Academic journal article The Future of Children

Mobilizing Political Action on Behalf of Future Generations

Academic journal article The Future of Children

Mobilizing Political Action on Behalf of Future Generations

Article excerpt


Our failure to mobilize sufficient effort to fight climate change reflects a combination of political and economic forces, on both the national and the global level. To state the problem in its simplest terms, writes Joseph Aldy, future, unborn generations would enjoy the benefits of policies to reduce carbon emissions whereas the current generation would have to bear the costs. In particular, incumbent firms--politically influential fossil-fuel companies and fossil fuel-intensive industries, which are now reaping substantial returns from a status quo that fails to address climate change--might face significant losses from policies that discourage carbon emissions. On the other hand, insurgent firms--companies that are investing in low--and zero-carbon technologies--stand to gain.

Aldy analyzes durable, successful public policies in US history whose costs and benefits accrued to different groups--the 1935 Social Security Act, the 1956 Interstate Highway Act, and the 1970 Clean Air Act Amendments. Those policies differ from climate change policy in important ways, but they nonetheless offer lessons. For example, designing climate policy to deliver broad, near-term benefits could help overcome some of the political opposition. To do so might require linking climate change with other issues, or linking various interest groups. We might also win support from incumbent firms by finding ways to compensate them for their losses under climate change policy, or use policy to help turn insurgent firms into incumbents with political influence of their own. Finally, we might account for and exploit the veto points and opportunities embedded in our existing political institutions.


From almost any perspective, our efforts to confront the risks posed by global climate change have been insufficient. Since the international community first negotiated a treaty focused on climate change in 1992, global carbon dioxide emissions have increased more than 60 percent. (1) President George H. W. Bush agreed to limit US emissions to 1990 levels by 2000, President Bill Clinton agreed to cut US emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2010, and President Obama has called for an economy-wide cap-and-trade program to lower emissions more than 80 percent by 2050, yet their stated intentions haven't produced substantive policy. Economic analyses suggest that the benefits of incremental reductions in greenhouse gas emissions greatly exceed the current explicit or implicit price to emit a ton of greenhouse gases by almost all emission sources around the world. (2) Environmental advocates call for limiting warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit); academics question whether such a goal is still feasible. (3)

The failure to mobilize sufficient effort to combat climate change reflects the difficult political economy (that is, the interplay between politics and economics) that characterizes the problem. Mitigation of emissions (1) yields a global public good that no individual, firm, or country has a strong incentive to produce unilaterally; (2) imposes near-term costs with benefits spread over centuries; (3) risks exposing domestic firms to adverse pressures from foreign competitors; (4) delivers unclear returns, given uncertainties about climate science, multilateral coordination, market behavior, and technological innovation; and (5) requires fundamental transformation of the energy foundation of modern industrial economies. Moreover, the distribution of climate change policy's benefits and costs varies across space and time, as well as among various political constituencies and special interests.

To grossly simplify the problem, the challenge is that future, unborn generations will enjoy the benefits of climate policy, whereas the current generation, in particular those reaping substantial returns from a status quo that fails to address climate change, will bear the costs. …

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