The climate is changing. Here’s how politics will also change

A penguin stands on an iceberg in Yankee Harbour, Antarctica, in February. (Reuters)
A penguin stands on an iceberg in Yankee Harbour, Antarctica, in February. (Reuters)

The Monday release of a U.N. special report on limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees Celsius confirms what a long, hot summer of fire and storms has already told us. We’re not doing enough to combat climate change. Today, the 2018 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science went to two economists, William D. Nordhaus and Paul M. Romer, whose work on economic growth and climate change helped change the way we think about climate economics.

Climate politics are also changing, from a contest of who wins and loses to one of survival for communities and ways of life. This shift will require new approaches.

More climate action than ever, but still not enough

The impact of climate change is increasingly visible: more violent storms, more wildfires and more severe droughts. But the efforts to fight climate change are accelerating, too.

Last year the world built more gigawatts of solar than of coal, gas and nuclear power combined. Last month California passed a law requiring utilities to have 100 percent renewable power by 2045. Britain emissions in 2016 were back to 1894 levels. With technologies such as offshore wind and electric cars reaching market-competitive prices, the potential for even more radical shifts in the economy is growing.

We are decarbonizing faster than ever, but emissions are still rising. This paradox means that climate politics will become less distributional and more existential.

“Distributional” politics refers to a contest over “who gets what, when, how.” This describes most climate politics today, including battles over whether to tax carbon or cap emissions, subsidies for different kinds of energy, and how much money wealthy countries should transfer to vulnerable nations.

By “existential” we mean the contest over whose way of life gets to survive. Should we have coal mines (and therefore coal miners)? Should we have Miami Beach and the Marshall Islands, or should we have ExxonMobil and Chevron?

This distinction matters because political behavior differs at opposite ends of the distributional-existential spectrum. No one fights harder than someone with no options left.

How climate change is becoming existential

Climate politics is still largely a fight between environmentalists and the most vulnerable (like small islands), on the one hand, and fossil fuel producers and energy-intensive sectors on the other. But many other sectors will come under enormous climate pressures. Agriculture, insurance companies, coastal property holders and military bases are already feeling the impact. As the damage grows, expect these enormous interests to mobilize to protect their economic viability.

Similarly, as efforts to decarbonize succeed and expand beyond the energy sector, whole industries will have to transform — or else disappear. In many parts of the world, coal is already in a fight for its life. As electrification and renewables expand, the future of gas and oil will dim, as will the regimes that depend on them such as Russia or Saudi Arabia. So too will energy-intensive sectors like aviation and shipping, as well as the cement, meat, dairy and other industries with large footprints of other greenhouse gases.

To the extent these industries innovate themselves onto climate-neutral pathways, we may avoid existential politics. In the meantime, they pour money into preserving the status quo.

That means climate politics is transforming from a skirmish between environmentalists and polluters to a battle royal involving nearly all swaths of society.

Existential politics will require different solutions

Since at least the 2015 Paris agreement, many pro-climate countries and activists have pursued a “catalytic” strategy: set ambitious goals, mobilize front-runners to point the way for others and iterate over time.

While relatively successful compared with previous years of gridlock, this strategy struggles with the hardest cases — industries, workers and countries with little to gain and a lot to lose from decarbonization.

Rather than try to defeat vested interests, it might be easier to help them find a new way to survive. For example, activists are persuading some investors to shun fossil fuel companies, but how much effort is going into helping these companies reinvent themselves as green? The two strategies — divestment and diversification — are complementary.

Indeed, the climate movement has arguably harmed itself by not paying enough early attention to generating alternatives for workers in carbon-intensive sectors. That’s why “just transition” — the notion that social groups that lose from decarbonization need to be treated fairly — is becoming a shibboleth of climate activists and will be a central theme at this year’s UN climate conference in coal-dependent Poland.

Yet diversification and retraining can only go so far. Environmentalists might need to grit their teeth and accept compensation for fossil fuel asset holders. This goes against our ethical instincts, which dictate “the polluter pays” — not “let’s pay the polluter.” But these buyouts may be justified in pursuit of a larger goal. After all, this is exactly how Britain abolished slavery throughout its empire in the 19th century, with taxpayers transferring wealthy landowners the equivalent of 10 percent of GDP for the loss of their “property.”
Early action is essential

Thinking ahead about climate strategies will also pay off. Sectors such as insurance, real estate and agriculture will be hurt by climate change, and so they have reason to fight it. Because impacts are uncertain and in the future, we can expect them to fight hardest only when it is too late to prevent the worst effects of climate change. Instead, they will tend to seek short-term fixes like building sea walls or moving to more hospitable environments, or even more radical alternatives like geoengineering.

Delaying action on climate will hurt the economy and create new demands on taxpayers for expensive, reactive measures. These outcomes can be avoided only to the extent climate-vulnerable interests can be mobilized before they feel the impact. NGOs and politicians might be more effective if they can mobilize groups like “Farmers against the next dust bowl” or “Palm Beach residents against hurricanes.”

The climate is changing faster than ever. Our politics are about to as well.

Thomas Hale is an associate professor in global public policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. Follow him @thomasnhale
Jessica F. Green is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and School of the Environment, University of Toronto. Follow her @greenprofgreen
Jeff D. Colgan is the Richard Holbrooke Associate Professor of Political Science and International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Follow him @JeffDColgan

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