Regulating Climate Change

Posted on February 20, 2014 by Annette Kovar

As I sit in my thankfully warm office on a frigidly cold winter day, I ponder the difficulty of regulating the environmental consequences of climate change. Whether a true believer or a science skeptic, it is hard not to wonder what happens if global warming believers are right. Isn’t it a good idea to work to improve air quality regardless and be ahead of the curve if systematic warming proves a fact?

Even that fairly cautious, deliberative body, the United State Supreme Court, in its 5-4 decision in Massachusetts v. EPA, made quick work of EPA’s reasons for inaction in deciding that EPA could regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. The reader may recall that the State of Massachusetts, along with other entities, challenged EPA’s decision that the agency had no authority to regulate carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases. EPA had argued that even if the agency had authority, it could not practically regulate greenhouse gas emissions in a meaningful way to address global climate change. Thus EPA had decided to exercise discretion by not regulating—based on foreign policy considerations such as not putting the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage.

The majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, in rejecting this rationale, was favorably disposed toward taking incremental steps on climate change. The Court said: “Agencies, like legislatures, do not generally resolve massive problems in one fell regulatory swoop (citation omitted). They instead whittle away at them over time, refining their preferred approach as circumstances change and as they develop a more-nuanced understanding of how best to proceed.” Perhaps, in other words, one has to start somewhere. To its credit, EPA then initiated regulatory steps to do just that but has largely been hindered at every step by further legal challenges.

The old adage “Think globally, but act locally,” long touted in land use politics and grassroots environmental movements, might also test the global climate change debate about how best to address this collective problem. It should not come as any great surprise that efforts to address climate change globally have met with limited success. Why should one nation-state undertake costly reform while others continue as usual? One only has to look at how difficult it has been to get “started” regulating greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. with the push-back from some states, regulated utilities, and global warming skeptics in general.

The New York Times recently reported about a new study on China’s “export” of pollution that focuses on the economics and trade implications on a global scale. That was followed by the recent announcement by the European Union, with an activist record on climate change, that it intends to scale back some of its climate change goals and regulations—citing economic problems like high energy costs and declining industrial competitiveness as reasons. The U.S. continues to raise climate change issues in its diplomatic dialogues and trade discussions with other countries, but it is hard to gain much leverage when the U.S. is unwilling to make commitments to the global community in the same way other industrialized countries have.

If the global problem seems so insurmountable, how can we get much traction taking those incremental steps on a national, state and local level? I am an advocate for addressing climate change—I just don’t know how to persuade the skeptics, if the current science doesn’t convince them. Perhaps taking a second look at economic incentives would help us draft better, fairer regulations that create greater motivation for regional and local initiatives—like carbon trading and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the northeastern U.S. It is usually better to frame things via positive incentives. Use carrots rather than sticks.

Two other Times stories also caught my eye. One story was about corporations like Coca-Cola and Nike awakening to the threat of climate change because of a growing realization that weather conditions causing drought and crop failures will ultimately affect their bottom lines. They needed to plan for water scarcity. That reminded me of how the clothing corporations, a while back, were scrutinized for their overseas labor practices and started expressing interest in human rights—arguably with a view to their future bottom line profits. While the impact of the current stories is debatable, public attention may bring consumers and stakeholders into the debate. Some companies are worried about consumer boycotts after bad publicity; better to be ahead of the curve, improve labor rights or use of natural resources, avoid consumer wrath, and protect profits via change now. So both the soft drink industry and particularly clothiers were looking to the future, trying to anticipate negatives.

The other story was about the political debate over flood insurance and who should bear the risk of building in flood zones, another perceived cost of climate change. Broadening public attention to these climate change issues and the  probable dire consequences of no action should help improve the political and regulatory debate. The Obama administration's announced creation of seven regional “climate hubs” to help farmers and rural communities understand the potential consequences of climate change may be just such a new strategy.

So where does this leave me? Still stymied, but hopeful that by broadening my perspective I might yet see allies and alternatives on how regulating climate change might move forward, even incrementally. Two rules of thumb: 1) anticipate probable future negatives and head them off now, and 2) find more carrots and rely less on sticks. By the way, did I mention that I am a state regulator but my remarks are my own?



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