Americans and Climate Change: Diffusion of responsibility I
"Americans and Climate Change: Closing the Gap Between Science and Action" (PDF) is a report synthesizing the insights of 110 leading thinkers on how to educate and motivate the American public on the subject of global warming. Background on the report here. I’ll be posting a series of excerpts (citations have been removed; see original report). If you’d like to be involved in implementing the report’s recommendations, or learn more, visit the Yale Project on Climate Change website.
This chapter is about the fact that no organization or institution bears responsibility for taking action on climate change. Everyone assumes someone else will do it. I’ve put the first section, which describes the problem, below. Tomorrow I’ll post the proposed solutions.
DIFFUSION OF RESPONSIBILITY
After evaluating the incentives operating within each of the eight societal domains represented at the Conference, it is now worthwhile to reassemble the pieces and identify patterns cutting across them. Doing so yields the sobering insight that we are experiencing diffusion of responsibility on climate change. While no single individual or domain can plausibly be expected to take solitary charge on this encompassing problem, many who could assume leadership appears to think it is someone else’s prerogative, or obligation, to do so. The result: a leadership vacuum.
Science and the Media
Evidence for the "diffusion of responsibility" thesis emerged most explicitly in the concurrent and then mixed discussions of scientists and news media professionals at the Conference. The scientists indicated that they and their peers are reticent at best about dancing with the media and, even when they are willing to try, often lack the media skills and training to do it effectively. Meanwhile, news media professionals said that they don’t see it as an appropriate role for themselves to draw the scientists out or coach them on how to make their work on climate change more accessible or conventionally newsworthy. They express sympathy for the problem, but are deeply wary of being seen as conspiring with any subject, including scientists, to get their story in the media. Few, if any, see it as their job to do media training — that, they say, is what public relations firms are for.
Media and Politics
Furthermore, news media professionals admit that they are unlikely to move climate change out of the "ghetto" of their respective newspapers’ science pages and put it on the political pages unless there are politicians championing the issue and generating a drumbeat of high-profile activity. Political leaders, for their part, are prone to follow the agenda-setting function of the news media: if a story is not already being covered with some volume and prominence, politicians are disinclined to respond to it and to instead favor topical issues that are being covered. Politicians see this as more than a matter of choice: their constituents expect them to comment and act on what they, in turn, are reading about in the media.
Business and Politics
Business leaders watch political leaders closely to anticipate and decode signals about their regulatory intentions on climate change and other issues. While the lack of national political leadership is frequently described as a key obstacle to meaningful action on climate change, some business leaders at the Conference noted that this predominant focus on the political vacuum may "let business off the hook" a bit too easily.
Meanwhile, political leaders are often unprepared to seize the initiative and move forward with a regulatory program if business leaders — particularly those in their district or on their donor rolls — have not indicated a comfort level with the affordability of that program. This dynamic may, for example, have prompted Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney to back away from supporting the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in late 2005 in the face of business concerns about its costs. (Note: the program moved forward without him as seven other Northeastern Governors signed a Memorandum of Understanding and launched the rule-making phase.) This political deference to business preferences has caused many to believe that until the business community signals a sufficiently broad readiness, the national government will not move forward on significant climate change policy action in the United States. So the path forward appears stymied by the "who goes first" problem.
Low-Carbon Products and the Chicken-or-Egg Problem
There is also a market-specific variant of the "diffusion of responsibility" phenomenon. This can be seen in the relationship between business and its customers with respect to low-carbon or carbon-neutral products, a consumer category that has not really taken off yet despite nascent efforts to sell "green energy" and "carbon offsets." The eight-principle framework discussed earlier (Recommendation #33) calls on business to educate its customers about climate change, specifically about "the carbon composition of products through websites, labels and bill stuffers, as it relates to the relevant business." This would require businesses to voluntarily disclose the climate change implications of their products and, in effect, create a market attribute by educating their customers. While businesses are attuned above all to their customers, participants at the Conference noted that, so far, few of them are hearing or experiencing demand from customers for low-carbon or no-carbon product offerings.
This presents an instance of the "chicken-or-egg" problem: Should businesses create a market or wait to respond to a market? Many Americans say on surveys that they are prepared to pay a little extra for environmental benefits (5-15 percent is one documented range for the "willingness-to-pay" premium, though a cautious distinction must be made between this stated willingness and actual behavior). Whether consumers will pay or not, a prior question is how often they even have the choice to buy a low-carbon or no-carbon product, reliably and clearly signified as such. If businesses wait for consumer demand to be expressed, they’ll be waiting a long time because vehicles for expressing this demand are scarce.
This is not a unique case in the history of capitalism — businesses routinely need to decide how far to get out ahead of their customers. Occasionally, they take the risk of going beyond proven markets and launching a breakthrough product. The point, here, is that climate- neutral products are in this very chicken-or-egg zone right now. Will consumers become concerned enough about climate change to demand climate-friendly products and buy those few existing offerings that allow them to express this demand in sufficient volume to get the attention of businesses? Or will businesses decide to lead by launching climate- friendly products more broadly, labeled as such?
Businesses will be more inclined to lead and create the market once they’re convinced their choice will be validated by consumer uptake and associated profits. This might even provide them with a differentiating advantage, which has long been a justification for eco-friendly branding.
But another approach is for an outside body to initiate a certification program and logo and then promote its adoption by businesses. This can become self-perpetuating once businesses realize they’ll be at a competitive disadvantage if they do not sign on. Accordingly, Conference Recommendation #35 calls for the launch of a certification program and logo that would signify climate-friendly products. This has been undertaken on related issues, from EPA’s Energy Star logo for energy- efficient appliances, which offers collateral benefits for climate change mitigation, to the Forest Stewardship Council, which certifies wood products that use sustainably harvested timber.
The recommendation recognizes, however, that there are also dozens of profit and not-for-profit entities already retailing "carbon offsets" or green energy produced from renewables. Some analysts have raised concerns about unevenness in the verification standards and quality of these offsets. For one thing, some of them are much stricter than others about administering "additionality" rules so that the offsets are genuinely incremental to what would occur on a business-as-usual basis — in other words, they really help address climate change. Relatedly, Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) have often been incorrectly regarded as equivalent to carbon offsets, even though RECs are often issued to comply with state government mandates requiring a minimum of energy sourced from renewable sources — meaning that they may not be causing any additional reduction in greenhouse gas emissions beyond what would happen under business-as-usual regulatory compliance.
So while there is no shortage of emerging certification and logo efforts, there may be an opposite problem: too many of them, which diffuses resources across many initiatives rather than concentrating them on one or a few that could break through to attain consumer awareness. This proliferation of initiatives can simply be confusing to the consumer. Therefore, Recommendation #35 also calls for rationalizing these efforts and assessing their climate impacts. The result could be either launching a new and better one or spotlighting and combining the best of the existing ones.