The harmful effects of climate change are happening faster than expected. We need policies and initiatives that do more to keep up with the pace of change.
The evidence of the human impact on climate change is well-established. The challenge for policymakers now is to understand the true pace and consequences of that impact and how to combat it.
In the AR6 Synthesis Report: Climate Change 2023, published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the panel indicated awareness that its reports understate the magnitude of the problem we face. Climate change is effecting the world at a more rapid pace than ever before, creating “climate surprises” that leave societies with little time to mitigate or adapt to their impact.
Without a full comprehension of the scale of the impact, key decision-makers are stuck in an incremental, “business-as-usual” way of thinking that deals with climate issues happening today, rather than planning responses based on long term threats.
FREE president Dr. John Byrne, Aalto University’s Dr. Peter Lund, and Dr. Job Taminiau recently explored the need to move past a business-as-usual policy mindset in their recent commentary published in WIREs Energy and Environment. They write:
“Commonly practiced “business-as-usual” (BAU) benchmarking and search processes to find least-cost options can only deliver out-of-date and mostly wrong characterizations of costs and benefits when the underlying process of climate change has advanced several iterations beyond BAU,” the authors write. “Policy research suffers from a deeply misguided understanding of its task as it scours the rear-view mirror of past change in hopes of finding the future.”
This backward-looking, reactive policy mindset is stymieing progress in the fight against climate change. As Byrne, Lund, and Taminiau write, the gravity of the threat of climate change demands a new approach. It is not enough to merely react to problems facing the world today.
Business-as-usual strategies hinge on the desire to create the least amount of social and economic disruption. This thinking falls into the trap of policy hesitancy, in which those in power become paralyzed by the fear of transformative change.
“The flaw of incremental climate policy-making and the research that informs it is now obvious: using the cost of mitigation and adaptation as the ranking principle to guide decisions is a formula for doing nothing or very little,” Byrne, Lund, and Taminiau write.
How decision-makers can create transformative change
So what does transformational policy look like in practice? In their commentary, Byrne, Lund, and Taminiau discuss multiple examples of this approach, including a shift to decentralize decision-making using a community-based model.
In such a model, local authorities place community stakeholders at the center of policy decision-making. For example, community-based utility agencies in California are offering a competitive alternative to traditional gas and electric companies, such as San Diego Gas & Electric and Pacific Gas & Electric. The community-based agencies now collectively serve more residents in California than major investor-owned utilities, according to the authors.
“Polycentric climate policy action where decision-making authority is redistributed and governance of energy is transformed has led to change that outpaces in just 5 years what conventional policy and market systems largely failed to achieve,” the authors write.
Lasting climate policy must reach further and be greater in scale than anything most policymakers currently consider. It must redefine “lowest cost,” instead investing when necessary to avoid billion-dollar disasters associated with threats such as rapid sea-level rise, increasingly intense and frequent high-energy storms, and irreversible biodiversity loss.
A key example of a transformative policy mentioned by the authors is the push among more than 600 global cities and states to switch to 100% renewable energy systems. This undertaking could have a dramatic impact on how these communities fight and prepare for the growing impacts of climate change.
“Achievement of 100% renewable energy requires planned policy and regulatory action in coordination with behavioral and social change to prioritize low-carbon options. Policy platforms of this kind incorporate a broad range of strategies to support change throughout society and the economy,” Byrne, Lund, and Taminiau write in their commentary.
This is just one example of what can happen when we replace traditional ways of thinking about climate policy with proactive, transformative planning. To do so on a large scale, researchers and experts need to help guide the way.
Organizations like FREE can play a pivotal role in helping to produce up-to-date research that assists national and community leaders in making informed decisions. FREE’s climate experts work across the public and private sectors to engage leaders in the realization of transformational policy.
Changing the way we approach and execute climate policy is a massive undertaking. It’s one that needs buy-in at all levels of society as community leaders contend with how such policies will change the lives of entire populations at the local, state, and country levels.
At a time when the impacts of climate change are outpacing collective knowledge, we need to design effective climate policy and demand more from decision-makers. Only then can we hope to see truly transformative change.