Op-Ed: To Fight Climate Change, Think Politics First, and Often

Protest Green New Deal, San Fran - Photo Peg Hunter via Flickr CC

By Nathan Lobel, Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment|Feb. 26, 2019

In October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that we have little more than a decade to stave off climate catastrophe. Avoiding such a fate, the panel warned, “would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems… unprecedented in terms of scale.”

Punctuating a year of natural and political climate-related disasters, the IPCC report sparked renewed calls for action. Economists, environmentalists, and policy elites took to the nation’s opinion pages with a common prescription: to fight climate change, Congress should put a price on carbon, thus “internalizing” the social cost of fossil fuel consumption.

From one perspective, converging on carbon pricing makes lots of sense — after all, carbon prices are often thought to be the most efficient means to mitigate climate change. But, despite its theoretical utility, carbon pricing has also struggled to deliver the real and drastic emissions reductions that we so desperately need.

A decade after President Obama’s attempt to price carbon flared out in 2010, carbon pricing and its disciples have found minimal political success. Even in Washington state, where climate ambition is among the strongest in the country, three separate attempts to tax carbon have similarly floundered.

Given carbon pricing’s underwhelming political performance, one has to wonder: why has carbon pricing remained such an article of faith for so many of the climate-concerned? Might it be more strategic to explore other types of climate policies as well, like the command-and-control regulations favored by environmentalists of generations past, or the Green New Deal advocated by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?

Political Sensitivity in Policy Analysis

The continued orthodoxy of carbon pricing advocacy reflects more about the process through which policies become considered “best practice” than it does about carbon pricing’s objective policy superiority. Through this lens, the same problems that dog the climate policy debate apply in other policy fora as well.

In no small part, policies derive legitimacy through the network of “experts” — academics, think tanks, and non-profit organizations — that analyze the policy’s impacts in a given realm. The resulting analyses often rest on calculations that weigh policies’ expected benefits against their associated costs. “Best” policies are often assumed to be those projected to deliver policy objectives most efficiently in technical and economic terms.

However, such calculations overlook the politics of policymaking, which inform whether anticipated efficiencies are realized in practice. While these analyses can tell us a lot about expected impacts of adopted policies in theory, they tell us very little about how likely it is that policies will actually be adopted, or how advocating for them will impact efforts to advance complementary measures. They also do little to help advocates select among policy alternatives to achieve objectives at least political cost — those that are most politically efficient.

For the purposes of this blog, I focus predominantly on U.S. political systems, but the fundamental takeaway—that policy design and selection should be based on a combination of technical and political efficiency considerations in order to maximize impact — applies more broadly.

Unpacking Political Efficiency

Full text of this article follows at https://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2019/02/26/fight-climate-change-politics-first/

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Conclusion

Comparing the potential costs and anticipated benefits across a range of policy options—economic or technical—will (and should) remain an important factor in crafting policy agendas and making policy recommendations. But theoretically smart policies are worth little without the political will and wherewithal to adopt and implement them effectively. When policymakers or advisors fail to consider political factors, they risk inefficient expenditure of political capital by advancing policy options that are unlikely to be adopted or implemented as intended.

Especially in cases where costs of inaction are catastrophically high, as for climate, they should instead advocate policies that have the greatest chance of achieving actual progress: those that maximize a combination of political savvy and economic efficiency, even if those policies might not appear optimal when evaluated on purely economic grounds.

Failing to do so can impede the achievement of critical policy objectives. On climate and so many other pressing policy challenges, we don’t have time to waste.

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About the author: 

Nathan Lobel ColumbiaNathan Lobel is special assistant to the director of the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment. Leila Kazemi, Michael Ross, Michael Burger, Lisa Sachs, Hannah Sachs, and Sarah Fecht provided helpful comments and review. “My academic and extracurricular work centered around how governments can build the political will and develop innovative policies to adequately respond to climate change and its social justice implications.” @nathanlobel

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About the editor:

Eric Britton
13, rue Pasteur. Courbevoie 92400 France

Bio: Founding editor of World Streets (1988), Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher, occasional consultant, mediator and sustainability activist who has observed, learned, taught and worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. In the autumn of 2019, he committed his remaining life work to the challenges of aggressively countering climate change and specifically greenhouse gas emissions emanating from the mobility sector. He is not worried about running out of work. Further background and updates: @ericbritton | http://bit.ly/2Ti8LsX | #fekbritton | https://twitter.com/ericbritton | and | https://www.linkedin.com/in/ericbritton/ Contact: climate@newmobility.org) | +336 508 80787 (Also WhatApp) | Skype: newmobility.)

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