What will break the climate policy log jam? And what do we do in the meantime?

October 26, 2010, by Michael Gillenwater

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.

6 responses to “What will break the climate policy log jam? And what do we do in the meantime?”

  1. You may, unfortunately, be right about the need for humanity to be ‘shocked’ to take adequate action – and we know that by then, we’ll be doing damage control, and probably not too effectively.

    But I am surprised about the implicit assumption that nothing short of federal cap-and-trade/legislation will do. From our viewpoint here in Europe, we see RGGI (ok, not very ambitious yet), WCI, and the like and see these are getting some traction. Maybe the California referendum will teach us yet another disappointing lesson, but if not all US citizens are convinced, I see some States moving in the right direction, in a way that interests other countries, when they think about how they can link their existing / emerging cap-and-trade systems. We see new standards on cars and trucks, and a big push for energy efficiency. Will that be enough to address climate change as a whole and prevent nasty extreme events, probably not. But it makes me optimistic that there is still movement in the right direction. We also follow discussions about a carbon tax in China, their interest in market mechanisms, their strong push on non-CO2 power generation… Now, of course, there remains the whole carbon-intensive industry in China, but here again, nonetheless, I see movement – Could this be the result of the rather unfriendly climate conditions in China and the country’s recognition that climate change is serious and dangerous? Or is it about winning the “green race”? Whatever the motivations, not all is bad in this global picture.

    From a quick look at this website, I see you are not giving up – yes, there is hope!

  2. Hi Michael, I think we also need to take some solace from actions that are being taken outside global agreements, and outside any lack of leadership by the US at a federal level.

    At a recent public forum in Sydney, The Climate Institute’s John Connor urged the audience to look at the leadership China is taking.

    The Climate Institute has recently released a commisioned paper on implicit carbon pricing, and the Chinese results are notable. Please refer to the press release at:


    The related video is also worth a look:


    Keep up all the good work at the GHG Institute!

  3. Thanks and in response to Richard and John…

    Agreed that there are many good things happening in the private sector and the regional level in the United States as well as around the world (China and Brazil, etc.).

    But I think we have to be realistic as well. As you point out, RGGI is weak and in these political and economic conditions it is unlikely to be strengthened. And WCI is fighting just to stay alive right now.

    The point is not that good things are not happening. Nor is it that all good things must happen in the United States or at the federal level. The point is that we have not crossed the social psychology threshold that will be necessary to drive the real change needed. But it will come. It is just a matter of waiting, preparing, and laying the ground work for the shift in psychology. When it happens, it will happen quickly.


  4. Mark J. Fiore says:

    Hi.I am an ultra-liberal Democratic environmentalist. Harvard(1982) and Boston College Law School(1987). I’ve followed most all press releases on global warming since 1987 and read the newspaper completely for two hours each day for the past 30 years. I believe that Hansen, Ward, and others are correct in stating that by the year 2100 it is quite probable that co2 levels will rise to 1000 ppm. The 6th major extinction, as well as the 6th major epoch, the Anthopocene, has already begun. The juggernaut shows no sign of being able to slow down in time, and a runaway greenhouse effect is not out of the question. The problem is much more serious than anyone realizes. For a look at what a 1000 ppm world will look like see the extensive work of Peter Ward.

  5. Soheyla Valleie, Texas says:

    Hi Michael:

    Indeed the news/expectations all around us seem grim. However, I would like to bring some positive observation into the discussion from Houston, Texas. On Wednesday night Rice University Baker’s Institute hosted Prince Turki Al-Faisa of Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom ambassador to USA between 2005-2007. His topic of presentation was Saudi Arabia’s Petroleum Policy.

    It was interesting to hear first hand a policy maker/politician of the Kingdom talk about this topic. I believe one of the messages in this presentation, was his enthusiasm for his country’s interest in developing renewable and alternative sources of energy and inviting other countries to do the same. He was focused on the need for such measures and indicated the urgency for other industrialized countries participation in R&D.

    If the number one producer of petroleum gets in front of the energy industry here in the heart of South and indicates his county’s interest and investment ($$) in R&D and politely advises his closest ally to do the same, I think that should be treated as a good sign and maybe will start the much needed dialogue to help shift perceptions and help develop the absent vision in this part of the country.

    In fact as I meet more people in Houston who are trying to take root in the renewable sector, I cannot help but to believe that a business friendly policy toward this effort could turn the tides here in this city. Houston in many ways is a perfect place for it. With so many of my colleagues active in the traditional energy sector, we have a strong knowledge base to cross over to the renewables/alternatives.

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