How to break the climate change gridlock

The debate on approaches to mitigating and managing climate change seems to have stalled in an effective gridlock. We know that reaching agreement on an effective policy is a political process. But, for reasons that seem to satisfy both poles of the debate, the political negotiation has never happened – because the politics have been scientized. I.e., concealing what are differences of values underneath technical arguments.

In an earlier post I referred to Roger Pielke, Jr.’s tongue-in-cheekish “How to Use Science to Argue Politics, Manipulate the Media, and Silence your Political Opponents”. Roger’s post generated an excellent dialog in the comments section. One thread was generated by what I thought was a very constructive suggestion from Roger (the Steve in Roger’s post refers to Steve Hemphill),

…Seems to me that politicizing the science here is inevitable on both sides, no?

Perhaps an alternative course of action would be to see what sorts of values Steve holds and develop policy options that serve both of your interests. Perhaps he values economic outcomes, or national security, etc. which might allow you to find common ground on action without having to necessarily agree on the science. Is that possible? If not, what other choice do you have?

Andrew Dressler [Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at Texas A&M, fellow Rice alum] was the first respondent to address Roger’s suggestion. Andrew explained one of his key values:

Roger, …As far as your suggestion about values goes, it sounds like an interesting experiment, and I’m willing to begin. So here are my values: I believe in being risk averse, and am willing to pay something for it (this is the concept underlying all insurance). For example, I’d be willing to pay something like a [few tenths of a] percent of GDP per year to forestall potential impacts of climate change. Thus, I think we should start a modest mitigation program now, and adjust the program in subsequent years as our knowledge of the climate system and economics of mitigation increases…

Later, I wrote to Andrew positing that a negotiation where each parties values are made explicit might break the gridlock (?):

Andrew,…For me, you clarified your position significantly by quantifying one of your values [risk]. I reduced your risk-averse value statement to “Andrew will pay up to 0.5% of GDP each year until 2100 for mitigation that he believes will achieve X”. I’m not sure how you would express mitigation-outcome X, so I won’t guess.

I’ll speculate that, if each of the parties to the negotiation would put on the table a similar statement of all their related values in terms of acceptable investment/outcome, then we might get past the gridlock.

Not that defining everything relevant to each party is easy, especially given the qualitative nature of the benefits. E.g., just focusing on your % of GDP investment, participants will need to understand the implications of that offer on both sides [cost, and benefit] in terms that are meaningful to their area. Trivial, incomplete examples


  • “how many more unemployed does that mean for us here in Brazil?”, 
  • “my country will have worse crop yields if the warming happens – how will you help us avoid having even more hungry children?”


  • “how many more years do I receive before I will need to move my village away from the coast?”
  • “how much less will we need to spend on flood control?

As I wrote that I realized that I’ve seen little exposition of the benefits. I understand the long term qualitative risk-reduction concept, but got a bit stuck trying to enumerate how a Chinese or Polish citizen would see the benefits. Both will be asking such as, “what do I get in return for delaying by Y years when all of our children need not work, but can attend college?”

Andrew replied, noting that the insurance analog satisfies him, while working through the benefits and cost doesn’t seem productive:

Steve, As you alluded to, the state of science is not sufficient to provide detailed regional predictions that can be used to tell individuals what the impacts (positive or negative) of climate change will be on them. I personally see climate change as a risk — much like the risk that your house will burn down or you’ll be in a car wreck, or you’ll die suddenly. Most people deal with those risks by taking out insurance (home owners, car, life). In other words, people take precautionary action to head off an uncertain but potentially disasterous [sic] risk. I conclude that we should take action now, like we take out insurance, to avoid uncertain but potentially catastrophic climate impacts.

I think this is a more productive way to view it than to try to calculate concrete benefits and costs. That’s my opinion, of course, and others might disagree with me.

In the last round of this discussion I attempted the argument that the desired mitigation agreement must be successfully marketed to both developing and developed nations.

Andrew, Thanks for your reply. As you’ll see I’m not ready to abandon benefits for costs, as I don’t (yet) see how mitigation can be marketed otherwise.

The insurance analogy is appealing, but doesn’t it break down when compared to real world insurance offerings? All of which have a dollar value payout. The payout purchased by the premium is an explicit maximum as for liability insurance, or a well-understood valuation such as “replacement cost”.

But the core issue here is this: if we cannot package mitigation in terms of cost-benefit, then we have a real marketing problem. Others might object to this characterization:

I see us attempting to sell to China, India, Brazil et al, a concrete cost in return for a reduction of a risk that has no concrete value. It is impossible to hide the consequence: lower economic growth, meaning a longer wait for developing countries to reach OECD level standards of living. We are trying to sell more expensive energy, and possibly less available energy.

To me it looks like an unsolvable marketing problem, excepting Roger’s no regrets policy options. No regrets is a very effective way to market the set of policies that fit that framework.

I include in the no regrets class Roger’s excellent proposal to decouple energy policy from mitigation & management. We will not succeed marketing “just consume less”. We can succeed marketing energy efficiency – which efficiency results in reduced carbon loading. This reframes the public discussion in terms of economics (and regulation). We can adjust the way energy is produced and used by using regulation to leverage market forces.

The energy economics divides into two classes:

[1] investments that yield a market rate of return in our existing system

Many class [1] investments are being made in the normal course of business – in part producing the 2%/annum compounded growth in energy productivity we’ve experienced for at least 50 years.

[2] investments that need regulations to make the rate of return acceptable – such as full-pricing, incentive-adding, or inhibition-elimination.

Examples of full-pricing regulations are the familiar carbon license trading and offset credits. There are heaps of incentive examples all over the OECD [I don’t know whether the outcomes are significant w/r/t AGW objectives].

An excellent example of inhibition-elimination regulation is nuclear power generation. This is the biggest hammer in the energy policy toolkit. Not a sufficient solution, but I believe a necessary component of a policy that will both get the results we need, and that we can market. With full-pricing regulation, investment in the new nuclear technologies would probably already be happening. But the rate of conversion from high carbon load generation would still not be nearly fast enough because the ROI calculations still carry a huge uncertainty risk premium due to regulatory risks and burdens. Full-pricing plus complete overhaul of the regulatory framework will make the economics highly attractive. That just leaves leadership – to educate the public about the full range of energy options & tradeoffs (and what are the true risks of nuclear generation).

Anyone skeptical of the nuclear option may find this useful: What Will it Take to Revive Nuclear Energy? This post contains several key links, mostly to various parts of MIT’s interdisciplinary study…

1 thought on “How to break the climate change gridlock

  1. Start watching for headlines that are more optimistic, such as these:


    Albert Einstein provided the perfect scientific answer to Global Warming in 1905 with his paradigm, mass-to-energy equation, which is the key to unlocking all of the clean, cheap, environmentally friendly energy the inhabitants of Earth will ever need, without any pollution or waste stream, and with no carbon dioxide or other greenhouse emissions.

    Even the super-powerful Energy Cartel will be unable to prevent millions of individuals around the World from freely switching to this abundant and everlasting Einsteinian cornucopia of “home-made energy,” which will automatically reestablish Mother Nature as the exclusive controller of climate change.

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