Pielke: The Folly of “Magical Solutions” for Targeting Carbon Emissions

Climate policy is in the midst of a dynamic very similar to that in budget policy in the 1980s and 1990s. Policies such as the Kyoto Protocol, the U.K. Climate Change Act, and the U.S. cap-and-trade (Waxman-Markey) bill are each “magical solutions” with considerable symbolic heft but precious little effect (actual or potential) on emissions…

Do not miss this short essay for Yale’s “Environment 360” by Roger Pielke, Jr. For those who are not willing to subject the planet to potentially dangerous climate experiments, the need for practical rather than magical solutions is very clear. By practical I do not mean economy-wrecking Stern Review policies. Nor do I mean the political theater recently passed by the American lower house. I have in mind the “after Kyoto” recommendations of Yale’s William Nordhaus.

Now here’s an excerpt from the highly recommended essay by Dr. Pielke:

Setting unattainable emissions targets is not a policy — it’s an act of wishful thinking, argues one political scientist. Instead, governments and society should focus money and attention on workable solutions for improving energy efficiency and de-carbonizing our economies.

Fifty years ago, political scientist Harold Lasswell explained that some policies are all about symbolism, with little or no impact on real-world outcomes. He called such actions “magical solutions,” explaining that “political symbolization has its catharsis functions.” Climate policy is going through exactly such a phase, in which a focus on magical solutions leaves little room for the practical.

Evidence for this claim can be found in the global reaction to the commitment made by the Japanese government last month to reduce emissions by 15 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. The announcement was met with derision. For instance, Yvo de Boer, head of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, expressed shock at Japan’s lack of ambition, stating, “I think for the first time in two-and-a-half years in this job, I don’t know what to say.” Sir David King, Britain’s former chief scientist and now director of the Smith School of Enterprise and Environment at Oxford University, singled out Japan as a country that was blocking progress toward an international deal on climate change.

Explaining what would constitute an acceptable target, de Boer explained that “the minus 25 to 40 range has become a sort of beacon” — referring to emissions reduction figures presented in the 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which were highlighted in subsequent international negotiations at Bali. Perhaps this is also the magnitude of target that King had in mind when disparaging the Japanese proposal. After all, the British government has enacted a law consistent with this range, requiring emissions reductions of 34 percent below 1990 levels by 2022, which would be upped to 42 percent if the world reaches a global climate agreement in Copenhagen in December.

What is missing from the debate over targets and timetables is any conception of the realism of such proposals. If a proposal is not realistic, it is not really a policy proposal but an exercise in symbolism, a “magical solution.” Symbolism is of course an essential part of politics, but when it becomes detached from reality — or even worse, used to exclude consideration of realistic proposals — the inevitable outcome is that policies will likely fail to achieve the promised ends. This outcome is highly problematic for those who actually care about the substance of climate policy proposals.

The U.K. targets are a perfect example of what happens when symbols become disconnected from reality. To achieve a 34 percent reduction from 1990 emissions by 2022 while maintaining modest economic growth would require that the U.K. decarbonize its economy to the level of France by about 2016. In more concrete terms, Britain would have to achieve the equivalent of deploying about 30 new nuclear power plants in the next six years, just to get part way to its target.

Please do read the whole thing. Then go meet with the publicons who work for you ( the exalted Senators, MPs, etc who are your employees) and politely explain to them what they must do to earn your re-election vote.