Forum Final Response
Final Response: Politics Is Plastic
January 25, 2021
With Responses From
Jan 25, 2021
9 Min read time
Politics Is Plastic
These thoughtful responses make two main charges. First, we fail to give priority to the raw politics of redistribution posed by climate change. Second, we imagine that technical problem-solving happens independently of a clash of interests—or perhaps even substitutes for political struggle.
In these times especially, both politics and interests are plastic. Experimentalism seeks to make this fact both politically visible and politically productive.
We plead guilty to the first charge, but for a reason that, at least so far as our intentions are concerned, absolves us from the second. We don’t put politics first for the same reason that we don’t put policy or problem-solving first: in a social transition as profound and uncertain as decarbonization, the two are inseparable. Citizens, firms, interest groups, and political parties can’t define their interests without some view of what’s actually feasible—and what potential allies regard as feasible, too—even as new possibilities emerge from these provisional commitments.
In these times especially, both politics and interests are plastic. Experimentalism seeks to make this fact both politically visible and politically productive. It entails putting developments under the direction of penalty defaults based on a thin consensus about goals. It means pressuring potential veto players to change strategy and coalition partners. It involves correcting central decisions in light of local mobilization and experience, but also challenging decisions in any locale in view of developments in other similar places and encouraging mutual correction of expert and lay knowledge. Understood this way, the experimentalist approach meshes well—perhaps even helps further define—Robert C. Hockett’s vision of the Green New Deal, which, as he sees it, crucially depends on organized consultation between national centers and local communities.
Jessica Green advances the politics-first thesis most directly. “Until governments address the conflicts between the winners and losers of climate change and climate policy,” she writes, “experimentalist governance will be limited in its ambition and impact.” In a similar vein, Alyssa Battistoni states that “challenging the power of the fossil fuel industry is the sine qua non of climate politics.” Thea Riofrancos makes a cognate claim in her canvass of Latin America: pointing to the conflicts between Pink Tide national governments and local, anti-extractivist movements, she asserts that “politics is the heart of the problem.” And Catherine Coleman Flowers reminds us that although many local communities are “pursuing local climate activism . . . many are also running up against the limits of what it is possible to achieve locally when global actions by states and moneyed corporations are stacked against them.” Power and politics set the limits once again.
We do not mean to minimize the importance of distributional fights or politics generally: they have an essential and in any case inevitable role to play. Still less do we mean to convey the economy will simply decarbonize itself, without active institutional development and regulatory oversight: there is painstaking work to be done. Where we disagree is with the claim that political questions have to be resolved in advance before problem-solving can begin. Our grounds are not just theoretical but empirical. Just as the effort to solve the free-rider problem has paralyzed global climate change efforts, an ex ante focus on getting the politics right could inadvertently stall domestic action.
In Green’s conception, power is rooted in the ownership of assets such as factories and houses. Some destroy the climate; others are vulnerable to its destruction. The paramount political problem for climate change, as Green sees it, is preventing owners of the former type from blocking reforms that devalue their property and ultimately threaten their way of life. This veto power can be checked, Green argues, by sufficiently detailed legislation—it takes more than the “thin consensus” of experimentalism. If legislation proves too ambiguous, veto power can be limited by regulation, provided the regulator has already resolved the “fundamental conflicts of existential politics before” engaging in experimentalist problem-solving—as was the case, Green maintains, with CARB. If regulation fails, nationalization is a possibility, and so on.
We—like the overwhelming majority of Americans—have no doubt that politics can have existential stakes. Nor do we doubt that some actors tied to climate-destroying interests see any other activity as a kind of social death. Green’s other claims, though, are dubious. Asset types are not set in stone; a factory that destroys the climate now need not destroy it forever. The interplay of technical innovation and constraints from politics and regulation opens new possibilities. Until a decade ago, the car industry was mostly against decarbonization. Now, many companies—not all, but enough—are competing to produce electric cars, and a great deal of new investment is aimed there. Politics—but not exclusively politics—helped to make that happen, in part with regulatory measures that encouraged new directions in technological innovation and helped shape consumer behavior. Shifts in investment have, in turn, shifted political power.
Or consider veto-stopping remedies. Green’s contention that CARB had definitively resolved conflicts with car companies before engaging in problem-solving ignores decades of often contentious exchange between manufactures and regulators, when standards were proposed and revised as judgments of feasibility shifted. We doubt that the outcome—starting with the question of whether such collaboration would work—was in any sense a foregone conclusion to the participants. In any case, how can we tell when the power question is truly “settled”? Some will say: when the state expropriates the assets of the fossil fuel industries. But it is far from clear that we should place such high confidence in nationalization as a remedy. Observers often point to Equinor as a model of the “greening” of a state-owned oil company. But its success depends in large part on the culture of hyper-green Norway, on being well managed, and on its alliance with other firms—few of which are state-owned. Across most of the rest of the oil industry, state ownership is hardly synonymous with innovation or transformation. It is hard—sometimes impossible—to identify in advance a remedy that works for good.
Leah C. Stokes’s recent account of state-level fights over renewable portfolio standards—which dictate the stepwise introduction of renewable energy sources to a state’s power grid—cuts the same way. Stokes’s central argument is that the political struggle over such standards typically continues after initial legislation, after regulatory rule-making, and indeed after any point that one side or the other might have thought settled the question once and for all. The principal reason is what Stokes calls the “fog of enactment”—uncertainty about how a decision will work out in practice that makes surprises likely. Unpleasant surprises trigger reconsideration and maneuvering for do-overs. The contest only stops (for a time) when environmentalists’ successes become self-reinforcing or fossil fuel interests erect barriers to that outcome. But even in cases such as Arizona, where Stokes reports that opponents strongly influence electoral politics and regulatory decisions, dramatic reversals are still possible. As we write in early November, Arizona regulators voted just days ago to require 100 percent clean electricity on the grid by 2050: incumbent utilities, after a number of pyrrhic political victories, and seeing ways forward in the experience of neighboring states, have come to accept the inevitability of decarbonization. Interests and politics shift as facts change and as key players learn what’s at stake.
Riofrancos’s case study only further reveals the limits of the ex ante redistributivist approach. The leftist governments that swept power in Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, and Bolivia in the 2000s promised to redistribute the proceeds of the commodity boom to disadvantaged groups—though not the ones whose ways of life were harmed most directly by the boom itself. When those groups raised redistibutivist demands of their own, the result was the intractable conflict Riofrancos describes. The same focus on fixed but incompatible ideas of justice that made it all but impossible for compromise impeded rather than facilitated progress. When the boom passed, they were left where they had started, and economic disappointment was compounded—especially among many supporters of Pink Tide governments—by a sense of political betrayal.
Goals, and the politics to support them, emerge from a series of legislative initiatives in a decade-long process.
Seeing politics as plastic helps to explain the good news, shared by David Wallace-Wells, that many places are acting on climate—from the European Green Deal to recent plans to achieve net-zero emissions in China (by 2060) and Korea (by 2050). The groundwork in all these cases follows our logic of experimentalism. No party has focused on resolving the distributional political conflicts first. It helps that each thinks, as well, that it is building the industries of the future and that some of those firms, now able to attract more investment, are getting more powerful. Paris may play a modest role in continuing to focus political attention, but the most important drivers are the shifting politics made possible by real investments and experimentation. The reality is that centralized, consensus-oriented decision-making isn’t going to drive a revolution.
Hockett’s vision of the Green New Deal—however it must be rescaled in light of election results—offers an alternative approach to decarbonization that converges in many ways with our own. The goals are not fixed at the outset; neither does reform start from a comprehensive and enduring political settlement. Goals, and the politics to support them, emerge from a series of legislative initiatives in a decade-long process. A key institutional innovation, however, is designed to make goal-setting more inclusive and politics more participatory and democratic: local committees are to be established across the land to ensure that frontline voices are heard. Hockett suggests that the first task of these committees will be to agree on the best use of additional resources allocated to them.
This may well be the best way to kick-start participation. But in our view, these committees will only succeed if their connection to the center is ongoing and reciprocal: ongoing, because local understanding of local problems will change both with the experience of trying to solve them and increased awareness of what works elsewhere; reciprocal, because—as Flowers and Riofrancos observe—there are many problems that local communities can only solve in collaboration with higher levels of government.
As Hockett makes clear in his new book, Financing the Green New Deal, these local links are only one part of a structure that aims to facilitate public–private collaboration; cooperation across federal, state, and local levels; and coordination among the many diverse policy areas that meet in decarbonization. But even in isolation from this larger structure, the lattice of local–center committees illustrates just the kind of “political innovation” Battistoni calls for: “figuring out how to deploy technologies we already have to cut carbon as quickly as possible, in ways that build constituencies for further climate action.” Building these innovations—those that speed accountable deployment of the technologies we have and those that speed development of those we still need to invent—is itself a political task, recasting interests and institutions together. That is the task to which we must turn to save the climate.
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