Nives Dolsak and Aseem Prakash – Aug 14, 2021,08:29pm EDT
The recent IPCC report is a grim reminder of the seriousness of the climate crisis. The wildfires in the Western United States and Canada, the zombie fires in Siberia, heatwaves in Southern Europe and the Pacific Northwest, and floods in Germany and China should motivate aggressive climate action.
Disasters are supposed to focus policy attention, which political scientist John Kingdon described as opening the “policy window.” As “focusing events,” drastic weather episodes could create opportunities to enact new climate policies. But, of course, a lot depends on the skill of policy entrepreneurs. As Rahm Immanuel had famously noted, politicians should not allow a serious crisis to go to waste.
And yet, climate policy seems to be losing steam. The U.S. Senate has substantially slashed Biden’s proposal for new climate spending. China continues to build coal-fired electricity plants. Brazil has announced a plan to support its coal industry.
And to top it all, Jake Sullivan, U.S. National Security Advisor, is imploring OPEC countries to pump more oil! The White House press release notes: “President Biden has made clear that he wants Americans to have access to affordable and reliable energy, including at the pump.” Yes, one can smell 2022 mid-term elections because Democrats do not want to be held responsible for high gas prices, a highly emotive pocketbook issue. However, these statements cause enormous policy confusion about Biden’s commitment to making tough choices on climate issues. If zero emissions are to be achieved by 2050, the White House should allow the prices to rise. Moreover, if Biden supports increasing oil supply abroad, why is he opposing it in the U.S., as Texas Governor Greg Abbott noted?
Models of Policy Change
There are different pathways to policy change. The “information deficit” model suggests that policy change is hampered when policy elites do not have sufficient information. Once these elites are “educated” and there is an “epistemic consensus,” policy change takes place. With easy accessibility to well-written and carefully crafted IPCC reports, it is difficult to accept that policy elites lack information about climate change. Perhaps, what is taking place is “motivated reasoning”: individuals seek information that coheres with their prior beliefs and leads them to their desired conclusions. This means that policy elites are not empty vessels waiting to be nourished by the nectar of new knowledge. Instead, they seek information that they want to hear. Information deficit explanations do not work well in highly polarized political contexts.
Political explanations begin with the premise that most policy institutions favor the status quo. This is partly due to the institutional design (such as the Senate Filibuster) that many democracies deliberately adopt to prevent concentration of power. But sometimes, dramatic events can shatter the status quo, as elites begin to rethink their priorities. If political entrepreneurs can stitch together a coalition, policy change can happen. And sometimes, even without policy windows opening up, these entrepreneurs can create policies that can appeal to multiple constituencies. After all, Baptists and Bootleggers came together to push for prohibition. Politics, rather than the lack of scientific information, is probably leading to policy sluggishness.
Why is Climate Policy Stalling?
Additional issues are also contributing to climate policy lethargy. Humans have a limited attention span. Climate issues are getting neglected because the policy space is getting crowded by new and sensational non-climate issues. Taliban’s rapid advance in Afghanistan is stunning, and its aftermath is most disturbing. Western countries are in a panic mode to evacuate embassies with “Saigon type” exit from Kabul. The Afghanistan crisis is creating a new wave of refugees seeking safety in Europe, abetting a nationalist backlash. The debate on “who lost Afghanistan” will probably dominate the U.S. policy discourse with the usual blame game.
Closer to home, the resurgence of COVID and the debate about masks and vaccines are igniting political passions. School and college reopening controversy will probably take a chunk of policy space and attention span.
Other dramatic issues will make demands on the attention span as well: crime waves in many cities (the top issue in the New York Mayoral race), the Cuomo scandal, and Newsom’s recall.
Is there Hope on the Climate Front?
The good news is that the renewable energy industry is growing despite COVID-induced recession. A key reason is that the prices of both solar and wind are now competitive with coal. This means that electric utilities will deploy their political muscle to get favorable renewable policies at the state level. For example, the legislature in a Red state such as Indiana has prohibited county governments from using zoning ordinances against renewable energy.
The automobile industry seems to be pushing EVs as well. Although the Senate’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan has provided only $7.5 billion for E.V. charging stations (as opposed to $15 billion Biden had asked for), the automobile industry and electric utilities (with their massive new investments in renewables) are now getting locked into a new technological trajectory . This means that they have strong incentives to create a national charging station network.
Although the federal government may be underperforming on climate issues, the private sector has embraced them. Wall Street also seems to be keeping pace with Main Street and the Silicon Valley. Of course, one might view industry’s newfound love for Environmental-Social-Governance (ESG) issues as hype, simply replacing Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). It remains to be seen if climate leaders such as BlackRock can bring about measurable change in corporate policies on climate issues.
In sum, the climate policy optimism of the first 100 days of the Biden administration seems to be wearing off. This is disturbing because Republicans are expected to retake the House (and possibly the Senate as well) in the 2022 midterm elections. Thus, the window of opportunity to enact aggressive federal climate policy is slowly closing. Climate policy requires vigorous political entrepreneurship to bring about policy change in the next 12 months.