Academic journal article Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum

Climate Change and the Limits of the Possible

Academic journal article Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum

Climate Change and the Limits of the Possible

Article excerpt

Climate change looks to be more than just another environmental problem. It threatens to test the limits of our dominant ways of understanding and solving, not just environmental problems, but problems of political economy generally) Climate change has distinctive temporal and spatial features--how long it takes to unfold and the ways in which its effects are distributed across the globe--which may outstrip the capacity of our basic principles of economic and political decision-making. If so, then understanding the issue in a static way may ensure that we expect to fail in addressing it and are inarticulate about our prospects for success. That is, if we assume that economic and political decisions reflect the present distribution of self-interest within the existing structure of rules and institutions, we may be unable to see our way beyond the problem, because it so neatly frustrates the problem-solving power of our current arrangements. We may need, instead, to adopt a dynamic view of political economy.

A dynamic view of political economy has certain core features. First, it assumes that the interests that actors pursue in politics are sometimes endogenous to politics itself. That is, politics is not only a vehicle for pursuit of interests that pre-exist and stand apart from political contest. Sometimes it is also the source of new understandings of the relevant interests of the actors involved. The deliberation, struggle, and problem-solving of politics can change how those who participate understand and experience their own motives. (2) Second, a dynamic view assumes that interests also may be endogenous to economic activity. That is, the characteristic decisions and transactions of economic life may influence how participants understand their own motives in that activity. (3) In a dynamic view, then, economic and political life has a double character. On the one hand, it centrally involves what static analysis concentrates on: pursuit of existing interests through existing rules and institutions. On the other hand, however, it also involves the dynamic activity of reexamining, newly discovering, or otherwise changing the relevant interests.

Third, a dynamic view assumes a feedback relationship between understandings of interests and institutional design. Thus a feature of political economy in a dynamic view is that actors try to institute arrangements that reinforce their current view of relevant interests, and the arrangements that arise, in turn, shape the motives of the future. The politics of institutional design, then, is not only about what we can get; it is also about what we value, and about the institutional context in which we will reach our next set of judgments about what we value.

What I am calling a dynamic analysis is not the same as "taking values seriously" as distinct from "crasser" interests or inarticulate preferences. (4) A static analysis can perfectly well acknowledge that actors' self-interest includes their values, however they understand those: motives need not be restricted to wealth or some other "objective advantage," nor must actors experience themselves as "maximizing utility" or "maximizing preference-satisfaction," rather than pursuing values qua values. A dynamic analysis is distinctive, however, in that it must take values seriously in a somewhat different way from a static approach. In a dynamic analysis, values interact as efforts at interpersonal persuasion and subjective insight: they qualitatively influence the set of interests (including values--again, I am not setting the terms in opposition to each other) that operates in the next iteration of decision-making. Understanding this activity may require an interpretive effort, an attempt to grasp the ways in which persuasion occurs)


The temporal and spatial scales of climate change might have been designed to confound the basic operating principles of modern political economy. …

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