On paper, politics isn’t that complicated. Persuade a majority of your constituents that you share their priorities, and you’ll triumph. Choose unpopular policies, and you’ll sink. Elections roll around frequently enough that you’ll need to keep your ideas fresh, whether it’s building streetcars or banning books.
But what happens when a problem emerges that doesn’t fit into a well-defined region or election cycle? Climate change is global in scale and often glacial in speed, a lousy political combination. Historically, politicians have either failed to grasp the urgency and scale of action required—or failed at the polls when they did. But is this inevitable?
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Some Climate Policies Are Just A Liability
1. If tough policies were possible, we’d already have real carbon taxes. This great one-page explainer from the World Bank cuts to the chase. Some of the best academic ideas are politically toxic.
For instance, experts agree that a carbon tax fully reflecting the social and environmental costs of emissions is the fairest and most effective way to transition to a low- and ultimately zero-carbon society. But less than 20% of global emissions today are subject to a carbon price, according to Our World in Data. And most of those are too low to move the carbon needle.
2. If climate policies meant votes, you’d expect to see green rulers around the world. Instead, they’re just a rounding error. They don’t rule outright anywhere, and even at their most successful in Europe, they only form part of a few governing coalitions.
In Germany, where Greens have held more power for longer than elsewhere, the Green Party is struggling to push through climate policies such as a ban on gas cars a decade off, reports Al Jazeera. In the US, despite some wins locally, no green party member has ever been elected to any federal office.
3. There simply isn’t the public or political will. Despite overwhelming evidence that climate change is a major risk to health and wellbeing (and wealth), the percentage of the US public who are very concerned about it is stuck at about 40% – and about a third even think the dangers are exaggerated.
“We have trouble imagining the potential devastation of climate change. We have trouble trusting governments to lead us into much needed collective action. We have trouble defining the links between jurisdiction and accountability,” writes Elaine Kamarck, director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institutions.
Without greater public support, politicians will never be able to take on the expensive, decades-long process of addressing global warming.
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Smarter Policies Can Reach More Voters
1. Impose limits, not taxes. A fascinating new paper from an international group of researchers paints a more promising picture. It uses data from 30 countries since the turn of the millennium to conclude that climate change policies do not have to be politically costly, depending on what they are and when they are introduced.
For a start, they found that emissions limits have a much lower political impact than emissions taxes. Although not quite as good at driving down emissions as carbon taxes, “such second-best options are efficient alternatives to tackle global warming,” writes the team, led by Davide Furceri of the IMF. This jibes with earlier research suggesting that people (unsurprisingly) prefer climate carrots to climate sticks.
2. Three times not to play the climate card. Timing is everything. Researchers looked at decades of political polls and saw a pattern. Resentment of new climate rules peaked only if oil prices were soaring, prior to elections, or when economic inequality was rampant.
The first two are easier to avoid, and the third can be alleviated, they suggest, “in the form of direct transfers to households, unemployment benefits to workers that lose their jobs, or active labor market policies to help job reallocation.”
3. Decouple climate from the culture war. Facing strong headwinds, serious climate action will need support from across the political spectrum. Even in the increasingly partisan US, Democrats and Republicans can agree on a few climate topics: solar farms are now nearly as popular in red states as blue, and nuclear power is having a similar renaissance across parties. Jobs, energy independence, and EVs are also increasingly popular nationwide.
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What To Keep An Eye On
1. A teal wave? In Australia last year, a slate of independent candidates (named “teals” for the color of their election pamphlets) challenged the ruling conservatives for resisting climate action and helped drive prime minister Scott Morrison from power, reports Politico. Some experts are now recommending a similar move in the US, encouraging climate-positive candidates that don’t identify as Democrats.
2. Local news. Some of the most innovative climate policies, including gas vehicle bans, sustainable transit, and net zero goals, are happening in cities around the world. Success at a grassroots level could inspire national politicians to push for stronger policies.
3. The 2024 campaign. How big a role will Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act—in fact, a poorly-disguised climate bill—play in Republican arguments to replace him? If candidates go after his green jobs agenda, that could bode poorly for future bipartisan efforts.