A lot of people seem to despair about the possibility of effective regulation of greenhouse gas emissions around the world, but the more I read about the cases of persistent organic pollutants and CFCs, the more plausible it seems, given that a few specific and important progressions take place.
The first is the process of scaling upwards in policy levels, as seen very distinctly with CFCs. The Rowland and Molina paper that first suggested that CFCs cause stratospheric ozone degradation was published in 1974. By 1975, two US states had already banned their use as aerosol propellants (Oregon and New York). Hopefully, the progression from there to national and international regulation is one that can be emulated. Already, lots of American cities and states have signaled that they are serious about climate change, and willing to use regulation to combat it.
The second important dynamic has to do with industry expectations. Six years before CFCs became an issue in environmental regulation, DuPont – the largest manufacturer – canceled its program for developing alternatives. When it became clear that regulation was forthcoming, they were able to field some alternatives within six months, and a comprehensive range within a few years. Up to the point where regulation seemed inevitable, they continued to claim that alternatives could not be easily developed. The point here is twofold. First, it shows that the existence of solutions to environmental problems is not independent of regulation and industry expectations about future regulation. Secondly, industries that anticipate national legislation (as they began to in the US in the mid-1980s on the CFC issue) become a powerful lobby pushing government towards completing an international agreement. It is far worse for American industry to be at a loss because local rules are tougher than global ones than it is to simply deal with some new issues.
Thus, an American administration that takes up the baton from the many states that have initiated their own efforts to deal with climate change might be able to create the same kind of expectations in industry. Some are already asking for regulation to “guide the market,” specifically decisions about what technologies and forms of capital in which to invest. From there, it is at least possible that the US could play a key role in negotiating a successor treaty to Kyoto that begins the process of stabilizing and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
A related point has to do with the extent to which environmental images are heavily influenced by images and symbols. According to Karen Litfin, the Antarctic ozone hole was one of the major factors that led to the Montreal Protocol. She calls it an ‘anomaly,’ unpredicted by the atmospheric science that had been done up to that point, and thus capable of making scientists and politicians more aware of the possibility of unancitipated risks.
At his talk yesterday, Henry Shue says he is hoping for some iconic moment in climate change, to play a similar galvanizing role (a bare-topped Kilimanjaro, the Larsen B collapse, drowning polar bears, and Hurricane Katrina don’t seem to have done it yet, though the connection between climate change and the last of those is not entirely established.) Some spectacular and distressing (but hopefully non-lethal) demonstration of the profound effects human greenhouse gas emissions are having may be necessary to generate an urgent and powerful drive towards effective responses.