Climate Policy

My recent work has implications for climate policy. I describe this work below. Additionally, I am doing policy work on the Green New Deal. I am particularly interested in the relationship between the Green New Deal and the international economic order.

I am co-founder of the Johns Hopkins University Green New Deal Dialogue. Our first event will be held on March 14, 2019 in Washington DC. Visit the event page for more information.

Rethinking our relationship to the climate

The climate is usually considered to be a natural, geophysical entity apart from humans and our societies. This idea is reflected in the way we think about climate policy. The primary goal of international climate politics in the 1990s and 2000s was to design an institutional architecture that would precisely control the climate system through governance. To govern is to steer or to conduct, from the outside, as it were. But if we are inside the climate, part of the climate, then this way of thinking about climate policy is fundamentally mistaken. And this has more than semantic consequences because how we frame the climate problem affects how we think about solutions.

Indeed, the partial success of the Paris Agreement in getting all the major economies, at least temporarily, back in the same boat, hid a disturbing fact. Paris is, essentially, a pledge and review scheme. Pledge and review was first proposed back in the early 1990s. It was dismissed, even then, as too passive and naïve. But the thing is, had pledge and review been instituted in the early 1990s, it might have worked. It could have led to simple, low-cost policy experiments in a large number of countries. It is highly likely that these actions would have demonstrated what we now know: that climate action is not nearly as costly as early projections assumed.

Instead, the international community spent the 1990s and early 2000s working on an ornate treaty that would strictly and precisely govern the climate. The Kyoto Protocol was built on legally binding, but flexible, commitments. In effect, countries could meet their commitments without actually instituting domestic policies, even limited ones. The presumption was that this flexibility was necessary because Kyoto had to be binding to be enforceable, but states wouldn’t agree to the deal unless they could avoid its costs, if those costs ended up being too high. Put more sharply: states were afraid that climate action would negatively affect GDP growth and be politically damaging.

This assessment was the broad conclusion of economists in the 1990s. Their models put the costs of climate policy in GDP terms up against the costs of a warming planet. Climate policy was therefore posed as a problem of economic costs versus the benefits of climate mitigation. Framed this way, the optimal solution was to delay action. Moreover, these models suggested, if it comes to pass that the costs of inaction outweigh the costs of action, the international community will be able to adjust, shifting onto a different, precise pathway of declining emissions.

The climate underlying the first efforts to deal to address the problem of global warming was a climate that could be precisely controlled. It was easy to plug that climate into models and to design market-based mechanisms that suited the neoliberal policy context of the day. But the idea that the climate is a smoothly operating system that changes gradually and therefore can be governed in a wait and see approach no longer accords with our understanding. Instead, each version of the IPCC makes the climate more unstable, more subject to abrupt changes. But this view of the climate is not new. Wally Broecker and others had been pressing this view as early as the 1970s, warning other climate scientists not to overstate its regularity and stability.

The version of the climate that featured in 1990s efforts to govern the climate is not the only option. Other versions of the climate might have been institutionalized and the history of climate governance might have turned out differently. Indeed, we might still be able to reframe the issue, and get inside the climate to see new ways of approaching the problems of climate policy.

Reconstructing climate policy

This narrative denaturalizes the gradualist assumptions underlying what Paul Edwards has called the "stabilization" regime–climate governance focused on stabilizing parts per million in the atmosphere–which is premised on the idea that the climate can be controlled. As such, the book opens the door to a rethinking of climate policy. For me, this connects to my core project of historicizing contemporary policy debates, so we can see hidden contingency and reframe central questions.

I am now working to develop this alternative policy tradition in collaboration with my colleagues in Earth and Planetary Sciences, the School of Engineering, and our policy school (SAIS). We are developing a new model of climate policy, energy infrastructure, and the geophysical climate system to help open up novel ways of thinking about climate policy. Our near-term goal is to provide an alternative to Integrated Assessment Models that can show how innovative climate policies would have significant effects on North American energy infrastructure.

Green Growth and Green Industrial Policy

A key moment in the book will seek to show that thinking about economic growth contributed to the slow progress on climate policy in the 1990s and 2000s. States feared that climate policy would be costly in terms of GDP and so global climate policy was perceived as a collective action problem. I believe this perception is now changing. This has led me to an interest in “green growth” policy ideas, which argue that there is no tradeoff between environmental protection and economic growth. I have been working with Jonas Meckling (University of California, Berkeley) on a systematic study of the history of green growth ideas in international organizations (IOs). This work demonstrates that green growth rose as an important concept underpinned by new Keynesian and Schumpeterian policy ideas. We argue that the rise of green growth is not a mere rhetorical change, but represents a substantive opening of the policy repertoire promoted by IOs. A key implication of this study is that Germany and China’s green industrial policies had significant demonstration effects that inspired states and IOs to take up and promote the ideas.