The Problem with Climate Politics: Part One

I want to spend some time on climate change policy for a while — an issue I have so far tried to avoid, despite the fact I am a “policy lass” to quote Kenneth Fritsch.

Climate change policy is a complex matter fraught with many intricacies.  It’s not my area of expertise and so I have been trying to educate myself first before I ventured into policy.  I am not claiming to be prepared adequately to do so, but there has been so much posted recently about climate policy that I thought I would weigh in.

Note that this post is a work in progress. I will likely be revising it as I go.

To the uninitiated who might be unaware of the recent controversies over climate science, global warming policy would appear at first glance to be a no-brainer.

The science shows that burning of fossil fuels has led to an increase of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and an enhanced greenhouse effect that has resulted in increased warming over the past half-century.  The science, when put into models, suggests that the potential for temperature increases to levels not experienced by modern human civilization and with significant negative effects is possible if we do nothing to limit the release of greenhouse gasses from the burning of fossil fuels.

It seems obvious that we must take action to limit and reduce the release of greenhouse gasses into the environment and switch away from fossil fuels to renewables and clean forms of energy.

Simple right?  The science is clear, although uncertainties remain.

So why, despite the science and the threat we face, has nothing much been done?  To understand the current impasses requires understanding the problem with politics, not science.

There’s a recent article in Slate by Daniel Sarewitz titled The Trouble With Climate Science that claims to have the answer.

Discussed on Roger Pilke Jr.’s blog post The Trouble with Climate Science and at Center for Environmental Journalism’s CE Journal, Sarewitz argues further clarity on the science of climate change / global warming will not help to answer the policy question “what is to be done?”.

At its most fundamental level, I agree with this. More science will not in itself settle the dispute.  The science is clear enough. It’s the politics that’s muddy.

First, let’s examine Sarewitz’s main claim:

A dangerous idea has taken hold in modern politics, and the sooner it is discredited, the better. The idea is that political disagreements can be resolved by science. Its basic logic seems sensible: As good children of the Enlightenment, we should turn to science to establish the facts about problems such as climate change before deciding what policies to implement. Yet the types of things that scientists are good at figuring out don’t have much to do with the types of things that politicians need to decide.

First, is what Sarewitz claims true?  Is the question of what to do about climate change a political disagreement?

Yes, at its base, the reason we have not seen action on global warming despite the science is that there is a fundamenal political dispute about what is to be done.

  • Some people want legislative action to mitigate global warming through regulating greenhouse gas emissions and developing alternative energy sources.
  • Other people do not want legislative action, period.

I’ll put it clearly — from what I have read since entering this fray, the science is clear.  No more clarity is really necessary to decide that action should be taken and soon. I disagree with Sarewitz on this — I believe more science is needed to specify the impacts of global warming on our climate and civilization so that we can better prepare for at least a doubling of CO2 and a warming of at least 2C.

What is needed to overcome the impasse is politial will.  That is currently lacking for a variety of reasons that I want to explore.

Let’s get back to Sarewitz’s oh-so-reasonable-sounding article.

What do decision-makers need in order to decide the policy question?

“Decision-makers need to know how climate change will affect specific political jurisdictions, and, more importantly, what types of interventions will make a difference, over what time scales, at what costs, and to whose benefit—and whose detriment.”

Politicians are concerned with the impacts of climate change and climate policy — the costs and benefits — on various ‘stakeholders’ and in a larger sense, on their own political fortunes.

Here’s Sarewitz’s view of politics:

“Politics isn’t about maximizing rationality, it’s about finding compromises that enough people can live with to allow society to take steps in the right direction.”

Politics is about “finding compromises that enough people can live with to allow society to take steps in the right direction.”

That may be the case in a national policy dispute but I put it to my readers that this view of the policy process simply won’t do when it comes to climate change. Climate change — global warming — may be a case when very little or even no compromise is possible given the stakes. More on this later.

Here’s more Sarewitz:

“Contrary to all our modern instincts, then, political progress on climate change requires not more scientific input into politics, but less. Value disputes that are hidden behind the scientific claims and counterclaims need to be flushed out and brought into the sunlight of democratic deliberation. Until that happens, the political system will remain in gridlock, and everyone will be convinced that they are on the side of truth.”

In other words. he claims we need to make clear what’s at stake and what the real points of contention are.

On this I agree. Let’s make the underlying hidden values transparent.

Politics as usual is not about maximizing rationality.  It’s about the play of power.  It’s about competing agendas.

The thing is this — and this is what so many people involved in this debate do not want to face: this policy question is not just a national one. It’s not just a regional question. It’s not even just a hemispheric question. It’s a global question that requires a global solution. The decisions have to be made simultaneously at the global and at the local level.  They have to be implemented at the global and local level because they have global and local implications.

Hence, politics as usual cannot be allowed to take place.

National politics must be both upheld and superseded.  The mechanisms through which the global problem will be addressed will have to be both global and local.

You think the climate is complex? Wait till you get a load of this wacky mix of national and global politics.

Put simply, there are agendas that politicians must mediate when they must decide on policy directions.  This is writ large — at the global level — when it comes to climate change.  The climate — everyone’s climate — is threatened by burning of fossil fuels.  The economy — the global economy — is threatened by restrictions placed on the burning of fossil fuels.

Despite the consensus on the reality of global warming, its causes and the threat it poses to the future, no real action has been taken. This is primarily because the cause of the problem — burning of fossil fuels — is also the source of our amazing wealth and technological development over the past century.

Our complex industrial market economies are fueled by the burning of sequestered carbon. The burning of that sequestered carbon, out of the carbon budget for hundreds of millions of years, has never been priced properly. All our development has been underpriced and so it has been far too easy and quick. Practically every technological and even non-technological process in industrial market economies and societies are premised at some point on the burning of fossil fuels.

Every part of your day — and every part of the global industrial civilization — is governed by it. It is, as Joe Romm and others such as Thomas Friedman have argued, a global ponzi scheme.

For the vast majority in the developed world, you wake up in a bed created using fossil fuels in a house that is heated or cooled by either oil, gas or coal-generated electricity. You cook your food using fossil fuels. Your shower is heated by fossil fuels. You drive to work using fossil fuels or you commute in a plane, train or bus using fossil fuels, and which were all made using technology fueled by fossil fuels. At work, your computer, your office furniture, your telecommunications equipment, even the clothes on your back have been made by fossil fuels at some point in the production process. Your food has been raised or grown using fossil fuels. The food has been processed and then transported from distant lands using fossil fuels. The food is cooked at a restaurant that relies of fossil fuels to keep the produce cool, cook the meat, chill the wine using fossil fuels. Your medications were made in factories fueled by carbon dioxide-generating fossil fuels. Your entertainment has been produced and broadcasted using fossil fuels.

Face it — you and everyone else in the developed world — and increasingly everyone in the developing world — are fossil fuel junkies.

Not only that, but your government is reliant on the money to maintain its budgets and finance its campaigns generated by the fossil fuel industry and its associated industries — and by the income taxes you pay that derive from your fossil fuel-addicted lifestyle.

All of this development has not factored in the real cost of producing and consuming fossil fuels. The cost of that production and consumption has been put off to future generations, who will be forced to deal with the fallout. Our vast and rapid technological development has been premised on carbon that is under priced and thus our development has been unsustainable. The externalities — global warming — have never been properly accounted for.

There is just too much at stake by too many vested interests to expect anything but war when it comes to climate legislation.

The issues are complex: if climate scientists think the object of their scrutiny is complex and given to chaos, how about human politics and economics?  At least there is a fundamental set of laws that govern the physical world. There is no such claim can be made about the human world, despite a couple of centuries of trying to create human social sciences. It’s all irrationality and myopia mixed in with a lot of lack of foresight and immediate gain.

To put it bluntly: Politics is the conflict over values and interests and who gets theirs entrenched.  As Mao said, politics is war without the fighting.  In this current war over climate policy, science is contested terrain as each player views the other as an enemy and tries to win the battle. The prize?  Public policy that implements their agenda.

I will argue this and this is my bottom line — given that this is a global issue crossing national borders and national economies, given that this deals with the fundamental underpinnings of our civilization — the basic energy source that has allowed us to get where we are today, and that this is an environmental issue affecting everyone on the planet — politics as usual, beset by its problems and irrationalities, is no longer adequate.

That is just too scary a prospect for too many people to contemplate. I can hear the response — people will claim I am a Maoist because I quoted him — balderdash! I am an ardent fan of capitalism and technology, but I am also a fan of our climate the way it is and I see the climate dispute for what it is — a policy war over conflicting agendas.  Some will argue that I am advocating a global socialist agenda — balderdash! I am arguing for a global treaty and global politics, but I am not a fan of either communism or socialism or a return to feudalism or a luddite.

I would argue that a global problem requires a global solution.

As Joe Romm writes on Climate Progress, in his review of what is needed to address global warming, 450 ppm is doable in a technological sense, but it is  not yet politically palatable.

Sadly, I have to agree.

In the next post, I will examine a specific example of a policy war over an environmental matter so we can see this war in action and understand what is going on at a political and economic level. In a final post, I want to look at some of the solutions Romm poses.


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About Policy Lass

Exploring skeptic tales.

4 Responses to “The Problem with Climate Politics: Part One”

  1. “As Joe Romm writes on Climate Progress, in his review of what is needed to address global warming, 450 ppm is doable in a technological sense, but it is not yet politically palatable.

    Sadly, I have to agree.”

    Wait for the storm surges. Then we’ll see what is and isn’t palatable.

  2. As an aside, here are Twenty Ethical Questions that the US Press Should Ask Opponents of Climate Change Policies:

    http://climateethics.org/?p=408

  3. Competing with the Ponzi scheme metaphor, the impossible hamster:

    http://www.impossiblehamster.org/

    I prefer both, of course.

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