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.