Foreign Policy Blogs

What We Get Wrong about Climate Change Solutions

Photo by orangesparrow via FlickR

Photo by orangesparrow. (FlickR)

The world of climate change wonks suffers no shortage of policy ideas. Virtually every day, a new visionary policy proposal joins the portfolio of clever climate change solutions both big and small. The latest and greatest of these belongs to the Club of Rome, of “Limits to Growth” fame. In sweeping fashion, the organization’s newest report suggests a number of measures to curb environmental degradation and set the world on a path towards sustainable development. The authors’ grab bag of policy ideas includes a universal basic income, carbon and wealth taxes, but also an increase in the retirement age. Most controversially, the report suggests paying women in industrial countries to have fewer children.

On the one hand, the report can be read as an important contribution towards how to think about climate change. There is a growing awareness that it is not exclusively an environmental phenomenon. As such, climate change is not exogenous to society. It is a direct corollary of what we produce in society, how we decide to produce it, where our priorities lie, and how we distribute gains. With that in mind, we should be more creative in conceiving effective social and economic policies at a much broader level. The days of climate change as a niche policy area are gone. By contrast, it is an outcome of a vast array of decisions we as members of society make every day. That should be reflected in public policy.

So far so good. Yet, the Club of Rome report, like most of its kind, lacks a fundamental quality. Whatever you think of paying women to have fewer babies, or the merits and downsides of a wealth tax, the paper has little to say about possible strategies to implement these suggestions politically. This is where most policy experts fail. We often tend to segregate policy generation from policy implementation. Sure, from a climate perspective a carbon tax sounds lovely. Both economists and environmental activists are for it. Mountains of detailed studies have been produced to determine the most efficient design of such a tax. Yet, it has proven exceedingly difficult to actually establish the political conditions under which carbon taxes can be implemented. National or supranational carbon taxation schemes remain practically non-existent. The few that do exist remain marginal.

What explains the repeated failure of policy implementation? Political scientist Robert MacNeil argues that policies associated with market environmentalism—such as carbon levies and emissions trading—tend to fail in liberal-market economies. At first, that seems paradoxical. MacNeil’s hypothesis is that, in countries like the United States, Canada, or Australia, workers enjoy less protection from market-based effects. In turn, putting a price on carbon is perceived as an additional tax on the most vulnerable. As Oscar Wilde knew, it is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The politics around policy matters. The lesson is that we should pay as much attention on researching possible enabling conditions as we do on policy content. It should not just be left to politicians to figure it out.

Of course, climate change is not exceptional in this regard. There are plenty of public policy areas in which much is made about detailed plans without giving sufficient thought to a political implementation strategy. Clever education policies often end up on the scrap heap when the political coalitions to implement them fail to materialize. Most people agree that infrastructure spending in industrialized countries is woefully inadequate, but policy change continues to be elusive. With climate change increasingly becoming an issue associated with political identity, however, there is some exigency in paying more attention to politics instead of policy.

Now, it goes without saying that we need visionary policy ideas. There is a certain legitimacy to thinking about ideas in the abstract. Without the restrictions of actual political conditions on the ground, we can develop ideal scenarios and bench marks. This is not where research should stop, however. The analogy here is the way many economists tend to think about their discipline. As the joke goes, you need eight economists to change a light bulb—one to change the bulb, and seven to hold everything else constant. Reality is messier than that. And climate change policy needs to adapt to reflect a messy political reality. We should think hard about whether policy suggestions should generally be accompanied by an analysis of what would need to happen politically to make them feasible. Would we need a change in norms? Is there a particular set of policy entrepreneurs that would be required? Does policy change in field X presuppose a change in field Y?

Take the debate about fossil fuel subsidies. In many cases big fossil fuel companies continue to receive unnecessary handouts from governments. By all accounts, that should stop. Yet, the majority of subsidies actually go towards consumers. Governments, justifiably or not, use these subsidies as a substitute for social policy. As repeated examples have shown, it is then incredibly difficult to remove them. While research has indicated that fossil fuel subsidies are wasteful, kill the climate, and are not actually beneficial to the poor, the perception among people is a different one. Therefore, the emphasis has rightly shifted towards an analysis of the enabling conditions which would allow for meaningful reform.

If we return to the Club of Rome report, the same concern emerges. Take something like curbing population growth. This has been a popular idea for quite some time now. As early as the 1960s, Paul Ehrlich warned about the impending “population bomb”. Suppose for the sake of argument that you agree that managing population growth is key to curbing climate change. We have only seen two mechanisms by which population control has actually been achieved. One is, of course, China’s one-child policy. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on one’s perspective, the one-child policy appears to be particular to China’s political system and the point in time when it was implemented. With its erosion even in China itself, it has little to no chance of revival. The other option would be economic development broadly speaking, and education in particular. That is not a policy. So if the aim is effective population control, one has to both describe a set of policies and provide an analysis of how those policies will be put on the agenda.

The politics around policy matters. To be more effective at policy implementation, wonks should contextualize ideas within the given political environment. Climate change is politics. Policy ideas need to reflect that reality.



Tim Pfefferle

Tim Pfefferle writes about the politics of climate change, the United Nations, as well as US and African politics. Originally from Germany, Tim has studied in the UK and in the US, and has also worked in Uganda and Brazil. He holds a BA in International Relations from the University of London, and is a recent graduate of the MSc Global Governance and Diplomacy program at the University of Oxford. He's currently a consultant working on climate change. When he is not thinking or writing about foreign policy, Tim enjoys the lighter sides of life, like pop culture.