Posted by: Matthew Hoffmann | June 11, 2015

Climate Change Response at a Crossroads?

Is it the best of times? Is it the worst of times? The news on climate change and the global response to it has come fast and furious of late and it is difficult to know whether despair or hope is in order. Probably some of each, which itself is a welcome respite from normally unrelenting bad news. Sorting out whether hope is reasonable or at least uncovering reasonable sources for hope into which we should pour our energy is crucial and ongoing research on climate governance from multiple perspectives can provide some insight.

Unfortunately, despair is the easy and even rational default. Much of the recent news and commentary is pretty scary. A recent paper blew up the skeptic-friendly idea that warming has been on a hiatus in recent years. A commentary in Nature by Oliver Geden argues that climate scientists have been providing policymakers with models that are too optimistic and that they are being “pressured to extend their models and options for delivering mitigation later” because the current governance processes have shown so little progress in getting started with the necessary transitions. Other recent reports promise, almost as a matter of course these days, problems for wheat cultivation, ocean currents, and sea level rise. Dave Roberts, a noted climate and energy commentator, put it bluntly, “barring miracles, humanity is in for some awful shit.”

Yet, 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 are there. China’s trajectory towards peak emissions appears to be ahead of schedule according to a paper by Nicholas Stern. The Pope is likely to put out an official call for action on climate change. Some fossil fuel companies have admitted that divestment is probably not an entirely bad idea and have publicly called for carbon pricing. Most notably, the G7 leaders re-asserted their commitment to the 2 degree target and pledged to phase out fossil fuels by the end of the century. There is real discussion of whether, as Chris Mooney asks, we’ve hit a turning point in the politics of climate change.

This is a lot to get one’s head around and there are many ways to make sense of it. The key is whether the positive signs are signals of a potential shift in the politics of the response to climate change. It bears repeating that politics will determine the rate and scope of efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change, so it is necessary to read the political tea leaves that these developments represent and draw on knowledge coming from studies of climate governance that are trying to do just that.

First, we need to pay attention to how recent developments contribute to an ongoing (and still contested) transformation in the common sense around climate change. Put simply, expectations of the future matter significantly. What we (individuals, corporations, governments) think is normal and likely to be normal in the future shapes our behavior and planning—what we think is appropriate and rational behavior and strategy. This affects politics because it changes the calculus around what kind policies and politics are possible. Take the G7 pledge. On it’s own this has the potential to be an empty pronouncement—a goal that is 85 years away is easy for politicians to tout. It’s costless. Yet, as another and important signal of the changing common sense, that decarbonization is inevitable, this pledge is important. It is similar to the divestment movement sweeping across university campuses and other institutions. The import is not in the actual funds removed from these corporations (someone else will certainly buy assets that institutions divest from), but in the growing sense that decarbonization is becoming normal.

Second, from the perspective of significant scholarship on climate governance (e.g.) we are finally seeing the right (or at least a better) framing of the climate change problem emerge. Specifically, the stark dichotomy between sterile frustration over the lack of a global treaty and (some) cautious optimism around dynamic bottom up processes is giving way to an understanding that decarbonization on a large scale is multifaceted and will inherently require movement at multiple levels. This is even evident in the normally hidebound UNFCCC process where the climate change efforts of cities, corporations, states, and regions are being taken more seriously than ever before. There is discussion of harnessing or orchestrating these initiatives, which is positive. The crucial task now both for scholars and those involved on the ground in these efforts is to figure out how to facilitate continued innovation, scale up and entrench the promising initiatives, and balance the need to keep track of the bigger picture and collective goals with necessity of diverse processes of decarbonization.

Third, the politics and political barriers to moving quickly at a large scale on decarbonization are almost unbelievably challenging, but climate governance studies show that we can move quickly in specific places and doing so has the potential to catalyze pathways to larger scale action. Research on  urban initiatives and experiments, pathways and trajectories to decarbonization, to name just a few, is uncovering the conditions for broad transformation that comes from diverse efforts at decarbonization found at many levels of political jurisdiction.

So there is some cause for hope and cautious optimism that the politics and trajectory of the global response to climate change may be moving in the right direction (finally and with lots of fits and starts yet to come). Whether these movements in the right direction will add up to the miracles that some see as necessary to avoid catastrophe remains an open question.

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