Everything You Know About Climate Politics Is Wrong

For over a decade, millions of people worldwide have been marching for climate action, and voters across the political spectrum now support policies to curb global warming. So why hasn't more been done to stop the climate crisis?

by | Mar 6, 2020

Climate protester at London's Gatwick Airport, October 2019. (Credit: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images)

In his new book Carbon Captured: How Business and Labor Control Climate Politics (MIT Press), University of California, Santa Barbara political scientist Matto Mildenberger seeks explanations by analyzing the influence of carbon polluters on the governments of Australia, and Norway, and the United States, major greenhouse house gas emitters where policies to curb global warming have foundered. “Although written for political scientists…[Carbon Captured] also offers practical advice for policymakers and decarbonization advocates to exert bigger influence in our politics,” reads some of the advance praise for the book.

In this excerpt from Carbon Captured, Mildenberger describes these and other governments’ climate failures in stark terms, what drove them, and how some fundamental assumptions about politics must change in response.

Our governments have failed us. Once a distant threat to future generations, the climate crisis is now a problem for the here and now. You and I — absent extraordinary policy interventions — will experience economic and social hardship from climate change over our lifetimes. And our children will face profound suffering on an unrecognizable planet. The question is no longer whether we will experience collective loss, but just how severe these losses will be.

Worse, the problem of climate change has become harder to solve over time, not easier. Thirty years ago, a different future was available. Gradual climate policies could have slowly steered our economies toward gently declining carbon pollution levels. The costs to most citizens would have been imperceptible. That future is no longer available. Scientists estimate that our world can release 2,620 gigatons of carbon pollution into the atmosphere, relative to pre-industrial levels, before the climate warms to dangerous levels. Our society has already consumed 84 percent of this available carbon budget. And, with every passing year of policy inaction, more of our remaining budget is squandered. We must now decarbonize at a punishing pace.

At the same time, various ecological tipping points threaten to upend even the narrow mitigation pathways still available to us. For instance, warming soils could release as much carbon into the atmosphere each year as an industrialized economy the size of the United States. These biological feedbacks threaten to create runaway climate change that will overwhelm all but the most dramatic policy interventions. For human society to flourish in the twenty-first and twenty-second centuries, immediate, strong, and fast action is necessary.

This book provides a new diagnosis for an unfolding political and environmental catastrophe. It helps explain how carbon-intensive business and labor groups captured the climate policymaking process, endangering each of our lives. It describes how some policymaking efforts still succeeded despite entrenched opposition by carbon polluters. And it encourages us to rethink how political systems should confront the existential threat of climate change.

In this chapter, I revisit the received wisdom about climate politics in light of my empirical findings. Conventional accounts typically involve two claims. First, at the domestic level, carbon pricing policies are the best strategy to mitigate climate change. Second, at the international level, we should prioritize a binding global climate treaty that undermines free-riding incentives. I argue that both claims are misguided. Neither carbon pricing nor a binding climate treaty are viable strategies to stabilize the planet’s climate. Both proposals aim to reshape incentives to pollute. They assume that, once economic incentives change, the economic and political power of carbon polluters will decline. But both put the cart before the horse. We need to first disrupt the political power of carbon polluters before we can effectively reshape economic incentive structures.

In other words, carbon pricing and a binding climate treaty offer an improved equilibrium state of the world. But they do not offer a clear political pathway to reach this new policy equilibrium. Both policies are well suited for late stages in society’s decarbonization efforts. They may help lock in policy gains. They may help optimize carbon pollution reduction at the margins. But they are flawed strategies for the short term.

Instead of economic theory, we must center politics in climate policymaking. Economic considerations matter, but they cannot be the dominant lens through which climate policies are evaluated. In particular, we must move away from a focus on economic efficiency toward a focus on the distribution of political power. For example, from a political economy perspective, carbon pricing is flawed. Carbon pricing makes consumer and producer costs transparent without making economic or environmental benefits salient. This allows opponents to politicize public costs even when policies are designed to benefit the public. Consequently, ambitious carbon pricing policies will not pass until carbon polluter influence is weakened. Advocates may instead benefit from concentrating their short-term efforts on policies that weaken the political influence of powerful carbon polluters, not carbon pricing.

Three decades of global efforts to negotiate a global climate treaty suffered from a similar misunderstanding about policy sequencing. These efforts presumed that domestic policymaking would follow once the problem of global free-riding was solved. But this logic is also backwards. International negotiations will not reshape the distribution of political power domestically. Instead, effective climate negotiations require that domestic actors have already won difficult political conflicts at home. A binding global climate treaty can lock in domestic policy wins that have already occurred. It cannot solve the distributive conflict that has stymied most climate reforms over the past thirty years.

As carbon pricing and global negotiations falter, the loudest voices now begin to suggest we depoliticize climate change. Many scientists and policymakers argue that a threat as large as climate change requires society to transcend partisan and ideological conflict. This appeal is also misplaced. Carbon polluters will not voluntarily relinquish their power. Instead, climate reforms must pass in the presence of contentious politics. And the intensity of this political conflict will increase as faster and more disruptive decarbonization trajectories become necessary. Above all, climate change mitigation is a political act. We cannot move forward without a deep understanding of climate policy conflict. Unpacking the logic of that conflict has been this book’s goal.

Matto Mildenberger
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