Academic journal article Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum

Be Cool! Staying Open Minded about Climate Policy Development

Academic journal article Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum

Be Cool! Staying Open Minded about Climate Policy Development

Article excerpt

In the competition for the limited attention span that the American polity devotes to environmental issues, there can be no doubt that global climate change is in a category by itself. (1) Regardless of relative position on the political spectrum, the American public and its leaders have come to agree on once controversial elements of the climate narrative. Discussion of the greenhouse effect and its implications were once the boutique musings of environmental policy wonks. No longer. A major motion picture, (2) an Academy Award, (3) a Nobel Prize, (4) not to mention frequent appearances throughout the popular culture, have elevated climate change to celebrity status.

Now that an emerged consensus advocating action forms the basis of the climate discussion, we need only discuss a principled basis for deciding among proposed policy solutions to address the problem. As Mencken remarked, however, complex problems often have solutions that are "neat, plausible and wrong." (5) Unfortunately, given the proven and purported environmental and economic impacts associated with climate policy, the consequences of being wrong are significant. Policy makers are well advised to be at least as careful in joining in any policy consensus as they were in accepting a scientific one.

This essay will examine briefly the common ground of the emerged political consensus to take action on climate change. Then, we will briefly review the current options to address climate change--with a particular emphasis on exploring incentives-based concepts. Next, the essay will address the downside consequences of an improperly calibrated climate change policy. And last, we will conclude with upsides--environmental, energy and economic--of properly addressing the opportunity presented by innovative climate change policy.


Not long ago, the climate narrative was dominated by the story that climatic history could be divided into glacial and interglacial periods--ice ages and temperate ages. (6) The notion was that Earth was nearing the end of its current interglacial period--the one responsible for the development of current human culture. A combination of anthropogenic emissions and activities were hastening the arrival of the next ice age. Concerted international action was needed; at the very least, reexamination of the primacy of economic growth was in order. (7)

Since that time, the climate narrative has changed. The consensus view, as expressed by the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (8) and others, is that the Earth is in the grips of a warming trend, or a perceptible increase in the average mean temperature of the atmosphere. As far as the science goes, "the debate on global warming is over." (9) Indeed, one study has found that three quarters of all climate studies support the essential principles that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) are increasing, that warming is occurring, and that human activity plays a contributing role. (10) Questions regarding the rate of change and the extent to which controls on emissions will help still exist. But, unsurprisingly, most agree that concerted international action is needed; at the very least, reexamination of the primacy of economic growth is in order. (11)

There is as much hubris in stating that climate science is perfect as there is in stating that it is without merit. It is perhaps most useful to simply say that climate science is robust enough to support the political consensus for action. As a corollary, it is no longer useful to lodge purely scientific arguments as the basis to reject the adoption of proposals designed to reverse or at least ameliorate the consequences of climate change. As Professor Richard Pierce has written, "I now rate the probability that the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis is true at around 90%.... It is time to shift most of the public debate from whether anthropogenic global warming is real to what we should do about it. …

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