US Climate Policy: Lecture at George Washington University, Elliott School of International Affairs


What kind of society do we want to be? What kind of government do we want to have? What interests are going to drive the key policy decisions? Climate policy has been drawn into that larger unresolved struggle. It’s not mainly about science and science communication, it’s beyond that.

Excerpted with some editing from a lecture on US Climate Policy by CSW director Rick Piltz at the George Washington University, Elliott School of International Affairs, Washington, DC, February 22, 2012 —

At the beginning of 2009, when the Obama Administration came in and the Democrats had a substantial majority in Congress, a lot of people believed the system was finally at a point where it was ready to take some significant steps forward in climate policy development.

Major legislation was introduced that would put in place a regime for systematically reducing emissions over time and establish programs for adaptive preparedness to deal with impacts. Pursuant to the US Supreme Court ruling in 2007 in the case of Massachusetts et al. v. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA would regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act if EPA reached a specific finding that GHGs pose a threat to public health or welfare. There would be a major new post-Kyoto Protocol international agreement at the Copenhagen Conference of Parties to the climate treaty at the end of 2009. And there would be significant steps forward in promoting the development of alternative energy technologies.

Most of that turned out to be considerably easier said than done. Once it appeared that change was going to actually mean change – i.e.,  in moving forward on the implications of the climate science assessments that we need to move off of fossil fuels and not wait until the 22nd century to get around to transforming the energy system – this was threatening to a range of very powerful interests.

On the one hand you have the fossil energy industry that controls the existing energy system. This is an enormously powerful and profitable industry not interested in having their product regulated or losing market share until they are themselves ready to control some kind of transition – not to have public policy be the driver of that.  The energy industry is a significant funder of election campaigns and has the loyalty of many elected officials. For years, ExxonMobil was the most large-scale funder of lobbying and public relations in supporting the policy advocacy groups that seek to cast doubt on the reality of the global warming problem. I refer to this as the global warming ‘denial machine’ because it’s an orchestrated public relations and political effort.

In addition, it wasn’t just a corporate-funded lobbying campaign. There’s a strong component of US society that tends to be suspicious of big government. We see some of this in the politics of libertarian free-market ideologues. During the last 30 years, especially since the Reagan Administration, it’s been hammered as an important theme.  But it has a long history in the US.

To a lot of people, aggressively addressing the global warming problem meant that there would have to be major government-sponsored initiatives. I mean, you can ride a bicycle and change your light bulbs, but this is a global problem that requires a global solution. It requires the development of new technologies and the more rapid diffusion of existing energy-efficient and renewable energy technologies. A lot of that can be done with venture capital, but without a stronger policy driver that requires existing energy sources to pay their full social and environmental costs, the transition may not happen as expeditiously as is needed.

This suggests the need for regulatory action. It suggests the need for proactive adaptive preparedness planning for heat waves, droughts, floods, wildfires, impacts on water resources, coastal zone management, and so forth. It requires thinking in policy terms, in planning terms. Regardless of whether it involves big-ticket government spending, it definitely suggests the need for a strong role for government policy and planning.

This generates a lot of political opposition. Those who did not want to see regulation of greenhouse gases by EPA, strong government policy action that would put a price on carbon emissions, the US signing stronger international agreements to commit the US to take actions as part of a multilateral strategy, and so forth, adopted a strategy of trying to de-legitimize the global warming problem. “It’s not actually a problem. It’s not a real problem. It’s not a serious problem. It’s nothing that we have to worry about.”

That led to a disconnect between politics and the predominant expert thinking in the science community – not communicating fruitfully with each other, because there was an orchestrated political effort to say, “we don’t believe what the scientists are saying.” It had threatening policy implications to accept the preponderance of the evidence on climate science – observed anthropogencially-driven global warming, increasing ocean acidification and its threat to marine ecosystems and food chains, the strong likelihood of sea level rise that could persist over centuries and cause significant problems for coastal settlements globally – a wide range of impacts.

I don’t say “the science is settled so now it’s time for action.” That’s not a good framing.  For one thing, it invites any kind of skepticism to point to any scientific issue that remains unresolved. The science isn’t settled; there are a lot of questions with a large research community engaged in it, even though there is a general agreement on the basic outlines of the problem – the radiative forcing of the atmosphere and what follows.  There are significant questions about the rate and magnitude of climate change, the exact nature and timing of impacts, the implications of various possible courses of action and trajectories of changes in greenhouse gas emissions. So there’s a continuing, ongoing need for global climate observing systems and research.

For me the most interesting thing that NASA, the space agency, does is not – people who think we’re going to be putting humans way out there have been watching too much Star Trek. If this is the Earth and this is the Moon, then Mars is out in the middle of E Street somewhere – these distances are huge.  To me the most interesting thing is what NASA used to call the Mission to Planet Earth – the Earth environmental look-down satellites that are showing us, by collecting data on numerous variables from the top to the bottom of the Earth system, what we’re doing to the Earth system, and providing us with the kind of intelligence that we can use to try to help make our society sustainable.

Ground-based observing systems, climate modeling, ecosystem process studies, economic studies, technology studies – there’s a tremendous need for research. That’s our intellectual capability for understanding what we’re doing to the Earth system.

The science is not settled, yet we don’t have to have an answer to every question in order to begin to take action. You have to take action in the face of uncertainty. How do you do that? The military does it all the time. Corporations do it all the time.  It’s risk assessment, risk management. Do your research to try to understand and continue to evolve your understanding of the risks you face in your environment, and alongside that, you evolve your thinking about how to manage those risks, reduce them, or get around them.  This requires a very creative type of communication between technical experts and policymakers who have the responsibility for making decisions about rules or allocation of resources.

You don’t wait until you have perfect knowledge before you begin to take prudent and deliberative steps toward shifting your energy system away from its most damaging components, toward alternatives. You try to do that in a way that’s least damaging to the economy. It could even be economically beneficial if you manage a clean energy transition effectively.  There are other countries that are getting ahead of us in doing that – we could end up buying our solar energy from China while watching Europe running mostly on wind power while we argue with each other about whether we’re even supposed to be doing anything and whether we should have a government that acts proactively.

So, adaptive management and continuing iterative interplay between science and policymaking.  That’s how we should be thinking if society has a leadership and a public following that’s intelligent, knowledgeable, scientifically minded, thoughtful, pragmatic, problem-solving, and policy-analytical, to avoid damages that we can’t manage, manage our way through damages we can’t avoid, and limit the suffering along the way. That’s my goal, basically.

It’s a rather grand way of putting it, I don’t mean to sound grandiose, but I’m trying to represent the interest of the climate change problem in getting solved. Not solved in the sense that you can make it go away, but solved as an ongoing policy and management problem – a society that has in place institutions and capabilities and processes for managing this on an ongoing basis, the way we manage a lot of other things on an ongoing basis. That is a huge challenge under the best of circumstances, but it’s an almost impossible challenge to deal with if you have a dysfunctional political process that’s tied in knots and unable to have a sophisticated discourse about it.

US climate policy at this point bears little resemblance to the ideal.  We don’t have a national strategy; we don’t have a coherently identifiable policy that’s agreed upon by the major governing institutions and leaders. Climate change has become a political hot potato. We have Congressional hearings at which, if they deal with the climate change problem at all, it’s to bring climate scientists in to wring them out and practically accuse them of having no integrity. We have members of Congress, political candidates, policy advocacy groups funded by ideologues and corporate interests – especially since 2009 it’s become a war on climate science, a war on climate scientists, even, that makes the Bush Administration look moderate by comparison. And given what we have documented about the record of the Bush Administration, that is saying something.

It’s become so vitriolic, this change that has happened during the past several years. And public opinion polls suggest that there was some slippage, at least for a time, in how ready people were to acknowledge the reality and seriousness of the global warming problem. That shift is mainly on the conservative side of the spectrum, the right. It’s Republicans, basically, who have firmed themselves up to a fairly unified narrative that de-legitimizes the climate change problem.

Among the Presidential candidates it’s become essentially a litmus test of whether you can have support from the right-wing base. You have to be correct on abortion, gay marriage, immigration, whatever. Now you have to disown global warming.  Different candidates have responded to it in different ways.  There are some who, in the past, could have been part of a bipartisan consensus: their views were not anti-scientific, not radically ideological. Mitt Romney, Gingrich. But now they’ve backpedaled, they’ve disowned what they said before.  “It’s all uncertain, we don’t know, we don’t have do anything.”

Ron Paul wants to pretty much dismantle the government; what he thinks about the science I’m not entirely sure. Santorum has been very right-wing on this, very anti-science. This comes from a philosophy, an ideology that has led him to fundamentally disown the climate science community.

This sets the bar rather low for making Obama look like he’s being reasonable on the issue, although there have been significant limits in what he’s willing to do. He almost doesn’t talk about the issue at all.  They chose early-on to frame their policy in terms of clean energy and green jobs.  That doesn’t provoke a conflict, everybody’s for clean energy, and everybody’s for green jobs. But unless people take the climate change problem seriously, I’m not sure that the green jobs narrative is a strong enough driver to push the kind of transformation that’s needed with the degree of urgency that’s called for.

We have this impasse at the level of the US political and corporate power elite, and divided public opinion. At this point, it’s like global warming has gotten caught up in the culture wars.  It’s not mainly about science and science communication, it’s beyond that. Yes, it would be great if scientists knew how to communicate to civilians in plain English. There’s a lot that they can learn, and scientists and science graduate students should learn to communicate, and all of that. But the problem is not fundamentally on the science communication side – although perhaps with better communication between the science community and the public and policymakers, over time they can be educated and moved toward supporting more strongly the needed policies. And having a more scientifically literate public would be a great thing for many reasons.

But the fundamental problem of climate policy is on the political leadership and corporate power side.  What kind of society do we want to be? What kind of government do we want to have? What interests are going to drive the key policy decisions? Climate policy has been drawn into that larger unresolved struggle.

I think the science community views that with dismay.  They would want to report their findings and have somebody work to deal with it.  They are for the most part politically conflict-averse and they feel burned by political controversy.  So they don’t know what to do, and I think much of the rest of the world views the US situation with some bafflement.  How common is it to have this type of standoff between really important elements of the political elite and their top scientific experts?

What happens next? It’s really hard to see major policy development to fundamentally address the climate change problem anytime in the near future, regardless of who wins the election in November – although it always makes a difference who wins the election, at least on an incremental basis.  These divisions are not going to go away; somehow this issue needs to evolve. I thought it had reached a critical mass several years ago, but it’s clearly not there yet as a problem that society is ready to take on and deal with.

I think there’s a fundamental need for political leadership. My reading of public opinion on this is that it’s one of those issues where the average person doesn’t understand it very well and takes cues from leaders, whatever leaders they regard as credible.  Just like with Afghanistan: Should we be in Afghanistan or not? For someone who’s not an expert, how can you even discuss it except to decide who you regard as credible leaders?  And if they say “we really need to do this,” people will tend to follow.

If the public was getting a more coherently orchestrated message from the political leadership of the country, saying, in effect, “This is what our top science experts are telling us, this is what we’ve looked at in terms of the budget and what we think is affordable, these are the rules that make sense, we really need to do this because if we don’t, this is what we’re looking at down the road…” Costly impacts, damaging impacts.  Public support would tend to firm up behind it. I don’t think the problem is at the grassroots or that the average person is opposed to the scientists.  That’s a frame that’s been imposed by powerful opponents of a strong climate policy. Until somehow the country can pull together a political leadership that can move the issue forward in the policy arena and bring public opinion along, it’s very difficult to see major progress being made.







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