Solving Climate Risk Requires Normative Change

by Cary Coglianese

Finding solutions to climate risk is really easy. At least it is conceptually easy. With climate risks increasing due to the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, risks can be addressed by reducing the accumulation of gases. That can occur either by reducing new emissions or by pulling gases out of the atmosphere, such as by preserving existing forests or planting new ones to absorb carbon.

Of course, if it is so easy to identify the necessary solutions, why has humanity made so little progress in mitigating climate risks? At one point in time, delayed responsiveness might have been said to stem from uncertainties in the science or from a lack of clarity in how to design public policies. But by now, neither of these explanations holds real weight. Although scientists can always learn more, the parameters of the problem and its causes have been more than adequately studied to justify swift, major action. And, as evidenced by this series of essays organized by the Wharton Risk Center, the world hardly lacks concrete policy ideas about how to respond.

What is lacking is neither information nor imagination, but the necessary impetus. Any solution, after all, will be costly. Solving climate risks—heat, droughts, floods, storms, agricultural losses, and so on—will require reducing consumption, investing in new energy sources, changing lifestyles, or making other transitions with important associated costs. As a result, any current industries and individuals with a stake in the status quo—and thus presumably holding political and economic advantage in their countries and around the world—can be expected to resist the necessary changes. This is because, one way or the other, climate risk solutions will demand those who are contributing to the problem to “internalize their externalities.” That is, they must start paying costs to reduce the spillover harms they impose on others, namely those who suffer the ravages of climate change.

Of course, spillovers are neither novel nor irremediable from the standpoint of public policy. For decades, environmental regulation has imposed standards on industrial firms, compelling them to assume the costs for spillovers from other types of pollutants and to work to reduce them. This is not to say that enforcing environmental regulation has been easy or always successful. But it is to say that the policy tools exist to require the internalization of externalities. The methods for internalizing externalities are not rocket science. Yet with respect to climate change, the challenges associated with using the methods seem profound. Climate change has been properly characterized as a “wicked” policy problem because it exhibits at least three qualitative differences from other environmental problems.

First, the scope of contributors to climate change vastly exceeds the scope for any other environmental problem. Climate change is a collective action problem on steroids. It not only is a global environmental problem requiring cooperation across many nations, but it is a deeply individually sourced problem to which virtually everyone contributes. In fundamental ways, the problem stems from actions each of us takes to secure shelter, provide food, and satisfy transportation needs. Even if the contribution of any one person is de minimus in its own right, each individual’s impact adds up. Solving the climate problem requires coordinating behavioral change across the vast majority of the world’s population. Each nation, as with each individual, will have an incentive to free ride on the efforts of others. Or they will at least ask themselves why they should accept the burden of reducing greenhouse gases when doing so will not yield substantial benefits until everyone else does the same.

Second, the kind of institutions most readily equipped to solve collective action problems like climate change simply do not exist at the international level. If climate risks were just regional or national in scope, it might still not be a piece of cake to solve them. But at least once political support developed to address these problems, there would exist necessary legal and regulatory institutions at the domestic level of government that could be used to make a collective choice stick. Such institutions would provide the incentives and assurance needed to convince most businesses and other actors to take costly steps. But such institutions do not exist on the international stage, which is why climate policies adopted in recent years have appeared at the national, regional, state, and even local levels. This is also why the Paris Agreement was structured to depend on each country to follow through on its own commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, despite the existence of the Paris Agreement and numerous local and national climate policies, the steroidal nature of climate change’s collective action problem means that these current bottom-up efforts are still neither substantial nor widespread enough to address climate risks adequately.

Finally, although the manifestations of climate risks in storms, floods, and fires are all palpable, the connection between those risks and climate change is facially invisible to publics around the world. Even “climate” is not visible. It is an abstraction; no one can look outside the window of their house and observe a global mean temperature. As a result, building the kind of public support needed to adopt meaningful policies has been more difficult for climate change than for other pollution problems that can be tangibly seen or smelled. Greenhouse gases are not noxious fumes; humans even exhale carbon dioxide. Moreover, these gases also do not cause harm by directly affecting humans or the air they breathe. Rather, it is only by their accumulation in the upper atmosphere and a subsequent complex chain of interactions that they ultimately change climatic conditions in ways that increase the likelihood or severity of droughts, floods, fires, diseases, and the like.

In short, climate risks have proven especially difficult to address because they stem from a deep and pervasive collective action predicament, one in which relatively few people have an incentive to bear substantial mitigation costs alone. That predicament also arises in a setting that lacks necessary institutional capacity and makes it harder to build public support for policy action. Climate change is truly a “wicked” problem.

What, then, is the path forward? The fundamental solution must address the “wicked” structure of the climate problem and find a way to overcome the structural barriers to policy action. This will not be a solution at the level of, say, a choice between carbon taxes or cap-and-trade systems. Or one at the level of many of the excellent ideas assembled by the Wharton Risk Center. These are all important policy options, to be sure, but sufficiently strong policy measures ultimately demand a public drive for climate action that overcomes self-interested resistance.

Political scientist Michael Jones-Correa is exactly right when he writes that “climate change is as much a political problem as it is a scientific or technical one.” What is fundamentally needed is change in how people perceive climate risks and society’s responsibility for addressing them. In other words, the solution to climate change lies with normative change. It must become viewed as normatively unacceptable for nations and their leaders to overlook the suffering, mortality, disease, and property damage that climate change exacerbates. Just as societies invest in crime control, the provision of social services, and other public measures that today seem unthinkable for government not to provide, so too must societies demand, as a moral necessity, strong climate policies that include investments in modifying energy systems, agricultural practices, and other facets of society that contribute to climate change.

Normative change will hardly be easy to bring about. There exists no definitive checklist or formula. In other contexts, some value changes can be sudden, while others are long in coming. Some normative change requires bold efforts at public mobilization, even at the cost of violent struggle, while other change occurs relatively subtly or gradually, such as with changing social acceptability of public smoking in the 1980s in the United States.

With respect to climate change, normative change might be helped by visible rallies, protests, or strikes, such as those organized by young people around the world in recent years. It may be helped by media coverage of other symbolic efforts, such as Greta Thunberg’s recent trip across the Atlantic Ocean in a sailboat instead of an airplane. It may be helped by increased media attention to natural disasters and their plausible linkage to climate change. It may be helped by linguistic choices made by elites, such as the decision made by some media outlets to begin using terms such as “climate crisis” instead of “climate change.” It may be helped by the messages of corporate and political leaders, especially highly publicized “conversions” by those who previously had been climate skeptics or who rise above their or their firms’ seeming self-interest.

We cannot be certain what exact actions—or, more precisely, what combination of actions—it will take to reach a tipping point where norms become deeply embedded and sufficiently widespread. One difficulty in reaching that tipping point is that normative commitments to climate action appear to be associated with deeply engrained worldviews and ideological predispositions. The cultural and political polarization evident in many countries around the world means that protests and other efforts to build norms in support of climate responsibility are met with countervailing efforts to resist normative change. This dialectic nature of the battle over norms is exemplified in the fact that President Obama’s leadership achievement with the Paris Agreement was soon followed by the election of President Trump, who then announced that the United States would be pulling out of the Paris Agreement. Getting people to change their hearts and minds is especially tough when ideology, culture, and self-interest stands in the way.

Normative change also takes time. Consider the shift in public attitudes about LGBTQ rights. That shift is often said to exemplify one of the most rapid changes in public norms ever to have occurred. As recently as 2004, public opinion polls in the United States showed that Americans opposed same-sex marriage by a two-to-one margin. But now, fifteen years later, public opinion has flipped, with Americans supporting same-sex marriage by a two-to-one margin. Yet, as fast as that change has occurred, the struggle for LGBTQ rights hardly began in 2004. Almost fifty years passed between the uprising at the Stonewall Inn in New York and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision recognizing a right of same-sex couples to marry.

Waiting another fifty years may seem like waiting an eternity with respect to climate action. Yet sufficient normative change could plausibly take even longer than fifty years. As long as addressing climate change requires shifting energy systems or changing consumption patterns, normative change will need to overcome self-interested resistance to change. Furthermore, normative change with respect to climate issues must take hold around the world for it to have a meaningful effect. By contrast, recognition of same-sex marriage rights never imposed any costs on those whose attitudes needed to change.

The need to combat self-interest on a global basis might suggest that the trajectory of normative change related to climate could take as long as other norm changes—perhaps even centuries. After all, when it came to changing norms about slavery, a process that started robustly  in the early 19th century, global action was also needed to abolish an international slave trade, and opponents of slavery needed to overcome opposition by slaveholders and anyone who relied on their cheap products. Today, despite the passage of a century and a half since the conclusion of the U.S. Civil War and the abolition of slavery, illegal human trafficking tragically still persists. Of course, so does the racism that supported slavery. Will norm change with respect to climate be doomed to a similar drawn-out struggle?”

Climate change does have one difference that may make normative change occur more rapidly: its risks are not unchanging. The longer it takes to solve climate risks, the more costly they will become. Sooner or later, the public will start to realize that the costs of the status quo exceed the costs of shifting to new energy systems and undertaking other climate mitigation efforts. With luck, this realization will occur sooner rather than later. Otherwise, by the time the pressures for normative change align with a broader public understanding of its real self-interested stake in mitigating climate change, it may be too late, even if this confluence of values and interests occurs in the next decade or two. Already forecasts portend catastrophic climatic risks in little more than a decade. Even if all new emissions of greenhouse gases could somehow be halted tomorrow, the gases already in the atmosphere will not dissipate for some time to come.

In the end, the solution to climate risks may come down to a matter of timing. Normative change—the only solution that can fundamentally overcome the structural edifice underlying climate change as a collective action problem on steroids—might not occur quickly enough to forestall significant climatic change and the ravages it will bring. If that is true, then the best hope may rest not with politics or morality but with some heretofore unknown technological cure-all: a breakthrough that either delivers cheap, climate-friendly energy, or, better still, could extract greenhouse gases from the atmosphere or counteract their warming effects—all without creating other harmful effects. But identifying that solution is really hard.

Cary Coglianese is the Edward B. Shils Professor of Law and professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where he is also director of the Penn Program on Regulation.