Can Research Inform Climate Policy? A Columbia University Workshop

19 April 2014, 1059 EDT

For me, yesterday’s main activity was a home game workshop on the policy implications of research on climate policy. I co-organized the workshop with Alex Ovodenko and Scott Barrett, both of whom are active in the climate policy research community. We had a group of about 30 people, both academics and practitioners. The six presentations focused on climate negotiations, carbon clubs,  and carbon markets.

Why such a workshop? As some of you may have noticed, one of my frustrations has been the disconnect between climate policy research and practice. While the fieldwork that I do on renewable energy in India informs policy and business practice without much effort, the same cannot be said of my research on climate policy. I have written several pieces on climate policy that specifically aim to contribute to the policy debate (for example, on dynamic climate governance, North-South technology cooperation, and climate finance), but my experience is that there is not a lot of demand for this kind of research outside the academic community. Partly this is probably because of my own lack of ability and insight, but I have long suspected that other, more prominent scholars of climate policy share the same concern. The problem is huge and the current political environment poisoned by fundamental disagreements, lack of trust, and blame games. If Nero fiddled while Rome burned, the climate negotiators are, as instructed by their political superiors, throwing temper tantrums while the world is burning.

So what did we learn? One interesting insight from the discussions was that researchers do not seem to share a common theory of transformative change that would inform their research. Here are different variants of how people believe their work could be relevant:

– Perhaps the largest body of research offers guidance for how climate negotiations could make progress. This group of scholars seems to share the assumption that negotiators are somehow missing important elements of the strategic problem. Different emphasis in negotiations or a move from the UNFCCC to carbon clubs can help. I am sympathetic but not optimistic about prospects of radical change in carbon trajectories.

– Another community of scholars emphasizes technology. For this group, new technologies can break new ground and change both the politics and economics of energy. I am also sympathetic to this group, but I do believe that technological transformations are social phenomena that require specific attention to politics.

– The third group, of which I identify with, focuses on the politics of energy. For this group, the key issue is the balance of political power between supporters and opponents of carbon pricing and clean technology.

All three groups can contribute to better climate policy, but scholars should be more aware of their theories of change. While the workshop was a step to the right direction, most papers still began with an academic question motivated by earlier literature and then paid lip service to policy implications. I would imagine that work that aims to address the problem should begin with a real policy problem that is actually confounding efforts to act, and then focus on solving that problem with academic rigor. In the case of carbon clubs, for example, it would be more useful to identify a specific benefit that a club approach could deliver, instead of talking about the generic possibility that carbon clubs could help. The benefit should then be connected to a theory of social change that results in a more sustainable world.

Yeah, I know – this is a order. It’s actually much easier to install solar panels in India and identify their treatment effects. On that note,  let me now write another grant application to fund more field research while the world burns, and burns, and burns.