I recently wrote an essay for the Duck of Minerva in response to a growing chorus of articles and commentaries urging the U.S. to stay in the Paris Agreement. The gist of the argument is that I think there is a case to be made that it might be better for the global response to climate change if Trump withdraws. As I say in the essay:

We are in the realm of bad choices. Either an openly hostile U.S. stays in the Agreement or an openly hostile U.S. withdraws. Whether the U.S. stays or leaves the Paris Agreement, the Trump administration has shown no signs of being a responsible actor on climate change. This is the baseline from which we need to consider the effects of the U.S. leaving or staying and looking at the decision from six vantage points leads me to consider that an openly hostile U.S. withdrawing might be the less bad of the two terrible options on the table.

I’m uncomfortable with this (heavily caveated) conclusion, but think that this is a conversation we need to have.

Posted by: Matthew Hoffmann | January 14, 2017

Of Course Trudeau is Right: The Tar Sands Must Be Phased Out.

Of course we need to phase out the tar sands over time. Prime Minister Trudeau was merely stating the obvious in his recent town hall remarks. To seriously suggest otherwise is to not only deny the significance of climate change, but also to completely misunderstand the dynamics and momentum of global economic and political forces (the upcoming disaster of a Trump presidency notwithstanding).

Even so, the uproar from some in Alberta and elsewhere was predictable as soon as the words left the Prime Minister’s mouth—predictable because it was, for the most part, knee jerk political grandstanding rather than seriously considered opposition. Unfortunately political grandstanding cannot just be dismissed as such because it serves as a dangerous distraction from the conversations and debates we actually need to have.

It is important to remember that the sun setting of the tar sands was proclaimed first, not by Prime Minister Trudeau, but by Prime Minister Harper when he joined the G-7 pledge to decarbonize by 2100. So the tar sands already had an end by date stamped on them by the Conservative government, some prominent members of which (Lisa Raitt and Jason Kenney come on down) are now contributing to the social media backlash and general gnashing of teeth.

Selective amnesia is, of course, common and not a damning accusation in politics (it can even be valuable). Grandstanding on this issue may also be a successful strategy. There are powerful economic and political interests who want to see continued exploitation of the tar sands and many people and communities that depend on that industry. There is thus political capital to be gained from being seen to support the tar sands and showing righteous indignation at any hint of a threat to this economic activity.

But this is a problem. Not necessarily because of the political grandstanding, though we are watching in real time the dangers to democracy from political grandstanding in the United States, but because it serves as a distraction from the real political conversation and debate we need to have—how will we effect the inevitable transition away from fossil fuels in a sensible, sustainable, and just way.

Make no mistake the transition to decarbonization is necessary, globally. It will need to take place relatively quickly. And it will be arduous. We cannot afford to be distracted by frivolous arguments about whether tar sand exploitation will eventually be wound up when it is clear that that is a question of when, not if. There is so much to talk about and debate (and make no mistake we need debates) over how the transition should take place (and here there is much to question the Prime Minister on, including pipeline decisions). What is the best way to catalyze the transition? What is the role for carbon taxes and cap and trade? What do we want a decarbonized Canada to look like? How can the transition be pursued in a way that is sustainable socially, economically, and environmentally? How can the transition be just for all Canadians, especially those that depend on fossil fuels and the fossil fuel industry?

We cannot be fooled or distracted by predictable political grandstanding. There is real work to be done and real debates to be had. Let’s get started.

Posted by: Matthew Hoffmann | December 21, 2016

Pipelines and a Just Transition

I have been thinking about the politics of pipelines and climate policy in Canada and wrote an essay on it for Open Canada. Might be of interest:

https://www.opencanada.org/features/how-shape-just-future-both-proponents-and-critics-canadas-pipelines/

As the shock of the U.S. election turns to analysis and even resistance, observers have begun the depressing task of assessing the potential risks and damage that a Trump administration promises for environmental policy in the U.S. and globally. These range from the overwhelmingly pessimistic to the it might not be the apocalypse. [UPDATE December 9: The ongoing dumpster fire of the Trump transition is not generating anything in the way of hope that it won’t be too bad–specific to environment and climate change, the proposed appointment of Scott Pruitt, a climate denier and vociferous critic of the Clean Power Plan as well as reports that the transition team is seeking to identify civil servants who advised the Obama administration on climate policy signals that we are likely face some of the worst case scenarios for environmental protection.] There aren’t many   any that claim everything will be okay. This essay certainly won’t either. However, there are a number of insights from the study of environmental politics that can, at least, point the way towards an active strategy for protecting the environment and moving forward on issues like climate change in the face of what seems to be an inevitable assault on U.S. domestic environmental institutions and policy and global environmental governance.

Most post-election analyses are rightfully examining the institutional, legal, and regulatory changes that we can expect from a Trump administration both within the United States and globally. Briefly key concerns include:

  • The almost certain withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change or at least failure to uphold the commitments the U.S. made in the Paris Agreement.
  • A related pledged withdrawal of funding for any global climate action, including the adaptation funds that are a crucial part of attempts to secure and maintain support from the Global South.
  • A gutting of the E.P.A. and its oversight, monitoring, and enforcement capacity for environmental regulations in the U.S, foreshadowed by the designation of a leading climate skeptic to head the E.P.A. transition.
  • Cutting off funding for renewable energy research in the U.S. (federally).
  • Abandoning or reversing the Clean Power Plan.

The fears that these policy changes could come to pass are well founded because they are all within the purview and authority of the executive branch (especially with a pliant Congress, which some of the more far reaching goals enunciated by the Trump campaign would require). U.S. environmental policies and regulations are sticky, but it is unclear that they can withstand the sustained and active undermining that Trump promised in his campaign. This is undoubtedly scary and the biggest threat to sustainability, environmental protection, and action on climate change that I have seen in my lifetime (and certainly the most explicit attack on these values and goals).

The diagnosis of the potential threat is thus relatively clear; the necessary response for those seeking to ameliorate the damage and keeping moving on climate change is, unfortunately less so. To think about a way forward, it may help to be clear (even pedantic) about why an assault on the institutions, regulations, and legal rules put in place to protect the environment and guide policy making at both the domestic and global levels is so frightening.

The underlying concern is not for those formal institutions themselves, but rather for the loss of their effects—that without those rules, laws, institutions, and agreements the behavior of individuals, corporations, and governments will change in a way that makes it more difficult to achieve sustainability, fight climate change, deal with pollution, and more. For some individuals, corporations, and governments, this is undoubtedly true—legal rules, laws, and global agreements stop them from doing harm to the environment and/or offer powerful incentives to act in a sustainable manner. The attack on and perhaps loss of important formal institutions and rules for protecting the environment, promoting sustainability, and acting on climate change is therefore an enormously dangerous potential result of Trump’s election. [UPDATE December 9: Given the announcements of the last two weeks, this should no longer be treated as a potential result, it is the likely result and everyone that cares about sustainability and climate change should start from this baseline assumption. Expect national level institutional protection for the environment and action on climate change to. be. gone.]

Yet, fortunately, formal institutions, national laws, and international agreements are not the only tools available for pursuing environmental protection and action on climate change. Substantial research in environmental politics explores attempts at promoting and even enforcing environmental protection and sustainable action in the absence of any (or any effective) national regulations or global agreements. The development of norms (applicable to individuals and collective actors like governments and corporations) and the emergence and functioning of non-state or private governance mechanisms are also means of guiding behavior in response to environmental problems and crises—providing both authoritative proscriptions for environmentally destructive activity and incentives for more sustainable actions.[UPDATE December 9–The new baseline assumption mentioned above means that this is what we have to work with and it will require significant effort to maintain in the face of national level opposition.]

Paul Wapner was a pioneer in this field exploring how actors in civil society actors (especially environmental NGOs ) can use a number of strategies to pursue sustainable communities and societies and forge environmental protection victories without government action. He analyzed NGOs’ use of market leverage, targeting campaigns to shame specific corporations in order to catalyze broad change in industry sectors (think Starkist and Dolphin safe Tuna). He explored how NGOs empowered communities with knowledge to build social capital and the ability to pursue environmental protection at the local level. He also demonstrated how NGOs raise general “ecological sensibility” by bearing witness to environmental damage and the corporate behavior that causes it. All of these mechanisms operate outside the boundaries of formal institutions and legal rules. They empower those interested in environmental protection with specific strategies for addressing specific behaviors and changing the underlying zeitgeist that ultimately shapes political calculations.

Another robust strand of research (e.g. Bernstein and Cashore, Clapp, Auld) explores the emergence, legitimacy, and effectiveness, as well as challenges, of attempts to govern issues like deforestation and fishery depletion through the establishment of standards of behavior. These standards are developed by NGOs and corporations (sometimes cooperatively, sometimes competitively) and seek to shape both corporate activity (restricting their behavior though standard setting) and individual choices (providing eco-labels to inform consumers about the sustainability of the business practices that went into producing their purchases). While some of these standard setting exercises work in conjunction with governmental regulations, others are entirely voluntary. They depend on some of the same dynamics that Wapner conceptualized—e.g. market leverage is used to get corporations on board and they depend on ecological sensibility driving consumer demand for ‘eco’ friendly products—to generate authoritative rules in the absence of formal governmental institutions.

Specifically in regards to climate change, a range of scholarship analyzes the experimental, transnational, subnational, and private climate governance that emerged in the 2000s when there appeared to be an abject failure to respond to climate change through multilateral channels and when the U.S. was obstructionist. This literature explores how and to what effect NGOs, corporations, cities, and states/provinces are able to take significant action on climate change outside the context of national regulations and formal global agreements. This activity has expanded significantly over time. There are debates about the effectiveness of this kind of action, but the research is shows that these kind of initiatives have the potential to sustain and advance action on climate change even when the national state and global processes are failing.

To be very clear, this research does not collectively conclude that national policy and international agreements are useless or unnecessary, but they do offer ways of conceiving of tools for pursuing environmental protection and action on climate change when national policy and international agreements will not or cannot do the job. This body of research suggests a possible action agenda in an era dominated by hostility to environmental protection and global environmental cooperation from the United States.

First, let’s not be naïve. Formal rules and institutions and agreements are of crucial importance and worth fighting for. The research briefly outlined above all points to tools that can be used in the absence of national regulation and multilateral agreements, but we can make the most progress on environmental issues when national policy, international agreements, and other mechanisms (private, subnational, transnational) work together. So those who care about the environment should fight to maintain institutions and regulations and laws wherever possible.[UPDATE December 9–Just engage this fight in the knowledge that it is likely a rearguard action at best given what we have seen come out of the transition process].

Ask Senators to oppose the appointment of an avowed climate denier to be head of EPA. Urge governors and state legislators to not rollback renewable energy policies even if the Clean Power Plan evaporates. Work to convince lawmakers that global commitments to climate finance, adaptation, and cooperation are in the U.S. interests even if the administration does not see it (if for no other reason than because China certainly sees it in their interests). Outside the U.S., the focus needs to be keeping the pressure on other governments to not use the U.S. backsliding and obstruction as an excuse to delay action on the Paris Agreement—and fortunately as the latest climate meetings come to a conclusion, there appears to be unity on moving forward with or without the United States[UPDATE December 9–A bit of good news on the international front is that no other countries seem to be discussing (at least publicly) a lessening of commitments to the Paris process in the wake of the election.]

Second, let’s not be naïve again in another way. Fighting to save formal institutions and momentum behind global agreements might be (and perhaps is likely to be) a losing battle with the Trump administration and we should be clear eyed in our understanding that there will be significant and maybe even catastrophic set backs in climate law and policy. We cannot afford to rely on formal institutions and agreements for protecting the environment and pursuing action on climate change in this context. The research highlighted above, offers other pathways. Spending energy and resources developing those pathways—shoring up work already being done by civil society and subnational governments and expanding that work—could be a key focus moving forward. An action agenda could include:

  • Target cities and state/provinces Much of the progress we have seen on climate change has taken place at the subnational level. Cities and states/provinces have wide purview to act in ways that protect the climate and these levels of government are also closer to the public. Citizens can use that access to advocate for a progressive agenda on climate change. California will continue to push forward on renewable energy and greenhouse gas emissions reductions. Quebec and Ontario will move forward with their carbon markets. Cities acting alone and in transnational networks have pledged to move forward on implementing climate action in support of the Paris Agreement. All of these efforts are worthy of support and they can blunt the damage that national obstructionism in the United States might entail.
  • Organize within local communities and support local environmental organizations Raising awareness of local environmental issues and building support for the pursuit of sustainable communities can build the social capital communities need to address local environmental concerns. It also potentially has the ancillary benefit of growing the generalized support for environmental protection and action that can be directed in larger campaigns and efforts to advocate for actions in cities and states/provinces. A shift that makes pursuit of sustainability normal and taken for granted can have far reaching political consequences. Working at the grassroots level to achieve this can be an important strategy. [UPDATE December 9–As Kate Neville (@katejneville) reminded me, lots of these organizations are already working and are a great place to start.]
  • Raise awareness of privately developed sustainability standards and work to enhance their stringency To be effective, these standards and eco labels need to be credible and they need to be known and valued amongst consumers—they need both to get corporations on board, keep them acting within the standards, and to have environmental effect. Consumers need to be able to connect their drive to purchase sustainable products with credible signals of which products are sustainable. Retailers and producers need to be convinced that consumers will favor such products.
  • Connect Sustainability and Justice This is important in a number of ways, but let me highlight two. First, efforts to promote sustainability will be stronger when they are connected to other social justice movements—environmental protection and sustainability are not additional to social justice concerns, they are social justice issues. [UPDATE December 9–This essay is about sustainability and climate change, but the Trump transition team announcements signal significant attacks on social justice issues of multiple kinds. Building social capital and resistance in the sustainability area should be done in ways as to connect to other areas of social justice.] Second, pursuing sustainability inherently creates losers or at least the perception of loss. Whether we are talking about workers in the oil patch of Alberta, pipeline workers in the US, or the vast array of employees of the industries associated with the manufacturing, selling, and maintenance of gas-powered cars, the necessary massive shift away from fossil fuel based energy and economic systems will cause dislocation. Such a transition will be contested widely and vociferously by some of these communities—it is no surprise that coal country supported Trump. We must recognize the necessity of supporting communities that rely on bringing fossil fuels out of the ground when we pursue the imperative of keeping fossil fuels in the ground. We must have a better answer for residents of Fort McMurray than “we’ll get the tar sands operation up and running as soon as possible” when they are devastated by the kind of forest fires that climate change makes more likely. We must have better alternatives available for unionized workers supporting pipelines in the face of Native Americans protesting to protect their water sources and lands.

The action agenda suggested by research in environmental politics is undoubtedly challenging. It is easier to pursue environmental protection and action on climate change with the formal, legal tools and institutions of a national state and functioning multilateral governance. We have to face the reality, however, that in the near term we may not have this luxury. Further, environmental problems and especially the climate crisis will not wait for a return of U.S. leadership on the environment. The world is already significantly behind where it needs to be to head off the worst effects of climate change and time is short. We need to use all the tools at our disposal and environmental politics scholarship gives us a sense of what we have to work with to guide and shape sustainable behavior in the absence of strong governmental action. Let’s put those tools to use.

Posted by: Matthew Hoffmann | November 10, 2016

Trump and Climate: A clarion call to mobilization and action

I have rotated through numbness, rage, despair, confusion, and a strange sense of resolve  almost bordering on elation (not the right word, but it captures the sense of a high, compared to the nothing but lows that preceded it) that comes with a clear sense of purpose (resistance and response to what will come) since the election of Trump went from a background dreadful possibility to a profoundly real nightmare. The potential for disaster is so wide for so many issues and for so many people that I have a hard time coming to grips with it. Climate politics is my work and passion and while I realize that it might not be the most immediate disaster that a Trump presidency could portend (the racism and misogyny stoked by his campaign is already having deplorable and terrifying, if predictable, effects) , it is one that I care deeply about. So when the University of Toronto News asked me to comment on what the election meant for climate change in general and for Canada, I obliged with the comments pasted below (the abridged published version can be found here). The risk for disaster on the climate front must be acknowledged with clear eyes. Trump will attempt to set back national climate and environmental policy in the US by decades. However, I’m convinced (at least today) that despair at these prospects isn’t a viable option (at least for me). The quest for an effective global response to climate change and decarbonization has never been and was never going to be easy. It just got that much harder. What the world needs now is a redoubling of efforts and mobilization at all levels (cities, provinces, countries, civil society, private sector). Trump’s election is a disaster on so many levels, but it does put into sharp relief the scale and scope of the work that needs to be done to move towards decarbonization. We must be of good courage (as hokey as that sounds, hokey is probably what we’ll need in the days, months, and years to come).

Anyway, here’s what I told University of Toronto News:

  1. What can we expect from Trump in regards to climate change and all the climate change agreements signed under President Obama?

It is not hyperbole to say that the Trump administration will likely be a disaster for climate change policy in the United States and for the pursuit of an effective global response to climate change. The risks on climate change policy from this election are manifold and serious. We are likely to see a reversal of the directions and leadership that the Obama administration was pursuing in the US and abroad on emissions reductions and support for renewable energy. Meeting the climate crisis just became much harder than it already was with an engaged United States. The world now needs other nations, subnational actors (cities and provinces), corporations, and NGOs to significantly rally around the cause of climate action.

U.S. climate policy is almost certainly headed for a stark, retrograde shift given that the president elect has described climate change as a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese and that his transition team has already includes a noted climate denier as the person heading up the EPA transition. Trump made various campaign pledges along the way to gut the EPA entirely and to cut all funding for renewable energy and climate change research. President Obama’s signature policy, the Clean Power Plan, is also virtually certain to be abandoned both because the new administration will not pursue it and it is likely that a Supreme Court including a Trump nominee would strike it down anyway. If the Trump administration’s actions in any way match the campaign rhetoric, U.S. climate policy (and energy policy more generally) will be set back decades.

Given that the United States is a key contributor to global emissions and had been looked to for international leadership on global climate action, the damage a Trump administration promises will not be limited to U.S. climate policy. The Trump administration has various means to officially withdraw from the Paris Agreement, or could, just as easily and perhaps with less political fallout, simply not pursue the commitments that the Obama administration put forward in the Paris Agreement (because of a lack of enforcement measures on countries achieving their pledges in the decentralized approach to global climate governance). In addition, the bilateral deal between the United States and China that paved the way for the Paris Agreement is now in significant doubt. The loss of U.S. leadership on the global stage also has the potential to dampen other countries’ ambitions and pursuit of aggressive climate action.

There is no sugar coating the potential for serious setbacks on climate change that a Trump administration portends—setbacks that frankly have the potential to make it impossible to stave off some of the worst consequences of climate change and therefore put millions of lives at risk over the coming decades from various climate impacts (sea level rise, changing drought and storm patterns, heat, severe weather and flooding, secondary climate-induced conflict, etc.).

These are the risks of a Trump administration in terms of climate action and policy and we should be clear eyed about them. However, we should also remember that there are countervailing forces and that even a disastrous Trump administration cannot derail all action on climate change. There is quite a bit of momentum on climate change globally and within the United States that will continue to build in spite of Trump’s election. The costs of renewable energy relative to fossil fuels continue to fall and the growth of renewable energy capacity and use world-wide will likely continue to grow rapidly regardless of the results of the U.S. election. Trump almost certainly cannot bring back coal in the United States because of the economics of energy production have shifted so distinctly in the last 10 years. Internationally, the Paris Agreement is a decentralized approach to climate change so the world does not depend on the US to take action. Every country has designed its own plan. Other countries will need to forge ahead, however, and even redouble their efforts and urgency. Finally, a great deal of action on climate change, especially in North America, takes place at the state/provincial and municipal levels and amongst businesses and NGOs. This is where energy on climate action has been and will need to be moving forward.

A number of post-election reflections that have spread around social media are urging that the election of Trump be met with resolve and organizing to prevent his campaign rhetoric from becoming reality. Climate change is an issue where this resolve and organizing will be necessary at multiple levels across the globe and this election must serve as a clarion call to action on climate.

  1. What does that mean for Canada?

The Trump administration will significantly complicate energy and climate policy making for Canada. First, it is clear that pipeline approval will not be an obstacle from the U.S. side of the border and I expect that a new Trump administration would offer approval for Keystone XL within weeks if not days of inauguration. However, cooperation on energy and climate change is now significantly uncertain and Canada’s new federal policy on climate change will be significantly out of step with U.S. policy. The notion of a continental approach to energy is in question and such an approach to climate policy is almost certainly dead. This will be a significant challenge for Prime Minister Trudeau to navigate.

Internationally, Canada faces a choice of standing with much of the rest of the world in pursuing urgent action or being sucked into a new North American obstructionism on climate change. Canada no longer needs a decent climate policy to trade off for pipeline approvals in the United States, the question is whether we will pursue progressive climate policy because it is the right thing to do, especially in the context of open hostility to climate action from the United States.

Finally, the provincial links with U.S. states and Canadian cities contributing to transnational urban climate action become even more the focus of North American climate policy. Canada can and must still contribute to the global efforts on climate change in multiple ways.

Posted by: Matthew Hoffmann | April 19, 2016

Posted by: Matthew Hoffmann | November 30, 2015

OpEd on Paris Summit

The Globe and Mail published my op ed with thoughts on the Paris COP 21 summit:

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/the-paris-paradox-summit-wont-succeed-or-fail/article27517495/

With apologies to REM, it’s the end of the world as we know it … again. The world will gather in Paris at the end of 2015 for the latest round of climate negotiations and the latest “last chance to save the world.” Robert Redford, Prince Charles, the Guardian newspaper, Jeffrey Sachs to name but a few are all proclaiming the Paris climate negotiations to be some version of humanity’s last, best chance to put in place an effective response to climate change that will avert what many see as coming climate catastrophe. I say “again” because these kind of statements are eerily familiar for those that paid attention to the run up to the 2009 Copenhagen climate negotiations. Nicholas Stern, Gordon Brown, and diverse activists trumpeted similar warnings then.

The point of raising the déjà vu feeling around descriptions of Paris is expressly NOT to critique those trying to raise the sense of urgency around the Paris negotiations. The people who claimed that 2009 was the last chance to avoid climate catastrophe could very well be right—given what climate scientists are learning about how much warming we’re already locked-in to and the difficulties we’ve seen with bending the emissions curve in a serious way. We need significant and increasing urgency around Paris 2015 and everyone should push for an aggressive agreement. Instead I point out the Groundhog Day-like repetition to call attention to the necessity, but tyranny of the “Big, Defining Moment”.

The allure of the Big, Defining Moment and the strategy that goes into periodically making the annual climate negotiations Big, Defining Moments is clear. The world has operated for the last 25 or so year on the assumption (perhaps faulty as lots of academic research shows) that solving climate change must start with a grand international bargain. Paris is the next chance to cement a bargain and hence the strategy of upping the ante on the urgency in the lead up to the negotiations. The heightened anxiety in the discourse is, at least in part, about building momentum to the Big, Defining Moment. It is probably working. We are seeing significant momentum building—from the Pope’s encyclical, to celebrity involvement, to announcements from the US and China about progress that’s already being made. This is the necessity of the Big, Defining Moment—a means to clarify the minds of the politicians and diplomats that are shaping what will become the Paris agreement as well as the minds of the public. Responding to climate change requires an enormous amount of effort. Serious political will and public pressure are necessary to fuel this effort. Big, Defining Moments are a great means to generate both…in the short term.

The tyranny of the Big, Defining Moment comes later, either when the Moment fails to deliver (as happened when Hopenhagen became Brokenhagen in 2009) or when we realize how much real work and potential for failure comes after the Moment (as the aftermath of Kyoto, a successful Moment at the time of its signing, taught us). The tyranny of the Big, Defining Moment is that the build up around it can make us forget that it is a means, not an end. These moments are only useful or important if they help catalyze and further the long-term transformation that a real response to climate change entails.

Responding to climate change is a long game with a series of focusing events along the way. We have to hope and struggle to ensure that Moments like Paris 2015 move the process of transformation forward. But we also must resist the temptation to make them more than they are. Moments must not be mistaken for solutions to climate change when they succeed and they must not be mistaken for the dashing of our last hope when they fail to live up to expectations. Decarbonization is a series of pathways and transformations that we need to invent over a long period. This mindset does not relieve the pressure to act—we need to be actively inventing and transforming and getting going quickly. We need a series of wins and Big, Defining Moments that generate both momentum in the lead up to them and results that can be built upon by nation-states, sub-national governments, cities, NGOs, and corporations. Interim moments help construct the pathways to decarbonization. But we must take care to understand the relationship between the short game of Big, Defining Moments and the long game of decarbonization. We have to ensure that our creation of Big, Defining Moments is done in the service of furthering the multiple kinds of transformation that will be ongoing after everyone goes home from Paris.

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.

Posted by: Matthew Hoffmann | May 5, 2015

What’s a professor to do?

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