Posted by: Matthew Hoffmann | February 20, 2014

(Are there any) Hopeful signs for progress on climate change in North America?

The steady stream of depressing news on climate policy in North America marches on.  Take your pick. There’s the continued irrational denialism that emerges anytime it gets a bit chilly. There’s the U.S. State Department environmental impact report that may pave the way for a US approval of the Keystone pipeline bringing more Canadian tar sands bitumen to U.S. refineries on the gulf coast. There’s the constant obstructionism in the U.S. Congress in general and certainly over anything climate related—recently Congress inserted a rider into a spending bill making it difficult for the U.S. to limit support for the building of coal-fired power plants abroad (facilitating increased exports of U.S. coal). Also Republicans in the House of Representatives are trying to strip EPA of authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Air Act (and authority already upheld by the US Supreme Court). There’s the Canadian government’s apparent targeting of environmental groups for tax audits—arguing that opposition to tar sands development should call into question their charitable status.  Yikes.

Yet even amidst this barrage of bad news, there are signs that the tide may be turning, that an inflection point or threshold where North America shifts towards more progressive (and sane) climate policy is at least conceivable. There are hints of what I would call the normalization of climate action that must drive or at least accompany aggressive climate policy. Much of politics is driven by expectations and assumptions about either what has to happen or what is appropriate. These are underlying ideas and perceptions that are rarely spoken about explicitly, but shape what decision-makers consider possible and plausible directions for action. For example, climate policy-making is very different in Europe where most decision-makers start from the assumption that relatively aggressive climate policy is necessary and appropriate. Debates there are about how to do climate policy and how far to go. This is far different from what we see in North America where a shared sense of the inevitability of climate action has yet to develop, and thus the debates are still about whether or not to undertake climate policy in a serious way.

Achieving a commonsense of inevitability around climate action is crucial because it will significantly alter the kind of actions that are seen as necessary and plausible. But there’s the rub—how does this normalization come about? Fortunately the social sciences have a great deal to say about this, especially constructivist theories of normative change. Political scientists and sociologists have identified a number of possible paths to the development of consensus around new underlying ideas that shape decision-making. Two are particularly salient. First, leaders can propose and advocate for new ways to look at the world and act on problems like climate change. By framing climate change in different ways, idea or norm entrepreneurs can work to alter the perception of climate action from a question of whether to a question of how. Second, the build up of everyday action on climate change—practices in the jargon of political science—can shift how we perceive the necessity and appropriateness of climate action. As Vincent Pouliot argues, what people “do determines what they think.” The practices we engage in shape how we see the world, ourselves, and our interests.

Fortunately, we are beginning to see signs that both of these pathways to normalization are emerging and they may be building toward a threshold past which climate policy and aggressive action will be seen as inevitable. We may be nearing a tipping point whereby the commonsense around climate action changes substantially. This is the source of hope.

Entrepreneurial efforts are everywhere right now. I’ve written elsewhere about the diverse, experimental activities that have sprouted in the last 10 years. Suffice it to say that there are multiple cities, states, provinces, corporations, and environmental NGOs that are not waiting for national governments or the international negotiations to act and are instead taking climate change actions themselves. Even Barack Obama, of late, is talking normalization. At a recent summit in Mexico, he argued that climate change “has to affect all of our decisions at this stage because the science is irrefutable.” The more political leaders talk as if aggressive climate action is necessary and innovators take aggressive climate action, the greater the chance we will see a shift in the underlying commonsense of climate action.

On the practice side there are also indications that we are moving towards normalization of climate action. Consider that just in the last few months all of the following has occurred.

  • A major report from the Carbon Disclosure Project highlighted how a number of heavy industry hitters are now including shadow carbon prices in their financial planning. Corporations like GE, Google, Microsoft, and even Exxon are assuming that there will be a carbon price in the future and are including the cost of carbon in their business planning. This kind of practice, treating climate action and a carbon price as inevitable, makes it easier to move ahead on climate policy.
  • There are signs that debate in North America is shifting from how to best extract fossil fuels, to whether to extract fossil fuels. This shift is evident in the very same bad news I just mentioned above. Whether or not Keystone is approved, the terms of the debate have shifted (or are at least shifting) and the strong opposition to Keystone is at least partly (if not mainly) based on the argument that we need to slow and stop extraction of fossil fuels. The current Canadian government is so worried about this shift that they are targeting environmental groups with chilling strong-arm tactics.
  • Coal is becoming the new tobacco. The coal industry in the US is seeking to find and protect export outlets as domestic consumption comes under fire. This is a classic rearguard action, not the activities of a dominant industry.
  • Divestment campaigns that seek to get foundation and university endowments out of fossil fuel investments have ramped up. Part of the argument they are using is that carbon pricing and climate policy are inevitable and thus there is increasing risk of a carbon bubble (a meme that is gaining strength more generally)—stranded investments in unexploited and unburnable fossil fuel reserves.

There is no doubt that we need big changes to deal with climate change—we need to decarbonize our energy and transportation systems which may ultimately require big national policies and global cooperation. But in many ways, thinking about big national policies puts the cart before the horse because in as large and complex an issue as climate change such policies are only possible once there is consensus that they are needed—when the commonsense is that climate action is normal and appropriate. This is why Europe is far ahead of North America on national climate policies—there is underlying agreement that aggressive climate policy is normal. This normalcy shapes what decision-makers think is possible and appropriate.

In North America, we are still in the process of normalizing aggressive action on climate change. In both Canada and the US, the commonsense of necessary and appropriate climate action is still building. As much as the public clamors for “leadership” politicians are often a wary and small c conservative bunch. Normalizing climate action at multiple scales—in corporate budgeting, individual consumer choices, public transportation discussions, urban planning, zoning, building codes, and energy infrastructure to name just a few—will produce political leaders willing to embrace big national climate policies and global agreements.

There is a long way to go and lots of opportunities for progress towards aggressive climate action to go off the rails. Yet the signs of an approaching tipping point are there and we may look back at this period as one where we started to turn the corner. At least that’s the hopeful (and hopefully not naïve) view from amongst the gloom of climate policy news in North America.



  1. […] and that the right side of history lies with aggressive climate action. This will contribute to the normalizing of climate policy within the US —giving it a sense of being taken for granted. Normalization of action on climate […]

  2. […] public transportation, and research and development. Cap and trade is important because it helps to normalize the move to a green economy and because it helps build coalitions and capacities to make t…. It is a tool and this is why design is so important—in order to be effective as a catalyst it […]

  3. […] the past couple of weeks has also seen the emergence of more pieces of a hopeful discourse on the global response to climate change. The pieces are disparate, but they […]

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