How Should We Study Energy and Climate Policy? Critical Insights from an ISA Roundtable

27 March 2014, 1915 EDT

One of the consequences of the ISA 2014 conference here in Toronto is that my extended blogging hiatus is coming to an end. Thanks to some experimental research in India, I haven’t had a lot of time to share my thoughts in the past few months. In fact, I haven’t had too many thoughts during this period either. However, now I have one.

On Wednesday, I was honored to participate in a roundtable on climate policy organized by Detlef Sprinz from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. My participation notwithstanding, the roundtable featured a great group of scholars: Detlef, Robert Gampfer, Xinyuan Dai, and Steinar Andresen. The idea of the roundtable was to discuss practical strategies for moving forward with climate policy and how social scientists should contribute to this process.

One of the striking features of the discussion was the lack of interest or faith in international processes. While many scholars have ignored the United Nations treaty process for years, there has been a lot of hype about “carbon clubs” and other alternatives (see David Victor’s great book for a recent example). Both the roundtable participants and the audience expressed a lot of skepticism about these approaches and their weak empirical record. With the exception of the EU, neither public nor private international initiatives have had much effect on anything.

The most important conclusion of the roundtable was that we need to pay much more attention to the domestic politics of energy and try to understand how the public and different constituencies in major emitter countries could be mobilized to support more effective and ambitious policies. We need to identify the political logic of investment in emissions reductions, renewable energy, energy efficiency, and other relevant factors. While international institutions cam support these processes, they should not be expected to enforce any policy change or make reluctant countries to implement new policies.

To me, this collective recognition of the challenges that lie ahead is good news. The literature on climate policy has in the past years become too irrelevant to the key policy challenges. Studying the public’s preferences for various hypothetical treaty designs or constructing complex mathematical models of self-enforcing environmental agreements is fun and publishable, but these kinds of studies are not helpful for improving the effectiveness of climate mitigation. What we need is rigorous empirical studies of the political economy of energy in major emitters. I have worked with various collaborators, especially Michaël Aklin, to examine how critical energy policies are formed in different countries and what determines their political feasibility (see AJPS and GEC for examples), but these studies are at best a tiny first step toward an analytical framework that allows policymakers and activists to identify more effective strategies to promote sustainable energy transitions.

The group of scholars interested in climate policy has grown into a huge global community, but I have a feeling that the field lacks direction and will soon implode unless a new generation of projects strive to meet much higher standards of both rigor and relevance. If I were a graduate student interested in environmental and energy policy, I would work on ambitious projects that shed light on how governments make political decisions about energy policy at the national level. Studying these kinds of decisions is a daunting challenge and requires a concentrated effort (something I most certainly do not excel in), but the academic and practical pay-off is much higher than what the study of climate agreements promises.