Disheartened by the state of climate policy? Consider the long view on capacity building

September 21, 2011, by Michael Gillenwater

It is easy to get pessimistic, if not outright depressed, in this business. After all, humanity keeps beating on the atmosphere with a sharp stick hoping that the climate will keep taking it with a smile. Meanwhile witnesses to this abuse expectantly turn to governments to intervene only to find a political horizon devoid of ambition for real change. Indeed, governments around the world seem overstretched already as they impotently struggle to calm markets and restart engines of economic development in the face of financial turmoil, the impacts of which continue to seep into and saturate the global economy. Drowned out by policy debates on economic woes and fiscal policy, climate change, it seems, rarely even makes the agenda anymore.

In the United States, a near medieval political environment is even halting progress on clean air. And polls show fewer Americans believe anthropogenic climate change is a real and pressing issue than just a few years ago. More recently, the states’ sole up-and-running cap-and-trade program, RGGI, failed to attract bidders for all of its allowances available for auction —a shortfall partly rooted in weak target-setting. And anyone reading this blog is surely familiar with the potential for U.S. federal climate legislation or a major breakthrough at the UNFCCC negotiations in Durban.

If your spirits have not hit bottom yet, how about the recent study that finds our path to a low carbon future may actually be a bridge to nowhere. Tom Wigley at the National Center for Atmospheric Research is reporting that substituting natural gas for coal would likely worsen planetary radiative forcing when other pollutants (e.g., methane, sulfates, etc.) are taken into account. If this is correct, then the only real option is to go straight to eliminating fossil fuels (unless we find a way to deploy geologic carbon sequestration on a massive scale).

For you voluntary carbon offset market fans, we have definitely seen glimmers of progress. The voluntary market continues to innovate and mature, and is starting to prove its mettle as a testing ground for future compliance instruments. But let’s not fool ourselves. The true voluntary market (i.e., excluding some pre-compliance buying) is not booming. A number of large companies have recently backed away from their carbon neutrality pledges. (Note: These moves also have a lot to do with issues I have written on regarding Renewable Energy Certificates. See the links below for references.) As has been said many times, climate change is not a problem that will be solved through voluntary action. Solving it will require deep and broad international collective action through mandated regulation.

At the international level, NAMAs, LEDS, and REDD are the key buzz acronyms of the day. Now, these are worthy (although not necessarily new) concepts and there are many valuable initiatives now focused on fleshing out these concepts. But one observation I have made after working in climate policy for a number of years, is that our community resembles the boss in a Dilbert comic strip. We seem to jump from the latest management buzzword to the next like a teenager switching between clothing fads. This pattern is understandable given the composition of the community and the limited avenues we have to implement policy. For a community dominated by policy wonks and analysts, it is always the new policy idea that is more exciting and that can justify more analysis, more websites, and more reports.

But is a lack of policy proposals or analysis reports really something that is holding us back? There is certainly room for innovation and learning more, but I generally think the best way to learn is experimentation with its associated trial and error. Luckily, Europe continues to lead the way here, but they are still largely alone. And this is a problem that must be addressed collectively and globally. The optimistic look to Australia, California, and a number of other regional efforts as signs of hope. But, it is hard to argue any of these will be game changers.

To summarize the outlook for the short-term: the politics look bleak, the problem is probably even more difficult to solve than we thought, and we are caught in a circle of trying to analyze our way out of it, as if the cumulative mass of policy white papers will somehow move us into a new orbit.

As I have written previously, this has led me to focus on the longer-term. I do not think the problem is going away. I also think it is highly probable that society will at some point be shocked into action. So the question is what can we work on now that is focused on the long-term? A lot of resources are focused on advocating for action in the short-term. Much of which I’m not entirely convinced are a good investment.

I continue to watch the Arctic as a possible wake-up alarm to society. As a signal of the coming change, we are seeing new species migration corridors open up as the ice melts that are allowing Atlantic and Pacific species to begin mixing. And the sea ice extent in the Arctic continues to shrink at what seems like an accelerating rate. I will be curious to hear how news outlets openly skeptical to climate change will explain a North Pole without ice.

Focusing on long-term measures does not mean only putting money into research. There is a lot more that can be done to prepare and build infrastructure than just research. These other investments are what the GHG Management Institute was created for. The Institute is working on rigorous capacity building using time-honored institution of professionalization, which can be both a driver of change as well as a robust approach for preparing for the kind of serious GHG mitigation actions that will eventually be required. We expect the Institute’s work to have its biggest impact a decade from now as we slowly put in place a social infrastructure necessary to enable real action.

To governments, foundations and other funders: If you are interested in investing in this kind of long-term capacity building and change, we would love to hear from you.

Note References:

Gillenwater, Michael, “Redefining RECs (Part 1): Untangling attributes and offsets,” Energy Policy, Volume 36, Issue 6, June 2008, Pages 2109-2119. [Click here for pre-publication discussion paper version]

Gillenwater, Michael, “Redefining RECs (Part 2): Untangling certificates and emission markets,” Energy Policy, Volume 36, Issue 6, June 2008, Pages 2120-2129. [Click here for pre-publication discussion paper version]

Gillenwater, M., “Taking green power into account,” Environmental Finance, October 2008.

Gillenwater, M. and C. Breidenich, “Internalizing carbon costs in electricity markets: Using certificates in a load-based emissions trading scheme,” Energy Policy, Volume 37, Issue 1, January 2009, Pages 290-299. [Click here for pre-publication discussion paper version]

Maintaining Carbon Market Integrity: Why Renewable Energy Certificates Are Not Offsets” Offset Quality Initiative, June 2009.

6 responses to “Disheartened by the state of climate policy? Consider the long view on capacity building”

  1. Thanks for your clear sighted assessment of where we stand, Michael. Your call for enhanced professionalization resonates strongly with what I have observed–most business people and sustainability practitioners I get feedback from feel that they are poorly equipped (limited budget, decision making power, time, and domain knowledge) to make major changes in their organizational behavior for GHG reductions. A key to better asserting themselves with top executives is to gain the expertise and prestige that will gain their trust. Educational programs like those offered by GHGMI are exactly what is needed.

  2. “In the United States, a near medieval political environment is even halting progress on clean air.” OUCH! and SO accurate! Than you for such an emotionally uplifting analysis even in the face of resurgence of efforts to look for deeper petroleum, hydrologic fracturing, and the Republicans embracing coal as our friend. Will society be shocked into action? I watch the arctic very carefully as well, and once that sea is open, and albedo shifts, we can expect to see methane starting to come up from shallower depths where the stability zone is very narrow. And then the Republicans will pray, as they do for water in Texas. By then it will be too late to avoid amplifying feedbacks. Thank you nonetheless for encouraging us to keep up our efforts.

  3. Jonathan Creek says:

    Yes, I am disheartened by the state of climate policy. I am disheartened also by the number of people in the climate change field who have no personal interest in climate change or who seem to think they can carry on living as if there is no climate change going on. Even people ‘in’ the climate change arena just don’t seem to get ‘it’.

  4. Don Bain, P.E. says:

    Save the Prozac — let’s get back to work.

    It is too easy to despair. The arctic ice data screams alarm. A U.S. presidential candidate stands on drought-cracked ground in front of unprecedented wildfires and declares climate change to be just a theory. The self-declared environmentally supportive U.S. administration abandons clean air specs when the p.r. machine declares an inverse correlation between regulation and jobs. A criminal act, theft of computer data, leads to a surprisingly successful p.r. campaign by bullies to discount science — even when the stolen data does not support their hypothesis. Whew!

    But hold on, there are reasons to be hopeful.

    First, the anti-science, anti-climate change apparatus got the algebraic sign wrong when they declared that saving the environment costs too much. Saving carbon does not cost money. Saving carbon saves money. Corporations and corporate executives are well-attuned to reducing costs. They have processes and cultures in place to relentlessly pursue savings. The challenges for our community are to clearly state the opportunities, make the translation between reducing CO2 and saving money, and to connect with the cost-saving mechanisms in place.

    Second, markets work. When executives face a new specification or regulation, there are 2 strategy responses: 1) call your lobbyist/public relations firm; or 2) call your engineers. The resulting responses build competencies that matter for competitive advantage and shareholder value. Boards of directors know this. And, we can remind the companies every day with our purchase and investment decisions.

    Third, by grade 7 or 8, our kids are equipped with enough science knowledge to understand the problem — and they do!

    So as a GHG practitioner and engineer, I am going to turn off the TV, listen to the children not running for office and get back to the unglamorous tasks of better CO2 management, reducing costs, improving performance and increasing shareholder value.

  5. Michael Gillenwater says:


    If nothing else, this “climate policy depression” is serving the separate those that are seriously committed to the issue from those just being opportunistic. In the long-run that might serve us well as it is only the truly committed that are sticking around to build up the infrastructure and institutions we will need down the road. I don’t mean to say that it is a good thing that others don’t take the problem seriously. Only trying to look at the bright side.


  6. V C Patel says:


    This is a very fine analysis of the current conditions, but you are right to focus on the long term. The next generation is sure to get it. Keep it up, without despair.


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