Americans and Climate Change: Setting goals 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.
Today we get into one of the biggest and meatiest chapters, about the process and substance of setting concrete goals for fighting global warming. A variety of strategic concerns, and psychological and institutional impediments, are discussed. There are great insights aplenty. I’ll start today with the brief intro.
Those working to promote societal action on climate change need to do a better job of formulating goals that are capable of promoting convergent strategies by dispersed and often uncoordinated actors, and commensurate with a real solution to the problem. In order to guide and motivate needed actions, these goals should be generated collaboratively, scientifically calibrated, quantifiable, trackable and easily expressible. They should include not only emissions targets but also, given the crucial importance of "public will," attitudinal targets.
We found among the Conference participants a widespread view that those working to promote action on climate change can and must do better in coordinating their efforts around common goals. There are acknowledged exceptions that are handling the goal-setting task with admirable skill. For example, the 25 x 25 initiative discussed earlier has coordinated a coalition of interests around the quantified and easily expressible goal of having U.S. agriculture provide 25 percent of the total energy consumed in the United States by 2025. Meanwhile, 219 American cities (and counting) have pledged to fulfill the Kyoto Protocol’s emissions reductions target, in recognition of the value of a salient and widely referenced policy goal over a customized one. Policy advocates have, for years now, coordinated around the policy goal of passing the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act in the Senate to institute a cap-and-trade program to limit greenhouse gas emissions to 2000 levels by 2010. Others have worked for decades to raise CAFE standards for automotive fuel efficiency.
These continuing efforts deserve support from those concerned about climate change. But they arguably have limitations as the basis for a sufficiently broad and long-term strategy for the nation, either because they are sector-specific (agriculture or automotive), too short-term (Kyoto expires in 2012 unless extended), too incremental to be scientifically defensible, etc.
An integrated national goal could indeed package and build on the best of these ongoing efforts. But to get to a robust national goal that has the features described above will require more by way of cross-domain dialogue that reflects and reconciles science, values, economics, communications and all the other considerations covered above.
The fact is that meaningful differences remain in the nature and stringency of goals advocated by those concerned about climate change.
In some cases, this appears to be a function of key stakeholders not having enough information — scientific, economic and otherwise — to judge what an appropriate goal should be, or an ability to integrate these types of information.
One reason that goal-setting among those working on climate change is often untethered from science is that most scientists have been reluctant to speak out or to impose what they see as value judgments by declaring certain levels of emissions as "dangerous." Exceptions include prominent NASA scientist James Hansen who has recently said that if we do not keep additional warming under 1° Centigrade (1.8° Fahrenheit), we may cross dangerous tipping points. His estimate is that this implies a window of 10 years to begin significant emissions reductions. The White House has allegedly sought to restrict Hansen’s outspokenness, a controversy that has drawn much media coverage including a March 2006 story on 60 Minutes.
A second key challenge impeding the application of science to goal-setting is that data on the impacts of climate change are still incomplete, often unquantifiable and difficult to link to specific greenhouse gas stabilization targets. The IPCC’s report in 2001 conceded that "… comprehensive, quantitative estimates of the benefits of stabilization at various levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases do not yet exist." Moreover, the impacts data that do exist are rarely organized around time frames that map to the needs of policy-makers aiming to specify a path of emissions targets.
Without such "bright lines" supplied by the scientists, other factors — especially economic or political feasibility — tend to drive goal-setting.