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Is Climate Pragmatism a Climate Strategy?

by Michael Levi
July 26, 2011

A new paper sponsored by the Breakthrough Institute and signed by a pretty diverse group of fourteen analysts and academics is starting to get some buzz from some of my favorite people in the blogosphere. Climate Pragmatism, which is well worth reading, makes two basic points. First, internationally, we’re heading (or at least should be heading) away from a focus on universal and binding treaties to a more heterogeneous and less law obsessed approach. I’m all for that, and hope that they’re right. I have a much bigger problem, though, with the second thrust of their argument, which basically boils down to a call to stop thinking about climate change and instead pursue policies with climate co-benefits that appear to be attractive in their own rights. Specifically, they want more spending on energy innovation and disaster resilience, and they want more regulation aimed at addressing conventional pollution.

That’s all well and good, though I’m not as optimistic as they are that the wellspring of bipartisan enthusiasm for government spending and environmental regulation that they’re aiming to tap exists. My problem is that their sleight of hand obscures the fact that their strategy – even if it’s successful – is likely to leave us with some really big climate problems. They do not attempt, even casually, to estimate the consequences of following their strategy. There’s a good reason for that: There is no evidence that an innovation focused approach can make zero-carbon energy so attractive that it displaces fully amortized coal plants, or even new ones. There is no indication that a climate-blind resilience strategy would help poor countries prepare for climatic developments like the massive falls in agricultural productivity that might accompany sharply changing temperatures and weather patterns, but that wouldn’t arise otherwise. There is no analysis showing that plausible regulations on conventional pollutants won’t simply encourage the deployment of better (or retrofitted) traditional coal fired power plants in too many cases.

The authors of the report will reply that the status quo approach doesn’t solve any of these problems either, and they’re right. But that’s not the point: just as it would be incorrect for anyone to claim that the status quo approach is up to the task of dealing with the climate problem, it’s wrong to imply that the Climate Pragmatism approach is up to it either. The authors will also claim that their approach can build momentum – but momentum toward what? More innovation policy? More resilience policy? Presumably not more climate-focused action. Alas, there’s no point to building momentum unless you’ve got somewhere you’re hoping to go.

Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against doing the things that the Climate Pragmatism authors recommend. It may even be true that society can’t do much more. But if that’s the case, we need to admit the full implications, so that we can start preparing to deal with the consequences. I’m a huge fan of pragmatism, but pragmatism shouldn’t be an excuse to detach strategy from ultimate objectives. Alas, a strategy that largely does away with climate goals might not really be a climate strategy after all.

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