Skip to Global Futures Initiative Full Site Menu Skip to main content
September 12, 2016

Responding To: The Challenge of Climate Change

The Political Challenges of Global Climate Change

George Shambaugh

Managing global climate change poses inherently political challenges. The first task is to specify the problem, its causes, consequences and potential solutions. As reflected in contemporary debates over the existence and human component of climate change, this seemingly technical task can become highly politicized because of the subsequent decisions that must be made once the assessment has been completed. These include the allocation of user rights (e.g., Who gets to consume the shared pools of ground water, burn coal, or use ozone depleting refrigerants? How much? When?), the distribution costs and benefits (e.g., Who pays? Who gets compensated? How? How much?), governance (e.g., How is the credibility of the technical assessment validated? How are the distributions of user rights, costs, and benefits determined? How is the system enforced?), and the prospects for changing long-term human behavior. Many climate change issues will likely persist and require ongoing management across multiple future generations. While useful, contemporary rules and environmental meetings like COP21 in Paris in 2015 will surely not have sufficiently long-lasting effects. 

Consumers are Adaptable
The good news is that consumers are highly responsive to economic incentives and adapt quickly to new technology. Though fracking is controversial, the rapid shift from coal and heating oil to natural gas as the preferred fuel for power plants and private homes demonstrates how quickly industries and individuals adopt lower cost and greener alternatives. Other examples abound. Energy efficient light bulbs are now commonplace. In a quest for longer battery life, people are gobbling up more efficient phones and computing devices as quickly as newer versions can be produced. Similarly, the sale of clean fuel vehicles skyrocketed in states as diverse as California and Virginia when they granted these cars access to express lanes. Furthermore, expectations adjust quickly: people will readily switch to even more cost effective (and likely more efficient and greener) products, but are unlikely to revert back to older, less efficient ones.

Legitimacy Matters
Even if the personal benefits of going green are not apparent, social science research suggests people are often willing to alter their behavior to achieve a collective benefit if they believe that the process by which the goals and means are chosen is legitimate. Such willingness declines when legitimacy is questioned. The impact of legitimacy on environmental management is complicated by disagreements among advanced industrialized countries and developing countries over who bears the responsibility for contemporary environmental problems and whether environmental concerns should be prioritized over other developmental issues. Questions of environmental justice also arise when poorer communities are located in ecologically vulnerable or highly polluted areas. The ongoing challenges faced by those suffering from lead-tainted water in Flint, Michigan, provide a sad example of how these communities may be underserved with regard to environmental management and mitigation efforts. 

Mobility is Problematic
While their consumption habits are highly adaptive, people are relatively immobile. Research in psychology suggests that people who are generally risk averse will often take great risks to preserve what they have. They also value personally and culturally important locations highly. Consequently, many choose to stay put when their homes, towns or traditional ways of life are threatened by environmental changes. After disasters strike, many rebuild in vulnerable areas despite a high likelihood that similarly destructive events will happen again. Many tried to return to the Ninth Ward of New Orleans despite flooding in Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Similarly, many whose houses were recently destroyed in California wildfires will likely rebuild in the same location.

Perhaps the most difficult future environmental challenge will involve managing environmental refugees and migrants who ultimately have to flee their homes. Ordinary people are generally very helpful to victims in the immediate aftermath of environmental disasters; however, local communities can easily become overwhelmed by and increasingly fearful of large or sustained flows of migrants and refugees. The dramatically destabilizing effects of refugees from Syria on the economically and politically advanced institutions of Europe provide a very troubling warning. Their numbers, though large, are likely small in comparison to the volume of environmental refugees and immigrants that will come flooding across boarders from Bangladesh and other environmentally vulnerable areas of the world as sea levels rise and climate change undermines the vitality of the agricultural lands on which large populations currently depend.

Dr. George E. Shambaugh is associate professor of international affairs and government in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and former chairman of the Department of Government at Georgetown University. His recent publications focus on the role of central bankers in shaping market behavior, the art of policymaking in the Executive branch of the U.S. government, bargaining dynamics in public-private partnerships, and the role of education in shaping social and political attitudes.

Other Responses