Why Climate Policy is Failing

Leah Stokes is an important young climate writer and Assistant Professor or political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She recently wrote an eloquent description of the relation of California’s record wildfires to the accelerating global climate chaos in an article in The Atlantic. It reflects her solid work on the growing climate crisis and the human predicament that makes its resolution so difficult.

Wildfire Fury like never before. Source: CBS News.

Professor Stokes expresses the political quandary inherent in the climate emergency there and in her new book, Short Circuiting Policy: Interest Groups and the Battle Over Clean Energy and Climate Policy in the American States. The climate emergency is not simply a technical problem. In its most difficult dimensions, it is highly political and profoundly cultural.

The Climate Crisis is a Political Crisis

The climate emergency we face is not only daunting, it is far greater in scope and danger than we had ever imagine. Climate scientists have developed a wealth of knowledge about the many physical, climatological, and biochemical components of our radically changing climate. They have failed only in repeatedly underestimating the speed at which climate destabilization is propelling us unprepared, deeper into the Anthopocene.

Climate is an integral component of the total Earth System that constitutes the human habitat. We ignore it’s disturbance at our great peril. We have the technical knowledge of the tolerable levels of carbon in the atmosphere and of the human sources of carbon excess—that is, the profligate global extractive industrial consumer system and its waste. Yet we seem politically and socially incapable of initiating the kinds of transformative change in human systems necessary to stave off Earth System chaos and societal collapse.

The Underlying Predicament

The one critical factor that is missing in the public discourse on climate-action, except for occasional passing mention, is the necessity of reducing energy consumption and waste. The focus of most proposals for climate action is to make our floundering global economy viable by “greening” industry and consumer products, converting to renewable fuels, and more effectively recycling our waste. In fact, all of those are necessary but far from sufficient. Ultimately, we must harmonize humanity with the ecosystems on which we depend while restoring them before they fully collapse.

I cannot avoid the conclusion that even 100% renewable energy production cannot resolve the underlying predicament of the global industrial consumer economy. The industrial-consumer culture assumes that if we can just stop burning fossil fuels by using renewable energy sources, then we can go on living the industrial-consumer life without significantly changing our “lifestyle.” Nevertheless, we must produce clean energy—not just renewable, but carbon neutral—and that production cannot be unlimited. Restoring the ecosystems and climate will require us to reduce radically the energy and materials we consume. For that we must change the way we live.

We cannot just muddle through the climate crisis by adapting naïve eco-modernist technologies to sustain our industrial-consumer “livestyles.” Only by transforming the way we live to significantly reduce consumption as well as reduce the vast energy wasted by our failure insulate buildings, minimize food waste, etc., etc., can we attain a livable world that will not become uninhabitable.

It is time for climate science to take the next step, perhaps with the help of ‘outlier’ economists and sociologists, and start talking about the kinds of societal change we must undertake to avoid major depopulation if not our own species extinction.


2 thoughts on “Why Climate Policy is Failing

  1. …And changing the way we live, a lifestyle we have come to accept as safe and comfortable, is going to require a different narrative that what we have chosen while talking about climate change. When it is framed as a distant, dispersed and uncertain problem, you can imagine why people wouldn’t be willing to make a serious effort: Its uncomfortable and they don’t see a direct link between their actions and its consequences!

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    1. Quite so, Saurab Babu. It is the industrial consumer culture, which the mainstream economic elite has cultivated so carefully to think only of the next purchase and never complex-system consequences, that prevents public mobilization for action in response to the climate emergency. Mounting a powerful social movement in that context becomes a “wicked problem.”

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