Breaking down climate policy’s political barriers

May 23, 2023

When it comes to addressing environmental issues like climate change, political obstacles can be as formidable as technical ones. A new review of climate politics scholarship published this month in Nature Sustainability suggests that pursuing political and policy choices that are feasible today can help reduce political barriers to future policy.

The review outlines three shortcomings—climate action gaps—in current efforts to politically address climate change and explores how to surmount these barriers. “Politics should not only be seen as a constraint but be recognized as a target of intervention to advance environmental solutions,” explained author Jonas Meckling, an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at UC Berkeley. The review was co-authored by Valerie Karplus, an associate professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University.

Their review identified an ambition gap between national policy targets and scientific consensus goals. Organized political opposition from groups with assets that produce emissions often contributes to this gap, as they face the highest costs from the policy. 

Crafting policy that concentrates benefits while diffusing costs across a broad swath of stakeholders, such as through subsidies, tax rebates, and deployment performance standards, can help bridge the gap. The authors point to the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act—which rewarded the developers of low-carbon technologies while promising to reduce the cost of clean energy by scaling up over time—as a recent example. 

Another way of bridging the gap is concentrating the costs and benefits and either compensating those left paying the costs or rewarding those who can champion the benefits. In addition, the authors also found that linking global environmental issues such as climate change with salient local issues like human health can help build political support.      

The authors also identified an implementation gap in climate policy, which typically occurs when a government fails to meet the adopted goals or ends up repealing the policy. This is primarily due to enforcement failures or durability issues, where the 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,” Karplus said.

The authors note several ways of bridging this gap. Interest groups that have already invested in a policy are more likely to protect it, or policies that provide targeted benefits to key political groups create positive feedback. Additionally, 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, as the California legislature did by delegating much of climate policy to the California Air Resources Board. 

Difficulties in fostering cooperation among nations, industries, and subnational actors leads to a gap in international action, the authors add. 

The authors note several opportunities for both deepening and widening international coordination efforts on environmental issues. Small groups of countries (known as “clubs”) and industry agreements within specific sectors contributed to progress toward deeper climate action. Policy actions in large markets or from climate leaders can broaden efforts by affecting countries that look to these actors for guidance. This was found to be particularly true regarding technology support policies, which can help bring down the cost of clean technologies and facilitate the global diffusion of technology.      

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.

Adapted from a news post by Dan Carroll, Carnegie Mellon University