When it comes to addressing environmental issues like climate change, political obstacles can be as formidable as the technical ones. In a new review of climate politics scholarship in Nature Sustainability, Valerie Karplus writes that politics should “not only be seen as a constraint but be recognized as a target of intervention to advance environmental solutions.”
Specifically, Karplus, an associate professor of engineering and public policy, and her co-author, Jonas Meckling, an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley, suggest that researchers and practitioners focus on developing effective political strategies. These are political and policy choices that are feasible today and help reduce political barriers to future policy. In their review, Karplus and Meckling outline three shortcomings in current efforts to politically address climate change and explore how to surmount these barriers. They describe these as gaps in current climate action.
The first gap is the ambition gap, which is the gap between national policy targets and scientific consensus goals. Organized political opposition from groups with assets that produce emissions often contribute to this, as they face the highest costs from the policy.
One way to bridge this gap is to craft policy that concentrates benefits while diffusing costs across a broad swath of stakeholders, such as through subsidies, tax rebates, and deployment performance standards. The Inflation Reduction Act adopts such an approach by rewarding the developers of low carbon technologies, while promising to reduce the cost of clean energy through scale up over time.
Another way of bridging the gap is policy with concentrated costs and benefits, combined with either compensation for those paying the costs or rewards for those who can champion the benefits. In addition, linking global environmental issues such as climate change with salient local issues like human health can also help build political support.
The second gap is termed the implementation gap, which occurs when a government fails to meet the adopted policy goals or ends up repealing the policy. This is due to failings in policy enforcement, where policy is not enforced to the degree necessary, or durability, where policy fails to remain in place or stagnates in growth. For example, even with subsidies to support capital investment, incentivizing the continuous use of some low carbon technologies, such as carbon capture and storage (CCS), may be challenging if the costs prove too high.
Drawing on the climate politics literature, the researchers note several ways of bridging this gap. First, when interest groups have already invested in a policy, they’re more likely to protect it. Second, policies can provide targeted benefits to key political groups to create positive feedback. And third, policies that provide strong initial benefits can be used as a stepping stone to costlier policies in the future. They also point to the importance of empowering independent government agencies to enforce climate policy.
Finally comes what the authors term the international action gap. This is the difficulty in developing cooperation among nations, industries, and subnational actors due primarily to the dominance of domestic issues over international ones.
The authors note opportunities for both deepening and widening international coordination efforts on environmental issues. They note progress toward deeper action through efforts by small groups of countries known as “clubs,” as well as by certain sectors through industry agreements. In broadening efforts, they discuss how policy actions in large markets or from climate leaders can affect other countries that look to these actors for guidance. In particular, technology support policies can help bring down the cost of clean technologies and facilitate the global diffusion of technology.
Based on this important body of research, the authors call for more climate politics scholarship that focuses on politically-effective strategies to broaden the solution space in tackling climate change. Politics becomes a lever of change, alongside technology.