Just when it seemed that real progress might be made on climate change, war has pushed climate concerns to the back burner. This shift in focus is understandable. War is affecting millions in Ukraine and poses a growing threat to global security. But it’s dangerous to leave the climate change problem untended, simmering away on the back burner. Like war, human-caused warming also poses an escalating threat to human lives, livelihoods, well-being, and the stability of democratic systems of governance. Things left out of sight and untended on a hot stove can combust.
Our global society does not have the luxury of being able to focus on only one threat at a time. Threats are intertwined, synergistic. Today’s petro-dictators, using oil money to finance war, are intent on enhancing rather than diminishing reliance on fossil fuels. Fossil carbon is their life support system. Its continued use also adds to emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases, imperiling our planetary life support system.
The bottom line is that we must pay attention to the many threats to human wellbeing boiling over on the war burner, the global pandemic burner, and the climate change burner. And now, at least for the U.S. in the aftermath of the horrifying string of mass murders in Buffalo and Uvalde (list could go on), we cannot forget the “guns” burner. The price of freedom, human health, and planetary health is constant vigilance on these and many more issues.
Stopping greenhouse gas pollution will require a complete transformation of the way the global community produces and uses energy. We cannot achieve that goal without sustained efforts on many fronts: technological, scientific, socioeconomic and political. In a world beset with multiple threats, the challenge is to carve out a durable climate strategy – one that can withstand the distractions of other critical, but inevitably shorter-term, crises.
Climate change is a crisis that will be with us for centuries. This sad but undeniable reality is one of the critical legacies of the long lifetimes in the atmosphere of the greenhouse gases emitted by fossil fuel burning. It will take centuries to millennia for the climate system to come into balance with atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. Our actions are committing the globe to a future, warmer climate that humankind has not previously experienced.
So what constitutes a durable, effective strategy for dealing with human-caused climate change, preventing it from being relegated to the back burner? Our concern with this question is focused on the United States. There are multiple reasons for this. The U.S. is where we live, and is responsible for the greatest share of global emissions of greenhouse gases since the mid-1800s. Additionally, America’s failure to enact durable climate policy inevitably will encourage similar inaction by other nations.
Despite the current Washington stalemate on climate, it is important to keep in mind the necessary attributes of a durable climate strategy.
Elements of making our climate strategy durable
First, the components of a strategy must be credible. Targets and timetables need to be carefully examined through a feasibility lens. If unduly ambitious, they provide ammunition for policy opponents and risk the loss of public trust. For example, the Biden administration has called for electric vehicles to represent 50% of auto sales by 2030. This target is unlikely to be achieved given that the U.S. is not installing the necessary charging infrastructure, strengthening supply chains, and instituting needed subsidies to support such a rapid shift in consumer behavior. An enterprise of this magnitude will require periodic reality checks to monitor progress along the way, and the same is true for each element of a U.S. climate strategy. Is it on track? Are course corrections necessary?
Next, once adopted, policy measures need to have some sticking power to withstand inevitably shifting political winds. Durability will require avoiding the ‘ping pong’ phenomenon in which recent administrations have used executive orders, only to see them reversed by a following administration. The obvious solution is congressional legislation, which is not as easily reversed. Politics is often said to be ”the art of the possible”: A crucial task in developing a durable climate strategy is to find some way of bringing climate legislation into the realm of the possible.
But politicians must enjoy broad public support for such legislation. Constituents must come to see the connection between the lawmakers’ proposals and public well-being. An important aspect of this “connecting the dots” will involve communicating the value of investments in both climate science and mitigation technology. Improved understanding of the workings of the climate system can lead to increased damage avoided. And technology research, development, and deployment offer the prospect of bringing down the costs of carbon-free replacements.
It is not enough to say that benefits of reduced pain and suffering justify the costs. Attention needs to be placed on how individual groups may be affected. This applies especially to the issue of who bears implementation costs. For example, suppose an emissions pricing method like tax and dividend were to be used. Such systems can be designed so revenue is returned to those at lower income levels, used to repair the social safety net, retrain those who lose their jobs, or support new manufacturing facilities in depressed communities. A strategy that includes close federal/state cooperation is a great asset here: The states provide rich laboratories for testing human response to alternative incentive and rebate systems.
Another key attribute of lasting climate policy is that decisions made today should not be engraved in stone. They must be constantly reevaluated and tweaked as the scientific community learns more about the climate system, the impacts of climate change, and the effectiveness of different policy solutions. Durability must allow for learning, for recalibrating, for updating, and for flexibility when appropriate.
Finally, durability may not be in everyone’s interest, and mastering the art of climate politics demands greater transparency. There is no monolithic “public” to which politicians are beholden – elected representatives are responsive to many different publics. For example, constituents who own fossil fuels may wish for continued procrastination, while others deeply concerned by climate change threats want urgent action. Satisfying one constituency likely means alienating others, so politicians may wish to thread the needle by avoiding too much candor.
But citizens need to know where their elected representatives stand, and we should demand that every elected representative goes on the public record regarding climate strategy. Do they have a plan? Are their plans credible? Do they seek bipartisan solutions? Are they paying attention to the science? If not, let them say so or remain silent. Their silence is an answer – a sign that they do not treat the threat seriously.
In the United States, decades of climate policy have been like a house of cards. It’s easy to begin building, but the house is difficult to expand and maintain. It’s highly vulnerable to slight shifts in political winds. We need to build a better, stronger house. Our kids will be living in it for a long time to come. We owe it to them and to future generations.
Richard Richels directed climate change research at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). He served on the National Assessment Synthesis Team for the first U.S. National Climate Assessment and as lead author for multiple chapters for the IPCC from 1992 through 2014.
Ben Santer is a climate scientist, a Visiting Researcher at UCLA’s Joint Institute for Regional Earth System Science and Engineering, and a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellow. He was also the lead author of Chapter 8 of the 1995 IPCC report and has been a contributor to all six IPCC reports.
Henry Jacoby is the William F. Pounds Professor of Management, Emeritus in the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management and former co-director of the M.I.T. Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.
Gary Yohe is the Huffington Foundation Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies, Emeritus, at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He served as convening lead author for multiple chapters and the Synthesis Report for the IPCC from 1990 through 2014 and was vice-chair of the Third US National Climate Assessment.