Toward a Populist Political Economy of Climate Disruption

By Driesen, David M. | Environmental Law, Spring 2019 | Go to article overview

Toward a Populist Political Economy of Climate Disruption


Driesen, David M., Environmental Law


I.    INTRODUCTION                                                  380 II.   THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF COMPROMISE                           382 III.  THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF MULTIPLE BENEFITS                    391 IV.   THE POPULIST POLITICAL ECONOMY AND THE POPULIST CARBON TAX    398 V.    CONCLUSION                                                    406 

I. INTRODUCTION

Analysis of the political economy of climate disruption (1) usually relies on the assumption that climate policy must offer advantages to the special interests that oppose it in order to sufficiently mollify those interests and the politicians that serve them to make headway. (2) Call this the political economy of compromise. The political economy of compromise has been at the center of U.S. and global climate policy. (3) It helps explain governments' heavy reliance on emissions trading based on grandfathering, which offers cost savings to polluters and a market-based approach to politicians skeptical of government solutions to problems. (4) And academic writing focuses overwhelmingly on this model's implications. (5)

Yet, many of the most successful climate policies around the world are not climate policies based on the political economy of compromise. Indeed, they are not climate policies at all, at least in the sense of being created only to achieve greenhouse gas abatement. The most successful policies that achieve greenhouse gas abatement serve many interests besides those of environmentalists concerned only about climate disruption and sometimes achieve vast reductions in greenhouse gas emissions inadvertently. Examples include the French nuclear program, (6) the German feed-in tariff, (7) the Brazilian biofuels program, (8) the British dash to gas, (9) and the global phase-out of ozone depleting chemicals. (10) These programs offer examples of major departures from the status quo that have greatly reduced greenhouse gas emissions and often moved countries far down the path toward phasing out fossil fuels in a significant economic sector. Collectively, they delivered far more greenhouse gas emission reductions than the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (Kyoto Protocol). (11) Yet, none of them came into being in order to address climate disruption.

These policies point toward a different conception of climate's political economy: the idea that one can get support for ambitious climate policies by serving varied interests, including non-climate interests. In other words, there are two ways of solving the political economy problem that special interest opposition presents. One involves mollifying the special interests. The second involves offering benefits to other constituencies besides a single-issue environmental constituency. Call this the political economy of multiple benefits.

For the federal government of the United States at least, the political economy of compromise may have exhausted its potential. This Article explains why this may be so and explores the potential of policies designed to take advantage of the political economy of multiple benefits to secure enactment. In particular, this Article suggests the possibility of designing policies to take advantage of what one might call a populist political economy, i.e., a type of multiple benefits political economy that offers sufficiently salient benefits to the population at large as to make many of them active supporters of effective climate policy. To concretize this idea of a populist political economy it explores the possibility of a populist carbon tax, which might have the potential to stimulate active support for climate policy from new constituencies, thereby shifting the ideological climate that has slowed and sometimes defeated ambitious federal action on this issue. (12)

In proposing a multiple benefits model, I do not mean to suggest that the two primary models (compromise and multiple benefits) are necessarily mutually exclusive. …

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