What will break the climate policy log jam? And what do we do in the meantime?
Earlier this month the European Environment Agency (EEA) released a report (http://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/progress-towards-kyoto/) detailing Europe’s progress towards emission targets set under the Kyoto Protocol. Europe’s relative success in limiting its emissions can be explained by a number of factors, which could monopolize this entire post (and more), but for the purposes of this blog I think it’s timely to give a nod to Europe’s laudable and substantive policy response to climate change. At the same time, the news coming out of the EEA provides a good opportunity to critically reassess the state of global climate policy, which is due for a reality check. Some have referred to climate change as the mother of all collective action problems, and indeed it is an inherently global problem that demands a global (or near global) response. Europe is not able to, nor can it afford to, do it alone. Meanwhile, it doesn’t require sophisticated policy analysis to conclude that other major emitters (e.g., the United States, China, India, and Brazil) do not view the issue of climate change with the same political imperative that they do in Europe, at least not yet.
As commentators start to weigh in on the question of what it will take to break the political log jam, allowing us to begin the implementation of a serious global response to greenhouse gas emissions, I think it’s important to take a step back and add some structure to this thought exercise by agreeing on some fundamental assumptions. Below are my assumptions (i.e., predictions) and associated conclusions. I look forward to any comments or spirited disagreement.
Assumption 1: The global economic downturn, while not affecting every country equally, will continue for the next 5 to 10 years, primarily impacting employment rates. The structural factors within the U.S. economy, as the world’s largest, are such that it is hard to come up with a likely alternative scenario.
Corollary 1a: Given Assumption 1, it is unlikely that the political will is going to exist in this decade to push for robust legislation to mitigate U.S. GHG emissions.
Corollary 1b: Given Corollary 1a, achieving a global or significant multilateral deal on climate is unlikely.
First, let me say that I sincerely hope I am wrong. But betting on pessimism in this line of work does not seem to typically be a bad wager. The reason being that this is a really really difficult problem (see here and here for why).
But I recognize that it is good scientific practice to challenge your own assumptions. So in that spirit, what might change the logic above?
My assumptions are rooted in my somewhat odd personal history. My entire childhood and college years were spent in very conservative small towns in Texas. The kinds of places where oil wells outnumber Longhorn cattle and people deeply mistrust the government. Following graduation in the early 1990s, I was transported to an entirely different environment: Cambridge, Massachusetts. The culture shock was extreme. There, in one of my first graduate seminars, I was asked by the esteemed Professor Henry (Jake) Jacoby (who is also a Texan, by the way) what I thought it would take for us to take action on climate change. Instinctively, I knew what it would take to convince the people, with whom I had spent my entire life up to that point, that climate change was a real issue. I said that where I come from no one would believe this is a real issue until there is visceral evidence of harm that demanded action, such as three hurricanes in one year hitting New York or the melting of the North Pole.
Over 15 years later, my answer to that question has not really changed. And there you have your answer to the question of what might change the logic above. Evidence that forces America, in the Churchillian sense, to stop avoiding the problem. It’s not pretty is it?
Sadly or luckily, though, it may come to this more quickly than we think. Look at the Arctic. Although it is impossible to predict, there is a realistic probability we may first see an ice free North Pole at its summer minimum this decade. Now I’m not talking about a permanently blue water arctic, which is not predicted till after 2050; what I am talking about is the probability that we see the geographic North Pole melt during a single extreme year such as we saw in the summer of 2007.
This is my alternative scenario. What’s yours?
If you want to follow the Arctic with me, take a look at these sites:
Of course simply waiting for Mother Nature to provide a frightening wakeup call is probably more depressing than most of us want to think about. In the meantime, we needn’t be relegated to simply thinking and waiting, as there is a great deal of important proactive work required to prepare the infrastructure necessary to move quickly and effectively once we are beyond pure politics and into serious implementation.
I am sad to conclude that it will come to something as grave as a melted Arctic to jolt humanity into seeing that the Earth cannot be infinitely abused. It is hard for me to be despondent, though, given that I always had low expectations for the political process both here in the United States and at the international level. Which is why when we founded the GHG Management Institute, we did so with a focus on the long-term institutional infrastructure needs of society to meet the climate change challenge, rather than the more popular push on political advocacy. I might be a short-term pessimist, but I am a long-term optimist. Those of us at the GHG Management Institute have invested blood, sweat, and tears accordingly. I hope you agree that there is work to be done building the foundation to enable real action in the future. We have this decade to build the institutional and professional capacity to seriously take on the challenge of climate change. And we hope that more organizations will join with us and share the burden of our mission.