SHARM EL SHEIKH, EGYPT – NOVEMBER 07: A sign stands illuminated in the plenary hall at the UNFCCC … [+]
Are the Conference of Party (COP) meetings losing steam and if so, what might be done to advance the climate agenda? COP26 in Glasgow and more recently, COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, underline decarbonization’s political challenges. It seems the world has given up the quest for limiting global temperature rise preferably to 1.5°C in relation to the pre-industrial levels. The 2016 Paris Agreement established the target of net zero emissions by 2050 and halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. However, the 2022 Emissions Gap Report notes that these emissions are still rising.
While there is massive new investment in solar and wind, there is also massive new investment in oil and gas, along with coal. Take the example of Louisiana’s Commonwealth Mammoth LNG project approved unanimously by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). For reference, three of the five FERC commissioners are Democrats. While this project will emit the “equivalent of more than 3.5 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, roughly equal to the tailpipe emissions from 700,000 cars,” the FERC claims that “until a credible methodology, based on reasoned decision making, is established by a competent agency with the requisite statutory authority, the Commission cannot conclude whether the estimated GHG emissions from a proposed project are significant.”
How then to remove obstacles to climate progress? Any policy issue passes through different stages. Strategies to propel the issue through the policy process in the agenda-setting stage, where the problem is getting defined, might not work as well when the issue is mature.
We identify five models with their theories of climate policy change. Some of these models often work in tandem; nevertheless, they reflect different ways of thinking about the climate crisis and its solutions. We suggest that scientific, economic, and moral arguments worked well when the climate agenda needed to be defined and policy alternatives identified. Technological and political arguments will be more effective now that climate issues have matured, and political conflicts have erupted around specific policy choices.
Model 1: Climate Change is a Scientific Problem
The sophistication of climate science, from measuring greenhouse gas emissions and concentrations to developing scenarios about their impact on temperature increases, sea level rise, and extreme weather events is impressive. The Assessment reports produced by Working Groups 1 and 2 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) document the vast global scientific effort and progress in this regard.
The theory of change motivating this scientific undertaking is that citizens and policymakers often do not recognize the climate challenge because they lack authoritative information about the cause and the extent of climate change. Once scientists bridge the information deficit, climate issues will get firmly implanted on the policy agenda. The implication is that UNFCCC/IPCC model of climate policymaking will be most helpful in the initial phases of the policy process where the climate agenda is being set and the portfolio of policy issues getting decided. In the future as well, climate advocates should undertake public outreach, lobbying, and even litigation to motivate policy change based on best available science.
Model 2: Climate Change is a Moral Problem
Climate change could be viewed as a moral crisis both from religious and secular perspectives. Pope Francis is among the most eloquent proponent of the religious imperative to address climate change. His encyclical, Laudato Si, made a strong moral-religious case for climate action to protect God’s creation. Secular-moral leaders view the current economic model as hurting future generations in order to meet the needs of the current ones. For them, climate change is a crisis of inter-generational inequity, as epitomized in the use of the “public trust doctrine” in the celebrated Julianna case. Thus, climate advocates should undertake public outreach, lobbying, and even litigation to motivate actors to explicitly take into account the interests of the future generations.
Model 3: Climate Change is an Economic Problem
Climate change results from the overuse of a global common pool resource, the atmosphere, as a sink for greenhouse gases. Without property rights, commons become an open-access resource, leading to a tragedy of the commons. Specifically, greenhouse gas emissions from the use of fossil fuels are a negative externality that until recently was not regulated. Starting with the 1998 Kyoto treaty, global climate negotiations have led countries to voluntarily agree to emission limits; net-zero emission targets in the most recent iteration. In turn, countries have translated these limits into domestic policies typically via direct limits on emissions or indirectly by penalizing emissions. Many countries have created cap and trade markets for emission allowances or imposed a Pigouvian tax to discourage emissions.
Yet, these policies are not leading to rapid decarbonization. In this perspective, the theory of change lies in further correcting market failures to completely prohibit fossil fuel users from externalizing costs. Thus, climate advocates should undertake public outreach, lobbying, and even litigation to motivate actors to introduce and reform carbon pricing and carbon markets.
Model 4: Climate Change is a Technological Problem
Cheap fossil fuels are the pillar of the modern industrial system. Despite the rise of the information economy, consumer lifestyles remain highly energy intensive. The Internet, for example, has not changed the importance of the automobile, as reflected in the rising volume of automobile sales worldwide. To solve the climate crisis, a massive push is needed to dislodge the world from its current technological lock-ins in transportation, electricity generation, transmission, and storage and even food production. Carbon capture, a post-emission strategy, is a technological solution as well, although it might allow a partial continuation of the fossil fuel based economy.
This model’s theory of change requires rapidly developing and deploying decarbonization technologies (and their supporting supply chains and infrastructure) that can dislodge fossil fuel-based economies. This will involve mobilizing public and private institutions of innovation or creating new ones such as innovation clusters (or national missions) focused on specific technologies. New funding, laws, and supply chain issues will need to be sorted out to achieve this massive technological transformation. Moreover, climate advocates should undertake public outreach, lobbying, and even litigation to motivate actors to work with innovators and engineers.
Model 5: Climate Change is a Political Problem
Regulations are political artifacts. Thus, climate change reflects a political failure to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and enhance the resilience of communities to cope with it. This is either due to ideological reasons or perceptions of inequity. In the former, climate opponents view regulations as a power grab by governments that are dominated by educated urban elites. In the latter, climate opponents see regulations and laws as unfair because they spread benefits and costs of decarbonization unevenly across sectors, communities, and countries. For example, while economists might favor market-based solutions such as carbon taxes, these tend to be unpopular among low-income communities that spend a high share of their income on energy. France’s Yellow Vest protests are a case in point. Coal communities believe that they are carrying an unfair burden of decarbonization because while their mines are getting closed, China and India continue to open new mines.
Renewable energy policies also face problems, as some rural communities oppose solar and wind farms. Social justice groups criticize subsidies for electric vehicles and rooftop solar because they view these payments as benefiting richer households.
The theory of change in this model requires paying careful attention to political conflicts and diffusing them. Ideological opposition might be lessened by reframing policy—for example, by dropping the phrase climate which triggers opposition from conservatives. An excellent example of reframing was to name the biggest ever climate spending bill as the Inflation Reduction Act. Similarly, about one-third of climate policies in U.S. states are passed by Red states, often justified by their advocates in terms of economic development. In addition, political conflicts could be diffused by addressing issues of “just transition,” the urban-rural divide on climate issues, and ensuring that decarbonization technologies are accessible to low-income communities. Thus, climate advocates should undertake public outreach, lobbying, and even litigation to motivate actors to address different categories of equity concerns.
Which Models should Guide Climate Policy of the Future?
Science, moral, and economic policy models worked well in enhancing the issue salience, firmly planting climate on the global agenda, and creating first-generation policy instruments such as carbon taxes, cap and trade, renewable portfolio standards and net metering.
Yet, climate policy progress seems to be slowing down. This is not due to a lack of scientific information about climate change. Of course, climate science remains critical to continually tell us about the state of affairs and how well policy initiatives are faring in limiting temperature rises. However, by itself, this sort of information is insufficient to break the current logjam.
Moral appeals were useful in brining climate issues to the policy agenda but are insufficient to motivate policymakers, firms, or households to accelerate decarbonization. And energy and carbon market reform seems to be losing political appeal. The Biden Administration does not talk about a federal carbon tax or cap and trade. Even the social cost of carbon is not being employed in major regulatory decisions, as the Louisiana LNG approval reveals.
What then is the way forward? As climate issue have matured, very few question the anthropogenic nature of climate change. The conflict now is about how to accelerate decarbonization and who will pick up the tab. This means that we need a massive technological transformation and deployment, which requires appropriate political compact between different stakeholders. Climate policy will need to be reframed, made less partisan, and the concerns of actors bearing decarbonization costs addressed via new policy instruments. Just transition has entered the policy vocabulary but the investments to support fossil fuel-dependent communities in their transition remain woefully small. Similarly, there is no coherent strategy to address rural concerns about solar and wind farms. And as the Nevada’s Thacker Pass Lithium mine controversy reveals, the issue of critical minerals supply chain remains unresolved.
Climate policy needs to be jump started; it is not useful to pretend that all is well, because it is not. Until recently, the scientific community implored the world to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5°C because breaching it would trigger “multiple climate tipping points.” After COP27, few believe that 1.5°C is achievable (we are already at 1.3°C). Let us hope the world can get its act together so that we do not sleepwalk into scenario where even 2°C is breached.
How To Reboot Climate Policy After COP27: Five Models Of Policy Making – Forbes
SHARM EL SHEIKH, EGYPT – NOVEMBER 07: A sign stands illuminated in the plenary hall at the UNFCCC … [+]