Can Climate Policy Change Course?

In recent days, I’ve been conducting Q & A’s via email with authors of The Hartwell Paper, a provocative essay that lays out “a new direction for climate policy.” Today’s interview is with Hartwell co-author Roger Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and whose new book, The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won’t Tell You About Global Warming, will be published this September.

As stated in The Hartwell Paper’s Executive Summary, the authors begin from this premise:

It is now plain that it is not possible to have a “˜climate policy’ that has emissions reductions as the all encompassing goal. However, there are many other reasons why the decarbonisation of the global economy is highly desirable. Therefore, the Paper advocates a radical reframing””an inverting””of approach: accepting that decarbonisation will only be achieved successfully as a benefit contingent upon other goals which are politically attractive and relentlessly pragmatic.

The Paper therefore proposes that the organizing principle of our effort should be raising up of human dignity via three overarching objectives: ensuring energy access for all; ensuring that we develop in a manner that does not undermine the essential functioning of the Earth system; ensuring that our societies are adequately equipped to withstand the risks and dangers that come from all vagaries of climate, whatever their cause may be.

Last week, I explored with Hartwell co-author Steve Rayner the notion of climate change as a “˜wicked problem,’ in which the complexities of addressing it would seem to require a higher level of public debate. Subsequently, as I wrote in that post,

this implies that there can’t be a real policy shift until there is a paradigm shift in the way climate change is publicly discussed.

I pick up this theme with Roger Pielke, Jr. in today’s Q & A.

Q: After years of “staying the course” in Iraq, the Bush Administration late in its second term booted Defense Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld, the architect of what was widely deemed a failing military strategy in Iraq. A similar reappraisal later took place with respect to Afghanistan. I wonder if there is a corollary with international climate policy.

What I’m getting at is this: the U.S. approach on two war fronts changed considerably after officials on the inside decided that a new direction was necessary. So if climate policy has to be radically reframed, as The Hartwell paper argues, then it stands to reason that some key people on the inside–who are driving the institutional process””have to wave the red flag and admit failure. They have to be the ones to call for a new approach to climate policy. Do you agree and if so, who are the people best positioned in climate policy and political circles to engineer such a turnabout?

RPJ: This is a question about the ability of the political process to self-correct in the context of climate policy.  To use your analogy, we can identify a failed military strategy based on fairly objective criteria, using real-world data (such as combat deaths). I don’t think that climate policy has much in common. Consider that the approach proposed under the Framework Convention on Climate Change is nearly 20 years old and global emissions are still rising, with no sign of abating, yet many policy makers and advocates insist that we must stay the course. So real-world data on policy failure is not leading to a change of course

Still, it is possible that changing course could take place via a strong demonstration of leadership that points in a new direction. I think this is unlikely.  The more likely way that reframing will occur is incrementally in the direction of more pragmatic approaches (perhaps along the lines we recommend in The Hartwell Paper) with claims made that this is what was intended all along.  The recent coalition government in Britain provides a good example of this sort of political dynamic.  Before the election David Cameron (Conservative) said that a coalition would lead to all sorts of bad outcomes.  After the election when a coalition was the only way forward, it became his preferred model for a new politics.  David Cameron became Prime Minister; however the policy framework had changed dramatically.

The reality is that we are going to muddle through on emissions reductions policies whether we like it or not.  There will be no grand agreement with enforceable targets and timetables — though many may continue to pursue such an agreement for a while.  Given that we are going to muddle through, the only real policy question is if we choose to do so intelligently and intentionally, or simply as the result of coping with policy failure.  So far climate policy has been about the latter, but I am optimistic that the former may take root. We’ll end up in the same place regardless, just later and more inefficiently if we take the latter path.

Q: Invoking the Climategate controversy and the Copenhagen meltdown, you and your co-authors write: “The Crash of 2009 presents an immense opportunity to set climate policy free to fly at last.” In case anyone missed the point, the Executive Summary ends on this note:

The Hartwell Paper follows the advice that a good crisis should not be wasted.

Well, that works both ways, since this is what Senator Kerry said the day he unfurled the long-awaited Senate climate bill:

This is a bill for energy independence after a devastating oil spill, a bill to hold polluters accountable, a bill for billions of dollars to create the next generation of jobs, and a bill to end America’s addiction to foreign oil and protect the air our children breathe and the water they drink.

Since the Senate climate bill contains all the policy levers you criticize in The Hartwell paper, I’m assuming that you don’t agree with Kerry’s rhetorical use of the oil spill. Still, if you can seize on a crisis, why can’t Kerry? So I’m wondering if the blatant use of
any crisis (which is bound to be politicized) as a policy springboard, is a smart thing to do, if you want to have a serious debate on the merits of energy and climate policy.

RPJ: It is well established that policy change can occur when “windows of opportunity” are opened, enabling new policies to be
enacted.  Examples include Sputnik, 9/11, Three Mile Island, Hurricane Katrina, and so on. So there is no problem with the use of a crisis as an opportunity for action ““ in fact, it is in the aftermath of such crises that the public often demand action.

The more important question is whether the proposed actions can actually address the problem claimed to being addressed.  The problem with the Senate climate bill is that it will not do the things being advertised by Senator Kerry.  The fact that the bill is variously characterized as leading to energy independence, jobs, end of reliance on foreign oil and improving air and water pollution indicates what a mishmash of a bill this has become.  Note what is missing in that description ““ carbon dioxide and climate change!  The bill is DOA, and this is no doubt due, in part, to the fact that it cannot do the things that it is being advertised as doing.

I have long maintained that action on accelerating the decarbonization of the US (or global) economy will not occur unless short-term costs are reconciled with short-term benefits.  The rhetoric that Kerry uses reflects an understanding of this principle, but the policy instrument that he is advocating is simply not up to this task.  The fact that the House and Senate Bills have to include a bunch of “sweeteners” for fossil fuels indicates the basic problem.  We think that the approach proposed in The Hartwell Paper offers a better chance to match up short-term costs and benefits in a way that enables an acceleration of the decarbonization of the economy, a way to build resilience in communities and recognition of the diversity of human influences on the climate system.  Whether it is our approach that is ultimately taken or some other, progress won’t be made until this challenge of reconciling short-term costs and benefits is met, and current proposals fall well short.

The challenge is thus one of policy design, which has received short shrift in the climate debate.  Unfortunately, more attention is paid to arguing about climate science, media coverage of climate, and the need for a global agreement under the Climate Convention than discussing possible alternative policy designs.  In fact, those proposing alternative policy designs are often criticized in the debate as distracting attention or worse.  In the long run, policy failure will create opportunities for change, the only question is how long the long run will be!

6 Responses to “Can Climate Policy Change Course?”

  1. Brian Smith says:

    Right now, this society, our society, American society, lacks the fundamental backbone and resolve to change what it is doing if that change does not involve getting something for nothing.  We know intrinsically that we need to remove the carbon from our economy – it will improve efficiency, help control costs and reduce our reliance on foreign energy sources while stimulating innovation and a new renewables energy market.  But the possibility of the gas tax being increased a few cents or coal fired electrical production being taxed is just too much for the public to handle.  All the indicators are there and socially we can’t make the choice and its frustrating as hell.

  2. Keith Kloor says:

    Brian,

    I think the Hartwell gang would say we need to do something way more than making gas more expensive, though I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt.

  3. Keith Kloor says:

    Hank,

    See here for my take on the Policy Lass post on the Hartwell paper. What’s your take on Lass’ take. I’m assuming you linked to it approvingly.

  4. It’s a bit rich for Roger  to say stop wasting time debating climate science and media coverage when he’s a prime instigator.
     
    The UNFCCC for better or worse is the only multi-lateral forum for dealing with CC . In 20 years its gone from obscurity to 150 world leaders  showing up to argue about a highly contentious, complex global policy. That is remarkable progress and NOT nearly enough.

  5. […] whether what’s being proposed will work or not? Are we ready to listen to outside-the-beltway perspectives, some of which favor decoupling climate change from energy […]

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