as well as methodological homogeneity. It is a field marked by colonization– and thus, effectively addressing the climate emergency rests on the practice of decolonization.


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[1] See also advocacy by Minga Indígena, Indigenous Climate Action, the Indigenous Environmental Network, the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, and participants of the Global Campaign to Demand Climate Justice, among others.