Opening Up the Climate Policy Envelope
Fudged assumptions about the future are hampering efforts to deal with climate change in the present. It’s time to get real.
One of the reasons that writers write is to be read. That is certainly the case for those of us who write about policy. I’ll be sharing some of my favorite and most important longer-form writings here. For some articles, I’ll tell you the story behind the paper, which may provide some interesting context to the analyses.
Today I’m sharing a 2018 paper on climate policy, which I am quite proud of for a couple of reasons. Among them is that I think it to be my clearest and best written explanation for how it is that the world has become locked in to focusing on global temperature targets for climate policy that are simply impossible to meet, yet continues to engage in an elaborate charade as if they can be met. You’ll will find no better example of the “social construction of ignorance” and “uncomfortable knowledge” — to use two phrases from my late friend and colleague Steve Rayner.
This week tens of thousands of people are gathered at COP27 in Egypt pretending as if the 1.5C and 2C targets are possible to achieve and that if they are not met, then some sort of global apocalypse will result, and very soon. How did climate become so Millenarian? And why can’t we break free? If we are to deal with climate change — a real and important issue — we will have to break free from the enforced myopia that grips the issue.
The Story Behind the Paper
In 2014, the White House came after me. President Obama’s science advisor, John Holdren, was caught out in congressional testimony making claims about extreme weather and climate far outside the scope of the conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). He was called on the false claims by Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), who asked Holdren why his claims were different than the ones I had testified to before the same committee only a few months before, citing precisely the consensus views of the IPCC.
Dr. Holdren responded to Senator Sessions not by defending his claims, but by making an ad hominem comment about me. Holdren returned to the White House and soon thereafter a 6-page screed was posted to the White House website about me! It read like something you’d find on Facebook from the uncle no one wants to sit next to at Thanksgiving. Well, the White House has influence, I soon learned, a lot.
Within a year, I had been the target of a Twitter mob and campaign to have me removed or fired from every job I had, which was somewhat effective, but thank goodness for academic tenure. I also became the subject of a Congressional investigation (see the image above), which cited Holdren to suggest that maybe, just maybe, I was on the take from fossil fuel companies in exchange for the words I uttered in Congressional testimony. Wacky, I know.
An interesting side note is that after the investigation was announced, Senator Sessions called me at home one morning to apologize for the trouble caused by citing my testimony the year before. I thought that was a nice gesture from someone whose politics are far from my own.
The investigation was quickly national news and all the rage on Twitter. I was abandoned by colleagues, administrators at my university and immediately disinvited from every talk I had been scheduled to give (I have always given a lot of talks). Well, except one. I was invited to be the 2015 Senator George Mitchell (D-ME) speaker at the University of Maine. When they didn’t disinvite me I thought perhaps they hadn’t heard I was being investigated by Congress, so I contacted them to give them the opportunity to cancel the talk. I’ll never forget the response I got: Senator Mitchell is aware and he wants you. In the fall of 2015, I wound up spending several full days with Senator Mitchell talking about all sorts of things — an absolutely incredible experience with a political giant. I’ll always appreciate his support during this time.
However, things got so bad that I resigned as director of the science policy center I had been recruited to found at the University of Colorado Boulder, left my department, announced a break from doing climate work and joined my university’s athletics department to start up a new sports governance center. That turned out to be a wonderful opportunity for me — lemonade out of lemons for sure. I’m still actively engaged in sports governance research, which has allowed me to make new friends and colleagues around the world, and to conduct work with positive impact on real people.
By 2018, several of my colleagues were encouraging me to get back to doing climate research and writing, especially after the Wikileaks revelations involving me (a story for another time). Among them was my mentor and friend Steve Rayner, who by then was very ill. Seeing what Steve was going through as he offered encouragement and support helped me to gain some perspective and solidify my backbone.
The article below is my first one on climate policy after my time in the wilderness. I’m really proud of it, not just because I think the arguments are strong and significant, but because it reminds me of Steve Rayner and his encouragement. I think about that a lot. I hope that you enjoy it also.
OPENING UP THE CLIMATE POLICY ENVELOPE
Policy action is required to mitigate and adapt to human-caused climate change, but current efforts to develop a global climate policy cannot fly. What the world’s leaders have been able to agree on will not prevent the steady increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the risks of climate disruption that will result.
For an aircraft to fly it must operate within a flight envelope, the combination of conditions such as airspeed, altitude, and flight angle necessary for successful operation. For a specific approach to climate action to succeed, it must operate within a policy envelope, the combination of policy design and political, economic, technological, and other conditions necessary for the approach to be effective.
If aircraft designers sought to improve the performance of a poorly designed aircraft not by improving its design, but by rejiggering their claims about aerodynamics, or airfoil design, or jet fuel combustion thermodynamics, to match the aircraft performance they desire, it is obvious that the aircraft would still perform badly. In the case of climate change, policy-makers and climate experts are doing something similar. In the face of ongoing failure to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, they are rejiggering the way they define the climate change challenge as if that will somehow allow policies that have been failing for over 25 years to become successful.
Understanding the unexplored dimensions of a policy envelope can be particularly important in situations of policy failure or gridlock. Sometimes new options are needed in order to break a stalemate, enable political compromise, or create new technological possibilities. The exploration of options can also give confidence that the policies being implemented do not have better alternatives. Thus, an important role for policy analysts, especially in the context of wicked or intractable problems, is to understand the ever-changing dimensions of the policy envelope in a particular context to assess what might be possible in order for progress to be made, perhaps even expanding the scope of available actions.
The failure of global climate policies to date suggests that new policy options should be explored—that we may need a significantly expanded policy envelope to begin to make satisfactory progress. But rather than exploring such options, we have instead been protecting the current policy envelope from critical scrutiny. One mechanism of such protection is via scenarios and assumptions that underlie the authoritative policy assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Inside the Envelope
The dynamics at play are complex and somewhat circular. In the 1980s and ’90s scientists and policy-makers concluded that accumulating carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would be best addressed via an international treaty that focused on incremental reductions in emissions, based on negotiations among countries. This approach culminated in the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), followed by its various incremental offspring, including the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 and the celebrated Paris Agreement of 2015. The social scientist Steve Rayner of Oxford University argues that this approach incorporated “borrowings from other international governance regimes addressing stratospheric ozone and nuclear weapons as well as the USA’s experience with SO2 [sulfur dioxide] emissions trading.” The focus was thus on an international process with successive and incremental commitments to emissions reductions made by participating parties, supported by mechanisms of measurement and verification.
An important role of climate research in this regime was to provide ever more certain justifications for action and key guidance on the details of implementation. The IPCC thus focused on providing technical support for the UNFCCC. A key element of this support has been the development of scenarios of the future that show how the world might look decades hence with and without climate policies under the UNFCCC, so that policy-makers might understand costs and benefits of proposed actions. These scenarios thus support the formulation and implementation of climate policies within a policy envelope that was established by and has been pursued under the UNFCCC.
The restricted policy envelope that results from the scenarios of the IPCC—typically formalized in the form of so-called integrated assessment models—is the result of two reinforcing sets of assumptions. One is that the costs of inaction will be high due to projected large changes in climate resulting from a massive increase in future emissions and resulting negative impacts on societies. The second is that necessary incremental actions to reduce and ultimately eliminate emissions will be technologically feasible at low cost, or even at no net cost at all—that such actions are economic and political no-brainers.
Both sets of assumptions may well prove to be correct. But what if the costs of inaction are not so high or the costs of incremental action are not so low? What if the current approach to climate policy reinforces a partisan divide and fuels its own opposition? What if there are other ways to address the challenge? What if our view has focused on a policy regime that cannot succeed? What if we need to think differently in order to succeed? How many more decades of failing to make real progress will be necessary before asking such questions is not only politically acceptable but unavoidable? What if it is then too late?
At the center of the current approach is a target and a timetable. The target is to stabilize concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at a low level. In the past this level was commonly expressed as 450 parts per million carbon dioxide equivalents, and more recently has been expressed as a temperature target such as 2 degrees Celsius (2°C). Under the Kyoto Protocol, the timetables for emissions reduction were specified quantitatively for certain participating counties, and when this did not work the Paris Agreement allowed countries to specify targets for themselves. Neither approach has proved effective at securing emissions reductions, much less making progress toward a stabilization or temperature target.
In 2012 the physicist Robert H. Socolow argued in the Vanderbilt Law Review that the 2°C target was not so much a policy goal but rather a political motivation, reflecting “a mindset that is common to the entire exercise: to create maximum pressure for action. The action most on the minds of the proponents of ‘two degrees’ is deep transformation of lifestyles and the industrial structure of the OECD [Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development]. Implications for developing country industrialization receive little attention.” Under the Kyoto Protocol, developing countries were not expected to reduce emissions, nor are they under the Paris Agreement, at least not until far into the future. Vast parts of the world have yet to achieve the full bounty of energy services available in OECD countries, and climate politics has tiptoed around this inequity for decades. Not surprisingly, emissions have increased dramatically in parts of the world experiencing rapid economic growth.
If climate policy can’t be made to work in the real world thus far, then at least it can be made to work in the scenarios and models of the future that underpin the debate. It is Policy Analysis 101 to consider the consequences of alternative policy interventions, and economic and other types of models can often help us to productively understand these consequences and associated uncertainties. But in addition to supporting insight, models and scenarios can obstruct understanding and discourage critical thinking.
Discussion of climate policy options has long depended on the generation of scenarios of the future that include a wide range of assumptions, such as growth in population and wealth and prospects for technological innovation in energy production and consumption. These scenarios serve multiple purposes. For instance, they are used to generate projections of future greenhouse gas emissions, which can then be used as a key input for physical climate models, which in turn project future changes in climate. These projections can tell us something about the consequences of alternative interventions, and of inaction as well. Scenarios are also used as the basis for projecting the scale and scope of possible policy actions, including the projected costs and benefits of different approaches to climate mitigation.
Typically, two categories of scenarios are developed. Baseline scenarios are used to describe a future in which society continues to change, but no intentional action is taken on climate mitigation. Policy scenarios are used to describe a departure from the baselines, to describe a future in which action is taken on climate mitigation. Both baseline and policy scenarios have many assumptions about the future built into them, and both have profound implications for our view of the climate policy envelope, and by extension for which policies are considered as worth pursuing and which are not.
Scenarios are essential because to move into the future intentionally we need some expectation of how actions and outcomes may be related. But scenarios may become captured by assumptions and beliefs about how the world does or should work, and thus can limit our vision of possible futures, and make us vulnerable to surprises.
Assume a Light Saber
An obvious example of myopia induced by climate policy scenarios can be found today in the role played in scenarios of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, called BECCS . . .
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