Scientists have hammered home once again the message that climate change is very real and very important. Climate scientists have been saying this for decades, yet carbon emissions worldwide continue to soar. It’s easy to blame governments for not taking stronger action, but this is unfair: many want to go further, but are deterred by political obstacles.
The most obvious is political obstruction in national legislatures. The US government has been completely shutdown for two weeks now due to Republican opposition to Barack Obama’s budget. Similarly, in the past Republican opposition in Congress blocked Bill Clinton’s carbon tax, and continues to block Obama’s emissions trading legislation today. This obstacle does not exist everywhere, but where it does governments are powerless.
There is also a fear of voter retaliation for higher energy prices. Almost all forms of low carbon energy – renewables and nuclear – are more expensive than energy derived from fossil fuels, at least at present. This means that an increase in the proportion of energy from low carbon sources must lead either to an increase in energy prices or, if subsidies are used to prevent this, to steadily increasing public spending and ultimately higher taxes. Neither are popular.
Opposition within government stems in large part from claims that strong climate measures increase costs for business and therefore threaten national competitiveness and economic growth and development. Industries might even relocate to countries that are not increasing business costs in this way. Fostering economic growth is everywhere central to what governments and citizens think governments should do. Governments that fail to keep growth on track are generally punished at the polls by voters concerned about their jobs and living standards.
An obstacle in developing countries in particular is a sense of injustice: developed countries have already reaped the economic benefits of using fossil fuels, they point out, and are responsible for most of the greenhouse gases emitted so far, but still refuse to make deep cuts in emissions unless developing countries do too.
Other political obstacles are of lesser importance. Climate sceptics, for example, have little real influence despite the attention they are given in the media. It is not belief or otherwise in climate change that can be an election issue, but rather the effects of policies designed to reduce emissions. And in any case, most people believe that climate change is real - even in the US where parties are polarised on the issue. Action may also be discouraged by the knowledge that, China and the US aside, no single country can make a difference.
So what can be done? Political strategies for activist governments that enable them to take more effective action against climate change without incurring significant political damage. We should not expect governments in either developed or developing countries to implement policies that might endanger their prospects of staying in office.
Many of these strategies are already widely known. Obama’s use of existing legislation to strengthen national emissions standards after Congress rejected emissions trading, for example, shows how legislative blocks may be circumvented. Factual information on climate change is complemented by moral appeals and glowing descriptions of the opportunities that decarbonising the economy will create. In countries such as Britain the policy path has been smoothed by combining energy and climate policy in a single ministry.
One underused strategy is to pursue global, industry-level agreements on climate policy. The idea here is to eliminate the possibility that key industries will abandon countries with strong climate policies by ensuring that all countries have these policies. The strategic advantage is that industry-specific agreements should be easier to reach than global agreements of broader scope.
New, more vivid, engaging and plausible stories with more arresting images and metaphors are needed to strengthen the portrayal of climate policies as positive, necessary, attractive and inevitable. A case in point is the effort in the US to liken the required action to the Apollo moon program of the 1960s in order to reframe climate policy as a heroic effort that draws on what is best about America to achieve something that has never been done before.
And progress on equipping fossil fuel-fired power stations with the capacity to capture and store the carbon dioxide they produce, which is stymied at the moment by the failure of energy companies to invest, could be facilitated by governments buying stakes in these companies and installing managements committed to building this type of power station. This may seem politically risky, but opinion polls show that in at least some countries voters support public ownership of electricity utilities - which is hardly surprising in view of popular anger over rising energy bills.