Climate change, Policy, Politics

160 – Tokenistic climate policy

If you are someone who believes that a strong policy response is required to avert dangerous climate change, the prospects of having your desires met are not looking good.

What sort of climate policy can we expect to emerge from the international climate talks in Copenhagen in December, or for that matter, from ongoing talks after that, as the world’s countries attempt to negotiate a replacement for the Kyoto Protocol?

If the past is any guide, my prediction is:

(a) tokenistic responses from developed countries. (Remember Kyoto … the ultimate tokenistic policy.) Going forward, developed countries will commit to targets or actions, but in most countries the targets will be the least they can get away with politically. They will be pitched to satisfy domestic political requirements to be seen to be taking action, while not upsetting other domestic constituencies. If countries do adopt stronger targets, they will fail to meet them (unless there is an ongoing economic recession that suppresses economic activity — see PD#64 — let’s hope not).

(b) either non-participation or tokenistic responses from developing counties.

To my mind, this sort of outcome is pretty much inevitable. I don’t think I’m being cynical here, just realistic. Recently there have been a number of informed commentators making similar observations. For example, Nordhaus and Shellenberger (2009) argue that “we will not regulate our way to a clean energy economy”. Brennan (2009) says, with some understatement, “the grounds for hope [for strong emissions policies] are, although not non-existent, decidedly thin”.

Actually, one doesn’t need to rely on the past to reach this conclusion. The current political debates in Australia and US are clearly leading to tokenistic responses, at best. In the theatre of politics, with all the arguing and point scoring that is going on, it is easy to lose sight of the reality that the proposed policies on both sides of politics would achieve very little in terms of mitigating climate change, even if well implemented.

There are several reasons why I think climate policy will continue to be tokenistic (or less) in most countries.

(i) The nature of democratic politics in developed countries, which makes it hard to implement policies that generate losers in the short term. Large numbers of losers in the long term are much easier to tolerate than small numbers in the short term.

(ii) The very understandable focus of developing countries on continuing economic development as their main priority.

(iii) The global public-good nature of the problem, with the resulting strong incentives for free riding by any one country.

(iv) The lack of carbon-neutral energy technologies that are economically more attractive than high-carbon-emitting energy technologies when adopted at very large scales.

(v) A persistent level of climate-change skepticism in most counties. Apparently, internationally, around 10-20% of people are hardened skeptics who don’t believe that humanity is affecting climate. A much larger proportion is skeptical about some of the claims that often appear in the media. For example, see this interview with environmental psychologist, Lorraine Whitmarsh from Cardiff University. Overall, according to Whitmore’s reading of a time series of surveys, skepticism seems to be growing over time. (A recent American survey, discussed here, is also consistent with this trend.)

I would speculate that there are several reasons for this pattern of persistent, and perhaps even growing, skepticism.

  • Advocates have over-reached with their scare mongering. Maybe people are recognising that some of the claims being made regularly are more about politics than science.
  • The ongoing efforts of a vocal minority of scientists who do not accept the dominant scientific paradigm on climate change. At least in some countries, they seem to be seeding significant levels of doubt. The flat trend in global average temperatures over the past decade seeds further doubt (although in reality it is far too short a time frame to be valid to judge anything about long-term climate trends).
  • A mix of social factors, such as distrust of science, distrust of the west, distrust of government, religious fundamentalism (in both east and west), and the fact that other issues are more pressing on a day-to-day basis.

Given all this, my judgment is that the current approach to climate policy, based on mandated reductions in CO2 emissions (i.e. carbon trading or carbon taxes), is doomed to fail. In my view, advocates who really want to do something about climate change would be well advised to take this on board and attempt to design a policy that at least has some chance of being effective within the real-world socio-economic and political context (e.g. see Nordhaus and Shellenberger, 2009). A purist approach will not deliver. Indeed, in my view, idealistic but ultimately fruitless policy proposals are crowding out more realistic and more politically tractable policies.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further Reading

Brennan, G. (2009). Climate change: a rational choice politics view, Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics 53: 309-326.

Nordhaus, T. and Shellenberger, M. (2009). The Emerging Climate Consensus, Global Warming Policy in a Post-Environmental World, here