In my first year after university, I had five roommates who were extremely smart basketball fans. I’m your typical Minnesotan hockey player, so I had a lot to learn about basketball. I often asked my roommates questions like: Is Scott Pollard a good center? Are the Hornets hard to beat? Does zone defense work? They made fun of me, noting that all my questions reduced to: is X good or bad?
At the time, I thought: “Fine-grained knowledge can come later, right now I need the basics, and good versus bad is important info.” But over the years I’ve grown to appreciate how digital thinking–i.e. 0 versus 1, on versus off, good versus bad–can lead conversations astray.
Climate policy thinking is in need of more analog thinking. That is, we need to be more careful to note the continuous gradations between total climate policy failure and climate policy success. Analog climate policy thinking would give us a 1) clearer picture of current climate policies and likely future policies, and 2) let us design more effective climate regulations going forward. Let me give two examples.
1. Current and Future Climate Policies: A Continuous Spectrum
When you talk climate policy you’re usually talking about unilateral national, state, provincial, or local regulations, because there’s no enforceable international greenhouse gas treaty. At the same time, greenhouse gas emissions are global, so one of the primary goals of these domestic regulations is to encourage other countries to adopt stricter climate regulations.
When I present research on domestic climate regulations around the world, I almost always get a very digital question: “How can you encourage other countries to act? Good countries will help out voluntarily, and you’ll never convince the bad actors.” When I present to an audience of U.S. generalists, they generally mention China as an example of a bad actor, and when I present outside the U.S. (or to U.S. environmentalists) they usually mention the U.S. as a bad actor. Almost everyone mentions Europe as a good actor.
This question makes clear that the good actor/bad actor frame is actively confusing the questioner. Even if we could say that some countries are doing better than others, every country is constantly striking a balance between climate and economic goals, and each could regulate incrementally more or less. Europe has a cap & trade system, it’s true; but it doesn’t cover all emissions, and its permit price to emit a ton of carbon has fallen below 5 EUR. (That’s less than half Alberta’s 15 CAD carbon price, although Alberta’s regulation applies to far fewer emissions.) And on the flip side, China has adopted numerous policies that will slow its rising greenhouse gas emissions, including massive deployment of renewable energy. (Here’s a useful Congressional Research Service summary from 2011: http://bit.ly/1dIi1Je
). Even Saudi Arabia is planning a gigantic expansion of clean energy. (http://bit.ly/1dIi1Je
). Digital thinking is giving academics an inaccurate view of the world.
2. Climate Policy Mechanisms: Encouraging More Action in a Continuous Climate Policy World
Digital on/off thinking has infected our climate policy design as well. Again, one of the most important goals for unilateral climate regulations is encouraging action elsewhere. And one of the most promising ways to do that is with matching commitments: adopting climate regulations that automatically grow more strict when other countries strengthen their own climate regulations. As I explain in this paper, http://bit.ly/uniclimreg
(see pp. 15-21), these matching policies would encourage other countries to act by rewarding them with increased environmental benefits.
But the limited attempts at using matching commitments so far have been fatally flawed by on/off thinking. For instance, the EU has said it will increase its greenhouse gas reductions from 20% to 30% if developed nations adopt “comparable” reductions through a “global agreement.” And Australia has a similar scheme. But these matching commitments provide no incentive to the actual policymakers around the world who are struggling with decisions to marginally tighten or loosen greenhouse gas regulation almost every day, because no individual regulator can secure a global agreement. These on/off commitments should be replaced with matching commitments that target climate regulations that foreign regulators can actually deliver, and smoothly ratchet up in response to stricter commitments. Perhaps the EU could commit to match a specific percentage of reductions in the US, Canada, or Australia. And these commitments could even target regulators in important states or provinces like California and Alberta that are calibrating the strictness of their climate policies.
Analog thinking also reveals the problems with the current global treaty paradigm. No country can credibly commit to years of “good” climate regulation in a single treaty. Climate policy is too complex and covers too many politically-charged areas. Often even countries that have “model” policies, like Australia’s ill-fated carbon tax, have found loopholes with major climate impacts, such as coal exports. (See also, British Columbia’s tax and its proposed LNG exports.) And even on their own terms emissions pledges will always be fragile in a democracy, as has been repeatedly shown in Australia, Canada, and Japan.
This same problem will likely hamper more modest plans for climate clubs. I share the general interest in the recent climate pact between California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. But remember the Western Climate Initiative: it was formed by Arizona, California, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington in 2007 . . . and then abandoned by Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington in 2011. Fool me twice, shame on me: analog climate thinking says we cannot be surprised when other states and countries do not live up to their climate commitments. We need to find ways to continuously encourage them to adopt somewhat stricter regulation, whether or not they are living up to the terms of these commitments. We need to focus more on analog matching commitments and less on promises to be good.