More Cart and Horse

May 23rd, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The actions of municipalities in the U.S. and several major companies to respond to human caused climate change by reducing their green house emissions has caused some to suggest that these decision makers have been persuaded by science to change their behaviors. But what if this interpretation of their actions is incorrect?

Surely some people do undergo “data induced transformations” of their policy commitments when presented with new information. But it is probably just as if not more likely that, as Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay have observed, “people generally come to their beliefs about how the world works long before they encounter facts.” Such distinctions matter because they shape how people think about science in the politics of climate change. For many people the challenge of climate change is to convince “skeptics” or the uniformed of the scientific consensus on climate change under an expectation that such convincing will invariably lead to certain actions. But what if support for action on climate change has origins in factors other than knowledge of science? (Or alternatively, what if battling over science actually hinders effective policy?)

Consider the following two vignettes:

1. From The Economist last week is this interesting quote from Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of GE: “We are investing in environmentally cleaner technology because we believe it will increase our revenue, our value and our profits… Not because it is trendy or moral, but because it will accelerate our growth and make us more competitive.”

2. Michele Betsill at Colorado State University has studied cities and climate change. She writes in a 2001 paper,

“The experience of CCP [Cities for Climate Protection (CCP) campaign sponsored by the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives] communities indicates that global climate change is most likely to be reframed as a local issue when city officials recognise that actions to control GHG emissions also address other local concerns already on their agendas. Localisation requires the prior existence of a local hook on which to hang the issue of global climate change. Localising global climate change is an important first step in developing a municipal response to global warming; it helps generate political support for reducing local GHG emissions. However, not all communities are able to move from reframing to policy action. There are several institutional barriers that make it difficult for cities to develop and implement policies and programmes for mitigating climate change: the issue does not fit the way most city governments organise themselves; many city governments lack the administrative capacity to monitor their GHG emissions; and there are often budgetary constraints that make it difficult to invest in emissions reduction activities. Ultimately, motivating local action to mitigate global climate change calls for an indirect strategy, focused on the ways in which emissions-producing activities are embedded in broader community concerns (Rayner & Malone, 1997). The primary benefit of an indirect approach is that it avoids many of the political debates about climate change science that have plagued international efforts to address this issue (Sarewitz & Pielke, 2000). Several officials noted that it really does not matter whether global climate change science is credible. Since the emphasis is on how reducing GHG emissions can help the city address other (more pressing) problems, questions of the scientific basis for climate change rarely come up. When and if they do, city officials can easily reply that these are actions they should take anyway.”

Cart or horse matters a great deal for how we think about, use and prioritize science and advocacy on climate change. Framing has practical implications, and climate change, and the dominant framing of climate change may not be particularly effective from the standpoints of science or action. We have something to learn from the case of policy responses to ozone depletion. The lessons of policy responses to ozone depletion are often characterized as the cart leading the horse, but in reality, the horse did in fact lead the cart. See this paper (PDF) by Pielke and Betsill, which presents a perspective on the lessons of the ozone case.

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