Political change and climate change

Judging by the comments on my “derp and denialism” post, we seem to be mostly agreed on the proposition, amply demonstrated by economic studies, that the global economy could be decarbonized at a very modest cost in terms of foregone growth. On the other hand, it is equally obvious that the commitments made so far are nowhere near enough to achieve this goal[^1], and that the reasons for this lie in the operation of political systems, most importantly in the US, China and India. This raises several questions

(a) Why have political systems failed to yield the responses we need
(b) Can climate stabilization be achieved without fundamental transformation of political systems
(c) If so, what transformation do we need
(d) If not, what kinds of more limited change do we need

In this context, it’s only really necessary to look at the US, China and India. The EU may drag its 27 pairs of feet a little (it is the EU, after all) but will certainly match anything the US does. And, if the US were fully committed to climate change, denialists elsewhere in the developed world, like Harper in Canada and Abbott in Australia, would have the ground cut from under them.

In the US (and other English-speaking countries), the primary obstacle is not the entrenched power of interests that would lose from climate stabilization such as fossil fuel companies. The big global energy companies, like Exxon and BP, are perfectly capable of shifting their focus from oil to gas and if the market gets large enough, to renewables. In any case, they are balanced by potential losers from climate change like the insurance and finance sectors. Rather, the problem is the climate change denial is a rightwing culture war issue, which has became (one of many) Republican shibboleths.

Sustained action against climate change requires that the Republican party either be marginalized or replaced by something quite different (though it would probably still be called the Republican party). That’s a big challenge, but not impossible. A two-term presidency for Hillary Clinton, even without full control of Congress, would probably be enough to get things done through a combination of regulation and international agreements, the model currently being pursued by Obama. And four losses in succession would probably be enough to force a shift within the Republican party.

The situation in China is more opaque (to me, at any rate) but also more promising. Having been the worst of the spoilers at Copenhagen, and suffered a fair bit of opprobrium as a result, the Chinese leadership now seems willing to take a constructive role. Moreover, the pollution crisis in Chinese cities has led to a dramatic shift in sentiment against coal. So, it seems likely that renewables will be given a fair chance, including effective pricing of coal externalities, which is all they need.

Finally, there’s India. For a long time, Indian rhetoric on the issue was dominated by Third World grievance politics: the rich countries had burned lots of coal to get rich, and India had the right to do the same. But that seems to be changing, in part because most of the losers from climate change are also in the Third World, and in part because India’s coal sector is a total mess, making renewables more attractive. The new PM, Modi (from the deeply unattractive BJP, but that’s another issue) seems strongly committed to renewables. The historical arguments have shifted to the more productive terrain of arguing about how to share an emissions budget constrained by a 2 degree/450 ppm target.

At some level, all this is academic, in the pejorative sense of the term. Either existing political structures, with the kinds of changes I’ve discussed above, will manage decarbonization of the economy, or they won’t. There’s no chance that any kind of fundamental transformation of the political systems of the US, India and China[^1] will take place within the next 10-15 years, which is the time in which the necessary decisions need to be made.

To sum up this post and the previous one: even though the global climate could be stabilized at a very modest cost, the political obstacles are formidable. It may not be possible to overcome them in time, but we have no alternative except to try.

[^1]: I’m a little less confident in making this judgement about China. The apparent solidity of a one-party state can crumble quite fast. But the initial result of such a collapse would almost certainly be chaotic, and the outcome unforeseeable.

[^1}; There used also to be a lot of concern over whether these commitments would be met. While a couple of countries, such as Japan and Canada, have reneged, and Australia seems likely to follow, most of the big players are meeting their targets quite easily, reflecting both the softness of the targets and the low cost of decarbonization.

126 thoughts on “Political change and climate change

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