Friday, April 29, 2016

Carbon Politics

I’ve always appreciated David Roberts’ voice in debates about climate policy.  He reads widely, looks for the strong points of arguments he otherwise disagrees with, and is open to changing his mind.  Even now, when I think he’s been substantially captured by a particularly blinkered stream within the climate change policy world, he’s still worth looking at.  Alas, however, his drift toward the Breakthrough Institute view of things is nearly complete.

It would take a book or more to explain why it won’t be possible to simply regulate, subsidize and innovate our way to climate stability.  (I’m writing it now in fact.)  Let’s skip over all that stuff for now.  Here I’d like to say a few words about the politics of climate policy.

Begin with DR’s position in a nutshell: Climate policy is constrained by public acceptance as revealed by polling and other empirical indicators.  The public will not support a price on carbon sufficient to achieve meaningful emissions reductions, but it will accept regulations such as fuel economy mandates and shutting down coal plants that are equivalent in their effects to a much stiffer carbon price.  Public opinion is even more of a constraint given the expectation that the fossil fuel industry will strenuously oppose any serious policy initiative at all: you need a lot of political approval to counterbalance them.  To the extent there is a political upside to carbon pricing it comes from the additional revenues it generates, which can be earmarked for popular spending programs on energy R&D and infrastructure.  These have the potential to create their own constituency, which will provide a political base for further climate action in the long run.

Full disclosure: he makes his case partly in response to a posting of short briefing papers by the Scholars Strategy Network (SSN), one of which is mine.  You may discount my reactions accordingly.

Anyway, I think there are two big holes in DR’s critique.  The first is that he doesn’t measure policy against its purpose.  If the goal is climate stabilization—and what else would it be?—the benchmark is the IPCC’s carbon budget for a 2/3 chance of keeping global temperature increases to 2º C or less.  That translates to roughly a 4% decline in global carbon emissions every year from now to the complete phaseout of fossil fuels.  (Delay makes the job harder, of course.)  For political and equity reasons, richer countries will need to cut even more, and the US, with its outsized per capita emissions, will need to cut more than that: an annual 8% cut is in the ballpark.  Now, I can hear DR’s voice in my ear.  You’re completely nuts.  This is so far beyond the bounds of political feasibility it’s a form of mental illness, not policy analysis.  I’d agree, except that the numbers are not a matter of choice—they’re dictated by the physics, chemistry and biology of the problem and the laws of arithmetic.  We’re a lot more likely to find unanticipated flexibility in politics than in the science of climate sensitivity.  From where I sit, DR’s position is the one that has issues with the reality principle.

That brings us to the second hole, the political system itself and its implications for what kinds of policies are feasible.  The implicit assumption behind DR’s piece is that we live in a democratic society where public opinion determines political outcomes: the more support there is for a policy, the more likely it is to be adopted.  Visually, he has in mind something like this:

Public support, as measured by polling, is on the horizontal axis; high carbon prices with revenue rebates are on the left with small minorities backing them, while low prices coupled with spending on green energy get majority approval.  The prospects for being adopted are represented by the vertical axis, and the upward-sloping line tells us that the more support a policy has, the better its chances of being enacted.

Would that it were so.

Now here instead are three diagrams from the groundbreaking study by Gilens and Page based on a database of 1779 policy initiatives they have assembled and analyzed.  The first is the relationship between public support at the median income level and the probability of adoption—flatland.

For the vast majority of the citizenry, it doesn’t matter what they think.  Of course, political popularity can make or break the careers of politicians, and that’s not a trivial effect, but the record of policy adoption moves independently from the electoral ups and downs of parties and politicians.  There is no democratic machinery in the US (or I suspect other large, wealthy countries) that converts the popularity of a proposal into prospects for enactment.

The second diagram illustrates what democracy looks like, but it applies only to the preferences of voters at the 90th percentile, which Gilens and Page take as representative of “elites”.  Their preferences do get translated into outcomes.

The third is interesting; it represents the relationship between political mobilization around an issue, as reflected in the formation of pressure groups and their lobbying and similar activities, and the probability that the issue will be decided their way.

Collective action works!  The problem is that mobilization requires resources, and resources are concentrated in a few hands.  But not always: Gilens and Page find that when bottom-up issue groups come together they can be just as effective as the top-down variety.

What does this all mean for climate policy?  First, that the absence of widespread public support for various policy initiatives is not a constraint, just as its presence would not be a basis for success.  (I suspect that public support for a policy tends to increase after its adoption, in a sense providing democratic justification ex post, but I don’t know of any empirical evidence on this one way or the other.)  By comparison, the move to privatize public education has gained considerable ground in the US without any indication of broad public support.  Elite preferences really do matter more.

Second, what really matters is the development of a dedicated mass movement for serious climate policy.  We can see it beginning to come together, but it still has a long way to go.  I think Theda Skocpol nailed it in her meticulous analysis of the failure of cap-and-trade in 2009: opinion polls, like votes in Congress, is more an effect than a cause of political action, and to get the job done that action needs to maximize citizen mobilization.  This model is in the background of my own paper on the SSN website, which is about overcoming the disagreement over the use of carbon revenues that currently impedes the development of a unified movement in Washington State.

In the grand scheme of things, DR occupies one end of the political optimism spectrum, where the existing political framework sets unbudgeable limits to what can be accomplished, a position I’ve referred to earlier as the politics of futility.  The other end is the pure willfulness of some portions of the left, for whom, if policies fall short, it can only be due to not enough of us wanting them badly enough—a shortfall of spirit.  In between is a large realm of empirically guided, pragmatic radicalism, keeping one eye on the world as it is today and the other on the prize.  I think DR used to be in this space, and he’s welcome back whenever he decides to rejoin it.

3 comments: said...


I am likely in this post to say things I should not, so I apologize in advance to anybody who is offended. For starters I have no serious disagreement with your post, so that probably covers me for any later sins.

So my problem is even remotely taking seriously this David Roberts. I had never heard of him previously. OK, so his remarks are not completely stupid or ignorant, and as you say, he has "read widely," although the number of people for whom that applies is now probably in the millions. But why are so many now suddenly taking this guy seriously, serious people on the internet (not the same as serious in climate discussions) hanging apparently on his every word, waiting for his next installment? I get that you are not all that impressed, Peter, but let me reinforce that.

So, I had never heard of him previously, despite the recent attempts at hagiography, so I googled him. I got that there are a whole lot of people out there with that name, and I am not sure which is him. I searched with "climatology" and "climate" on the end, none of them showed up. Not a single one of the many googleable "David Roberts" showed up as making a single comment about the issue of climate change. I seriously confess discombobulation on this matter. Clearly this guy is getting lots of internet attention, whoever the hell he is. But none of it shows up on a google search of his name.

So ss near as I can tell there are only two candidates for who this supposedly wise advisor on the most important issue in the world is. One is a physic prof at Brandeis. He would have the credentials, but it does not appear that he has actually done anything connected to climatology, although I would take remarks from him seriously. But I do not think he is this currently popular "David Roberts."

The other candidate is the first person who shows up, a supposed general genious who has been at Stanford and MIT and has done all sorts of things. Well, OK, this looks like someone I might take seriously on these matters. But after a very dramatic opening claiming that this guy is some sort of world historical genius, he just disapppears. And furthermore, there is nothing in the long piece I saw about him knowing anything or ever commenting on climate science. But none of the others ever have either.

Actually this ia a big mystery to me. All sorts of people have been falling all over themselves citing this apparent nobody, but when one googles him, none of this commentary shows up. I mean, even if he is a big ignorant nobody fool, the very fact that credible people like my old friend Peter Dorman, and others even more cited than he is, are citing this "person," but he does not show up at all clearly when one googles "David Roberts," well, I must say, just what the f is going on here? Maybe I have screwed up in my googling, and I shall double check before commenting further, but my initial warning is, do not take seriously anything coming from thie "David Roberts." Maybe he is wise and brilliant, but he has zero credentials in climate science.

I shall not return to this now, but I shall simply note that I have personally known many of the top climate sciientists over the last more than 40 years, including some who have been critics of the established consensus. I keep track of the Journal of Atmospheric Science and Geophysical Letters Review, and I have never heard of "David Roberts" before. That people now think he is some kind of font of either wisdom or knowledgn I find ridiculous and absurd. said...

Oh, and for one more point here, while "David Roberts" is well spoken and does not say anything just flamingly obviously stupid or ignorant, and he is as Peter notes, "well read," as near as I can tell this zephyr has a big fat zero to say that has not been said by those more well informed than he appears to be about this matter.

The bottom line is that anybody blogging or commenting and relying on this certifiable zero should be ignored and ashamed of themselves.

Peter Dorman said...

Barkley, David Roberts is a journalist who first established himself at Grist, an eco-webzine that I assume is HQ'ed in Seattle. DR says he was a philosophy grad student who got waylaid by this climate stuff and ended up as a full-time climate journalist. One of his main things is to popularize some of the more technical writing on the climate front, but he has never shrunk from being opinionated and offering his own analysis. I never pass on reading one of his pieces, and I've read some very good ones over the years. He can be a gifted writer, by the way.

But you're picking him up on the desultory end of a drift toward a sort of climate "crackpot realism" (remember C. Wright Mills?) which parallels the ideological weltschmerz I've criticized earlier on EconoSpeak. He was not always like this. I think the symptoms are advanced and he needs to see a qualified specialist as soon as possible.