Global warming poses unique threats that require paradigmatic shifts to solve.
Finding a solution to climate risk is easy—at least conceptually easy. With climate risk increasing due to the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the obvious solution is to reduce their accumulation. That result can be achieved by either reducing new emissions or pulling gases out of the atmosphere.
Of course, if it is so easy to identify the necessary solution, why has humanity made so little progress in mitigating climate risk?
At one time, delayed responsiveness might have been said to stem from uncertainties in the science or from a lack of clarity in how to design public policies. But by now, neither of these explanations holds real weight. Although scientists can always learn more, the parameters of the problem and its causes have been more than adequately studied to justify swift, major action. And, as evidenced by a recent series of essays by researchers across the University of Pennsylvania, the world hardly lacks concrete policy ideas about how to respond.
What is lacking is neither information nor imagination, but the necessary impetus. Any solution, after all, will be costly. Solving climate risks—heat, droughts, floods, storms, and agricultural losses, among others—will require reducing consumption, investing in new energy sources, changing lifestyles, or making other transitions with important associated costs. As a result, any industries and individuals with a stake in the status quo—and thus presumably holding political and economic advantage in their countries and around the world—can be expected to resist the necessary changes. This is because, one way or the other, solutions to climate risk demand that those who are contributing to the problem will “internalize their externalities”—that is, start paying costs to reduce the spillover harms they impose on those who suffer the ravages of climate change.
The methods for internalizing externalities are not rocket science. Yet for climate change, the challenges associated with using the methods seem profound. Climate change has been properly characterized as a “wicked” policy problem because it exhibits at least three qualitative differences from other environmental problems.
First, the scope of contributors to climate change vastly exceeds the scope for any other environmental problem. Climate change is a collective action problem on steroids. It not only is a global environmental problem requiring cooperation across many nations, but it is a deeply individually sourced problem to which virtually everyone contributes. In fundamental ways, the problem stems from actions each of us takes to secure shelter, provide food, and satisfy transportation needs. Even if the contribution of any one person is de minimus in its own right, each individual’s impact adds up. Solving the climate problem requires coordinating behavioral change across the vast majority of the world’s population. Each nation, as with each individual, will have an incentive to free ride on the efforts of others. Or they will at least ask themselves why they should accept the burden of reducing greenhouse gases when doing so will not yield substantial benefits until everyone else does the same.
Second, the kind of institutions most readily equipped to solve collective action problems like climate change simply do not exist at the international level. If climate risks were just regional or national in scope, it might still not be a piece of cake to solve them. But at least once political support developed to address these problems, there would exist necessary legal and regulatory institutions at the domestic level of government that could be used to make a collective choice stick. Such institutions would provide the incentives and assurance needed to convince most businesses and other actors to take costly steps. But such institutions do not exist on the international stage, which is why climate policies adopted in recent years have appeared at the national, regional, state, and even local levels. This is also why the Paris Agreement was structured to depend on each country to follow through on its own commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, despite the existence of the Paris Agreement and numerous local and national climate policies, the steroidal nature of climate change’s collective action problem means that these current bottom-up efforts are still neither substantial nor widespread enough to address climate risks adequately.
Finally, although the manifestations of climate risks in storms, floods, and fires are all palpable, the connection between those risks and climate change is facially invisible to members of the public. Even “climate” is not visible. It is an abstraction; no one can look outside the window of their house and observe a global mean temperature. Moreover, carbon dioxide—the major greenhouse gas—is far from noxious itself. As a result, building the kind of public support needed to adopt meaningful policies has been more difficult for climate change than for other problems that can be tangibly observed.
What, then, is the path forward? The fundamental solution must address the “wicked” structure of the climate problem and find a way to overcome the structural barriers to policy action. This will not be a solution at the level of, say, a choice between carbon taxes or cap-and-trade systems. Nor will it be a solution at the level of many of the excellent ideas recently assembled by faculty from across the University of Pennsylvania. These are all important policy options, to be sure, but sufficiently strong policy measures ultimately require a public drive for climate action that overcomes self-interested resistance.
The solution to climate change lies, in the end, with normative change. It must become viewed as deeply unacceptable for nations and their leaders to overlook the suffering, mortality, disease, and property damage that climate change exacerbates.
Normative change will hardly be easy to bring about. There exists no definitive checklist or formula. Some normative changes come about only after bold efforts at public mobilization, even violent struggle, while other changes occur relatively subtly or gradually, such as with changing social acceptability of public smoking in the 1980s in the United States.
When it comes to the climate , normative change may be helped by the visible rallies, protests, or strikes that young people around the world have organized in recent years. It may also be helped by media coverage of other symbolic efforts, such as Greta Thunberg’s travels on boats and trains instead of airplanes. It may be helped by increased media attention to natural disasters and their plausible linkage to climate change. It may be helped by linguistic choices made by elites, such as the decision made by some media outlets to begin using terms such as “climate crisis” instead of “climate change.” It may be helped by the messages of corporate and political leaders, especially highly publicized “conversions” by those who previously had been climate skeptics or who rise above their or their firms’ seeming self-interest.
We cannot be certain what exact actions—or, more precisely, what combination of actions—it will take to reach a tipping point where norms become deeply embedded and sufficiently widespread. One difficulty in reaching that tipping point is that normative commitments to climate action appear to be associated with deeply engrained worldviews and ideological predispositions. The cultural and political polarization evident in many countries around the world means that protests and other efforts to build norms in support of climate responsibility are met with countervailing efforts to resist normative change.
The dialectic nature of the battle over norms is exemplified in the fact that President Obama’s leadership achievement with the Paris Agreement was soon followed by the election of President Trump, who then announced that the United States would be pulling out of the Paris Agreement.
Normative change also takes time. Consider the shift in public attitudes about LGBTQ rights. That shift is often said to exemplify one of the most rapid changes in public norms ever to have occurred. As recently as 2004, public opinion polls in the United States showed that Americans opposed same-sex marriage by a two-to-one margin. But now, over fifteen years later, public opinion has flipped, with Americans supporting same-sex marriage by a two-to-one margin. Yet, as fast as that change has occurred, the struggle for LGBTQ rights hardly began in 2004. Almost fifty years passed between the uprising at the Stonewall Inn in New York and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision recognizing a right of same-sex couples to marry.
Waiting another fifty years may seem like waiting an eternity for climate action. Yet sufficient normative change could plausibly take even longer than fifty years. As long as addressing climate change requires shifting energy systems or changing consumption patterns, normative change will need to overcome self-interested resistance to change. Furthermore, normative change on climate issues must take hold around the world for it to have a meaningful effect.
The need to combat self-interest on a global basis might suggest that the trajectory of normative change related to climate could take as long as other norm changes—perhaps even centuries. After all, when it came to changing norms about slavery, a process that started robustly early in the 19th century, global action was also needed to abolish an international slave trade. Opponents of slavery also needed to overcome opposition by slaveholders and anyone who relied on their cheap products. Today, despite the passage of a century and a half since the conclusion of the U.S. Civil War and the abolition of slavery, illegal human trafficking tragically still persists. Of course, so does the racism that supported slavery. Will normative change with respect to climate be doomed to a similar drawn-out struggle?
Climate change does have one difference that may make normative change occur more rapidly: its risks are not unchanging. The longer it takes to solve climate risks, the more costly they will become. Sooner or later, the public will start to realize that the costs of the status quo exceed the costs of shifting to new energy systems and undertaking other climate mitigation efforts.
With luck, this realization will occur sooner rather than later. Otherwise, by the time the pressures for normative change align with a broader public understanding of its real self-interested stake in mitigating climate change, it may be too late, even if this confluence of values and interests occurs in the next decade or two. Already forecasts portend catastrophic climatic risks in little more than a decade. Even if all new emissions of greenhouse gases could somehow be halted tomorrow, the gases already in the atmosphere will not dissipate for some time to come.
The solution to climate risk may come down, in the end, to a matter of timing. Normative change—the only solution that can fundamentally overcome the structural edifice underlying climate change as a collective action problem on steroids—might not occur quickly enough to forestall significant climatic change and the ravages it will bring. If that is true, then the best hope may rest not with politics or morality but with some heretofore unknown technological cure-all: a breakthrough that either delivers cheap, climate-friendly energy, or, better still, could extract greenhouse gases from the atmosphere or counteract their warming effects—all without creating other harmful effects. But identifying that solution is really hard.