Ogmius Newsletter

Research Highlight


Photo of Max BoykoffIn this issue of Ogmius we feature a description of a recent paper by Max Boykoff.  Max joined the University of Colorado this fall as an Environmental Studies faculty member sitting at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research. Before joining the Center, Max was a Research Fellow in the Environmental Change Institute (ECI) as well as a Department Lecturer in the School of Geography at the Oxford University Centre for the Environment. Max has ongoing interests in environmental governance, science and policy interactions, as well as political economics and the environment. He has experience working in North America, Central America, and Europe. From 2006-2008, Max was a James Martin 21st Century Research Fellow at the University of Oxford ECI. Through this fellowship, he was involved in both the Climate Change Research Cluster and the Environmental Governance and Climate Policy groups. He holds a Ph.D. in Environmental Studies (with a parenthetical notation in Sociology) from the University of California-Santa Cruz and Bachelor of Sciences from The Ohio State University.

Discursive Stability Meets Climate Instability: A Critical Exploration of the Concept of ‘Climate Stabilization’ in Contemporary Climate Policy
By Max Boykoff

CO2Currently in press at the journal Global Environmental Change, co-authors David Frame (University of Oxford), Sam Randalls (University College London) and I critically explore the concept of ‘climate stabilization’ in contemporary climate policy. We have titled the paper ‘Discursive stability meets climate instability’. The dominant framing of climate science and policy today involves this concept of ‘climate stabilization’. This has been described as the alteration of emissions profiles to adjust future concentrations of greenhouse gases and temperature at some specified point.

Many factors contributed to the entrenchment of this concept in climate policy discourse beginning in the 1980s. In this paper we trace the factors that have contributed to the rise of this concept and the scientific ideas behind it. In particular, we explore how the stabilization-based discourse has become dominant through debates and developments in climate science, environmental economics and policymaking. That this discourse is tethered to contemporary policy proposals is unsurprising; but that it has remained relatively free of critical scrutiny can be associated with fears of unsettling often-tenuous political processes taking place at multiple scales. It was a science-policy hybrid that emerged within the context of debates at that time, using then available modes of reasoning, models and arguments. What’s more, it was a discourse that may have contributed to increased political will to act on climate change.

However, in the paper we argue that this ‘climate stabilization’ discourse is problematic in terms of its fundamental premise as well as the connected policy proposals. We posit that the fundamental premises behind stabilization targets are badly matched to the actual problem of the intergenerational management of climate change, scientifically and politically, and destined to fail. By extension, we argue that policy proposals for climate stabilization are problematic, infeasible, and hence impede more productive policy action on climate change.

Aiming for atmospheric temperature and/or CO2 concentration targets, and then inferring an emissions path is challenging. Among the complicating factors, many different emissions paths and CO2 concentrations are possible within associated carbon cycle uncertainty. Similarly, through factors such as uncertainty in system parameters, a range of forcings are compatible with a given temperature response. In essence, this process is like trying to work out characteristics of a person from their footprint on a beach. As a result, we argue that policy proposals for ‘stabilization’, as currently framed, draw upon problematic sets of inferences. It can be misleading for policy makers to think that atmospheric temperature and CO2 concentration targets are achievable. We suggest that policy efforts to ‘stabilize’ the climate have actually distracted from more productive efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and decarbonize industry and society.

We posit that this current framing of the climate problem for mitigation actions matters not only discursively, but materially in terms of funding and prioritizing mitigation projects. Ultimately, we are calling for a rethink of the unachievable aims of ‘climate stabilization’. There are clear gains associated with an expansion of the range of possible policy framings of the problem. This reconsideration is likely to help us more capably and dynamically achieve more tangible goals of de-carbonization and energy modernization. In so doing, we can diminish anthropogenic contributions to climate change.

Max Boykoff