Alternate Title

Five Considerations for Twenty-First Century Climate Policy


Climate Policy, Environmental Law


As the twenty-first century advances, society is entering a new phase regarding climate change. Impacts of climate change are becoming more salient in the present, rather than being only far-off in the future. Progress on flattening—and in many affluent countries, reducing—greenhouse gas emissions is also becoming salient, though the progress underperforms international targets. Slowing economic growth and major technological and geopolitical disruptions are creating new challenges and uncertainties. One of these challenges is a political climate of deep divisions and rising distrust in fact-finding institutions—a climate that is ripe for demagoguery. In the United States and some other countries, the issue of climate change has become divisive and has been wielded rhetorically by demagogic political figures and movements on both extremes of the political spectrum. This Article outlines five important considerations for climate policy in this new phase of the twenty-first century, focusing on both the global and the U.S. contexts. (1) Mid-range emissions and warming scenarios are most plausible. In contrast, the science and public discourse of climate change has often focused on extremes. Focusing instead on plausible scenarios offers opportunities to consider important nuances and tradeoffs, and to de-polarize the discourse. (2) Economic growth and income convergence will continue but will probably be slower than previously expected. Continuing economic growth and income convergence would portend continuing improvements throughout the century, in many—if not most—measures of human well-being broadly across the world. However, growth and convergence underperforming expectations could create challenges for climate finance, climate politics, and adaptation to climate change impacts. (3) Major investments are needed in mitigation, adaptation, and carbon removal. The public discourse of climate change has often been hyper-focused on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions (i.e., mitigation). Mitigation is important and requires major investments, but realistic paths to carbon neutrality and minimizing climate risks to society also require major investments in adaptation and carbon removal. (4) The United States needs a bipartisan approach. Becoming carbon neutral will require changes to every aspect of society, implemented and sustained over decades, and supported by all levels of government. There is simply no realistic path to achieving such changes without cooperation of both parties. Recent research suggests there are opportunities for bipartisanship and common ground. (5) Catastrophism and utopianism carry underappreciated risks. The risks of complacency and inaction on climate change are becoming better understood, but policymakers and the public should also understand the risks to utopianism and catastrophism, which are responsible for some of history’s worst atrocities. As climate consciousness increases and political divisions harden, the risks of climate catastrophism and utopianism could increase.



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