Why Climate Progress is Deadlocked
Lack of Short-Term Benefits
It is inherently difficult to persuade individuals or nations to incur short-term costs now for benefits that will accrue to others 30 years or more in the future. Indeed, this runs contrary to human nature; considerable behavioral research suggests that people have a strong preference for avoiding short-term pain even if it is for long-term gain. Accordingly, solutions that rely primarily on sacrifice and deferred benefit are unlikely to succeed. This explains why carbon taxes are a difficult political sell, coming across as all sticks and no carrots. A winning climate strategy must offer tangible short-term benefits powerful enough to overcome the corresponding sacrifices.
The Free Rider Problem
Because the climate is a global commons, the benefits of emissions reductions undertaken in one country will mostly accrue outside its borders. As a result, countries acting in their rational self-interest are incentivized to minimize their mitigation efforts and free ride on those of others. This fundamental problem has constrained all past attempts to reach international climate agreements, including the recent Paris summit. The best solution is to design national climate programs in a manner that compels other countries to follow suit. The free rider problem also raises questions of climate fairness, given that many of the countries likely to suffer the most from climate change are typically those least responsible for emitting greenhouse gases.
Climate progress is blocked not only by partisan divides, but also by false tradeoffs. Some advocates of renewable energy oppose nuclear power, even though both may be needed to combat climate change. Many environmentalists tend to be anti-corporate, even though any viable mitigation plan must rest in part on business leadership. The message of fear and austerity espoused by some on the green-left tends to alienate those at the opposite end of the political spectrum, who see climate policies as a Trojan horse for a bigger and more intrusive government. Many GOP leaders, meanwhile, deny basic science and fail to offer concrete solutions. We need fresh approaches able to bridge these divides.
The world lacks a shared or winning climate endgame. Even the most committed countries and regions are nowhere close to sufficiently reducing emissions, and have devoted much political capital to flawed strategies. For instance, many prefer to subsidize renewables rather than tax carbon. But this approach suffers from two design flaws: its costs increase as more renewables come online, and the subsidies do little to discourage consumption of power from existing fossil fuel plants. The European Union has devoted 13 years to an Emissions Trading System that has crashed twice and missed its objectives. There will never be a single climate solution. But we urgently need a common lever capable of delivering and inspiring a system-wide course correction. The ideal solution would be simple, popular, and replicable, yet ultimately far-reaching.