By Daniel Aldana Cohen
Are we doomed? It’s the most common thing people ask me when they learn that I study climate politics. Fair enough. The science is grim, as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just reminded us with a report on how hard it will be to keep average global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. But it’s the wrong question. Yes, the path we’re on is ruinous. It’s just as true that other, plausible pathways are not. That’s the real, widely ignored, and surprisingly detailed message of the IPCC report. We’re only doomed if we change nothing. The IPCC report makes it clear that if we make the political choice of bankrupting the fossil-fuel industry and sharing the burden of transition fairly, most humans can live in a world better than the one we have now.
And yet doom is what’s being amplified by seemingly every major newspaper and magazine, and the mainstream media more broadly. A standout example was David Wallace-Wells’s hot take on the IPCC report for New York magazine, charmingly titled, “UN Says Climate Genocide Is Coming. It’s Actually Worse Than That.” There’s a lot to say about the emotional texture of this kind of reporting. But the deeper problem is how this coverage fails to capture climate breakdown’s core cause-and-effect dynamic, thus missing how much scope for action there still is.
Taxing carbon is essential, but is just one of many complementary tools. Using “command and control” regulatory methods, the Clean Air Act cleaned up much of the United States years before “market mechanisms” became famous. Indeed, “command and control” is the centerpiece of the best climate policies in the United States. Take California: There, the state’s regulatory mandates forcing utilities to source more renewable energy are the main reason emissions have gone down. In contrast, the market-mechanism piece of California’s climate policy, a “cap and trade” program, has failed to slash emissions; it may even have facilitated a moderate increase in carbon pollution in the state’s poorest neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, worldwide, a thumping clean-energy revolution is the story of markets fostered by activist government policy. Government research labs and grants, regulation of utilities, subsidies for homeowners to install solar panels, cheap loans for clean energy, and electric-car manufacture are yielding a boom in clean energy.