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Carbon Lock-In: Climate Change And Political Science

By Bill Henderson

15 August, 2010

"We desperately need a new way of thinking, a new mind-set. The thinking that got us into this bind will not get us out. When Elizabeth Kolbert, a writer for the New Yorker, asked energy guru Amory Lovins about thinking outside the box, Lovins responded: “There is no box.”

"There is no box. That is the mind-set we need if civilization is to survive."
Lester Brown

Except denial is the box we remain within.

The concept of policy space and the constraints upon modern governments - especially how path dependence keeps governments on policy paths formed decades ago - was the foremost lesson I learned as a forest activist way back there in the hopeful decades at the end of the century.

I'm hoping that political scientists will speak out and make carbon lock-in visible - how it severely constrains emission reduction policies.  Carbon lock-in must be made understandable to all in government so that the futility of certain emission strategies is undeniable.

"The United States suffers from a severe case of what my Thunderbird colleague Gregory Unruh termed years ago "carbon lock-in." Carbon lock-in refers to the self-perpetuating inertia created by interlocking institutional forces and cultural norms that inhibit efforts to develop alternative energy systems.

"In other words, we're stuck with carbon-producing fossil fuels because any alternative would create an immediate loss to many actors, private and public: from energy companies to automobile manufacturers, transportation operators, regulators and even consumers, who have developed a fossil-fuel dependent lifestyle. The pain of any tax on carbon would be certain, personal and immediate, while the benefits of a shift toward alternative energies would be long-term, uncertain and shared. This market and policy failure is more severe in the U.S. than elsewhere because the stakes here are higher. The answer to "Who is most respo nsible?" cannot be other than "all of the above."     Angel Cabrera

Unfortunately Mr. Cabrera (like Bill McKibben in his latest much talked about op- ed and as part of 1SKY ) then goes on to advocate building a broad social  (politically effective) movement:

"Unlocking the U.S. economy from carbon won't be easy. According to Unruh, "social change often precedes institutional change in democratic societies" because of the inherent difficulties in transforming institutions (let alone interdependent, mutually supporting institutional systems). Change can likely be only initiated by a broad social movement. If so, the best thing political leaders can do is to facilitate the emergence of such movement through education and awareness campaigns and by trying to be more precise about the tangible costs of not doing anything."

Except there is no time to build such a movement. This is denial.  100% carbon emissions reduction by 2020 is the ballpark emission reduction target required of 20 tonne plus annual individual carbon footprint countries: the US, Canada and Australia.

(100% by 2020: a ballpark emission reduction target for countries like the US and Canada with large carbon footprints based upon global carbon budget science; melting Arctic icecap as tipping point science; and pace of temperature increase negative effects on biodiversity and ecosystems science. A more detailed and citation explanation here , below the graph.)

There isn't time enough to build a climate change movement to push effective legislation through US governments. Such a movement has to overcome how carbon lock-in shapes the policy space. To advocate for such a futile strategy is denial.  Movements such as 350.org, while certainly worthwhile for many reasons, are time wasting ineffectual given carbon lock-in.

But there is time to explain to those in government (and other power positions) the predicament we are in and what needs to be done. Make carbon lock-in visible; and quantify the limits (impossibility?) of needed emission reduction within continuing political and economic business as usual.

Concentrate on those (governors, senators, premiers, etc) who do know the science and understand the urgency of the climate danger. Instead of praising for tiny baby steps, for minimal emission reduction targets and action, point out the difference between what is scientifically necessary and what is politically possible. Force these leaders to be leaders in acknowledging carbon lock-in and society wide denial and the need to act in due diligence to future generations. Force and empower these leaders to take the big steps to where needed emission reduction becomes possible.

Somewhere, sometime soon, a political leader is going to be pushed across the Rubicon to actually doing something commensurate with the real climate change danger. He or she will shut down their coal or dirty oil industries or introduce Draconian rationing or form a wartime-style coalition government to proactively re-configure their economy.

They will break the present impasse of politicians trapped in political and economic business as usual and send a signal to the world about how serious climate change really is, about climate change's urgent, emergency nature, and about the presently difficult massive systemic change that needs to happen if we are to pull back from approaching tipping points to unimaginable tragedy.

Mr. Cabrera was answering a question about who was to blame for US climate change inaction but I think the better question is how will future generations judge us for staying in  an orthodoxy where there was no chance of effective mitigation. I think that the political science community has important information about what emission reduction is possible if we stay in BAU and about alternative governance pathways if climate change is an emergency.

Carbon lock-in has been investigated as an obstacle to development of alternative energy and as an impediment to needed change in transport .

Denial is the box we're in (but not Lester Brown ). There can be no effective mitigation of climate change if we don't escape carbon lock-in - escape political and economic BAU.

"The evolutionary paradigm is different from the conventional optimization paradigm popular in economics in at least four important respects (Arthur 1988): 1) evolution is path dependent, meaning that the detailed history and dynamics of the system are important; 2) evolution can achieve multiple equilibria; 3) there is no guarantee that optimal efficiency or any other optimal performance will be achieved due in part to path dependence and sensitivity to perturbations; and 4) ‘lock-in' (survival of the first rather than survival of the fittest) is possible under conditions of increasing returns. While, as Arthur (1988) notes "conventional economic theory is built largely on the assumption of diminishing returns on the margin (local negative feedbacks)" life itself can be characterized as a positive feedback, self-reinforcing, autocatalytic process (Kay 1991, Gźnther and Folke 1993) and we should expect increasing returns, lock-in, path dependence, multiple equilibria and sub-optimal efficiency to be the rule rather than the exception in economic and ecological systems."

Costanza et al. Modeling Complex Ecological Economic Systems. BioScience 1993

"From the onset, the potential for environmental advances was restricted by certain fundamental realities. Most of these could be linked to policy legacies, and particularly to the accumulated momentum of what we have called the liquidation-conversion project. As Robert Putnam reminds us, institutions and policies have historical trajectories: ‘History matters because it is "path dependent"; what comes first (even if it was in some sense "accidental") conditions what comes later. Individuals may "choose" their institutions, but they do not choose them under circumstances of their own making, and their choices in turn influence the rules within which their successors choose'. The liquidation-conversion project gathered momentum as more and more workers, investors, suppliers, and governmental officials acquired a stake in maintaining or increasing timber harvesting rates. This momentum increased as workers set down roots, as businesses designed to serve forest companies and workers sprouted in forest dependent communities across the province, as logging contractors mortgaged their future to purchase rigs, as investors poured dollars into expanding logging and milling capacity, and as governmental bureaucracies set themselves up to monitor and facilitate the whole operation. The resulting pattern of dependency, and the associated political pressures, structured the policy space, established the boundaries between the politically feasible and unfeasible."

Jeremy Wilson Talk And Log

"….those who see forests primarily as sources of fibre and are committed to the commercial development of the resource remain on the policy track laid down after the Second World War. The forest industry and the ministry continue to implement what can be called the liquidation - conversion project, a set of policies aimed at achieving a controlled liquidation of old growth forests and their conversion into managed second growth plantations. Despite two decades of intense debate over forest policy, both harvest levels and the proportion of the harvest that is clearcut have increased dramatically since the 1970s. The busy air of policy innovation may simply mark the final stages of the liquidation - conversion project, amounting to nothing more than a sophisticated symbolic politics that serves to contain environmental opposition."

Ken Lertzman, Jeremy Rayner, Jeremy Wilson

Our present climate regime can be usefully understood as a point, an attractor, a system stability under pressure from the build up of greenhouse gases. The topography of both markets and policy change also has valleys and sinks. Path dependence severely limits change in markets and government's ability to even regulate properly let alone take decisive, interventionist action (except maybe when faced with a human enemy like a Hitler). Far from a level playing field where anything is possible, change is difficult and severely constrained down paths formed over decades in the past.

Our socio-economy has taken the fossil fuel path for generations. Reducing emissions quickly and at a necessary scale requires much more than mere incremental change within the present path. Getting to a clean energy economy requires a conscious choice of a new path and a plan to  escape the present path.

bill (at) pacificfringe.net