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Where Political Science Can Help Us Deal with Climate Change
Sand dunes in Namibia's vast Namib Desert. (U.S. Geological Survey)

Where Political Science Can Help Us Deal with Climate Change

Political science has been slow to grapple with climate change, but it can play a critical role in addressing obstacles to nation-wide action. Francis Fukuyama's latest.

Francis Fukuyama

My discipline, political science, has been slow to grapple with climate change. As noted in a previous post, the vast bulk of literature on the climate issues is either mobilizational—meaning, intended to scare people about the seriousness of the problem—technical in nature, or it focuses on international agreements. Less attention has been paid to national-level obstacles to action. There are specific areas in this realm where political science could be of use.

One of the key issues is whether to focus political energies on mitigation or adaptation. Our current “science of politics” is said to be much more suited to dealing with the latter, since the need to adapt is staring us in the face today. The New York Times recently described a fight between states in the western United States that hinges on a reallocation of water from the shrinking Colorado River when the current agreement runs out at the end of January 2023. Can the states agree, or must the federal government move in to impose a solution, and if it does, what legal appeals will there be? This is a purely political question.

Many people, like Princeton’s Bob Keohane in a 2014 lecture to the American Political Science Association, argued that focusing on adaptation is an easy out, since mitigation is a more urgent priority. Mitigation is a “wicked” problem for obvious reasons: reducing fossil fuel use and shifting to alternatives is very costly, while the benefits arising from action will accrue to people outside the nation’s borders, and to future generations who do not vote in current elections. There is also a huge temptation to free ride on other countries’ actions, or use their inaction as an excuse for one’s own failure to act. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

This basic structure of incentives has been understood for a long time, and I’m not sure there have been any brilliant suggestions for how to reorder them. Many countries have realized that negative incentives like draconian carbon taxes and limitations on economic output are very unpopular and hard to enforce. Positive subsidies for R&D and for switching to alternatives are easier to implement, and have been embedded in policies like cap-and-trade and the Inflation Reduction Act passed by the U.S. Congress last year. The shift towards talk of net zero goals places the burden of action on private firms and financial institutions rather than governments, firms that can take advantage of rapidly falling prices for alternative energy. But while everyone wants to signal virtue in this regard, the real impact of such initiatives is hard to measure, and “greenwashing” is widespread. The result is slowness to act.

In my view, the realm in which political science can be most helpful is institutional design, which will apply to both mitigation and adaptation. Adaptation requires societies to build things like reservoirs and sea walls, or to relocate coastal communities that are no longer viable due to sea level rise. But mitigation requires building a lot of stuff as well. Electrification of the vehicle fleet requires recharging stations, new wind and solar farms, facilities for storing energy and manufacturing batteries, and an electrical grid that can carry clean power to where it is needed. All of these activities are subject to politics and political constraints that need to be overcome.

Political institutions are created to mitigate conflict and promote collective decision-making. They need to balance the need for collective goods like climate mitigation against the requirements of democratic legitimacy and fidelity to the rule of law. Institutions can be structured in a wide variety of ways: on the one hand, they can concentrate power in a small number of decision-makers—indeed, in a single decision-maker in an authoritarian regime like China—or they can spread authority out in different ways to get better democratic buy-in and accountability. At the far end of the spectrum from Chinese authoritarianism is what I have labeled “vetocracy,” in which authority to veto initiatives is so widespread that nothing gets done. I would put forward my home state of California as an example of the latter.

Climate mitigation and adaptation will both require societies to make big, costly, and consequential decisions. The world of advanced liberal democracies has tended to emphasize protection of individuals and well-organized stakeholders (a.k.a. interest groups) over collective action that is broadly beneficial to the society.

There is in fact a good deal of variance in institutional design among liberal democracies that facilitates decisive action in some and not others. The classic British Westminster system, for example, has been described as a “democratic dictatorship” by combining a parliamentary system with a first-past-the-post electoral system. That allows British governments to enjoy decisive parliamentary majorities on the basis of a bare plurality of the popular vote. The only real check on the government’s power is the media and public opinion, which can throw the government out at the next election if it doesn’t approve of its behavior.

This contrasts with the American system, whose Constitution has deliberately created a whole series of institutional checks on executive authority. These include a judiciary that can invalidate legislation, the delegation of significant powers to states and localities, a bureaucracy with divided powers not under the executive’s complete control, and other institutional rules outside the Constitution that distribute veto power very widely. As an example, one of the big differences between the United States and other liberal democracies is its widespread use of the “right of private action” to enforce environmental laws. That is, such laws are enforced not by the state itself, but by private individuals suing other entities purportedly on behalf of the environment. This creates huge problems both with the predictability of what environmental rules actually are, and in the society’s ability to sensibly trade off collective goods against individual interests. This is an issue I will return to in a future blog post.

We do not need to imitate China and cease being a liberal democracy in order to deal with climate change. Many other advanced democracies are better suited to collective action on this front than the United States is. What we need is to carefully rethink our institutions and build on what we know about effective institutional design.

ClimateEnvironmentPolitical PhilosophyFrankly Fukuyama