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Interview with Michael Vandenbergh, Author of Beyond Gridlock

2013 Vandenbergh headshot cropped

Michael Vandenbergh

Last week I reviewed Beyond Gridlock,” a major new article by Michael Vandenbergh and Jonathan Gilligan concerning voluntary carbon reduction strategies.  This week, I interview Michael Vandenbergh about the ideas behind the paper.

 

MNM:  Why have consumer-oriented carbon reduction strategies been given so little attention relative to carbon pricing schemes? 

MV:  We all share a conceptual framework that assumes that the principal actor that can respond to climate change is government, and the principal actions are government regulation or a carbon price.  Even our vocabulary locks in this framework – terms such “policy,” “regulation,” and even “international” imply that government is the key actor.  This is buttressed by our tendency to pursue panaceas, as Elinor Ostrom noted, rather than to pursue multiple strategies when the policy plasticity [MNM: ability to implement] of the optimal strategy is low.

MNM What are the principal political obstacles to consumer-oriented voluntary carbon-reduction strategies?  Could the left and right rally together around such a campaign?  Why hasn’t it happened yet? 

MV:  The principal obstacles to private climate governance are not political – that’s part of the advantage of this strategy.  Government, and thus politics, can be bypassed.  The fact that private institutions and private markets are involved suggests that those with a conservative worldview may be less averse to this solution than to others, and that provides some room for optimism.  Note also that consumer-oriented carbon reduction strategies are only a small part of the private climate governance strategy that professor Gilligan and I outline in Beyond Gridlock. Often corporations and other private institutions reduce carbon emissions because of influences from investors, lenders, employees and others, even if consumers are not engaged.

MNM:  How would you assess the “carbon literacy” of the American public?  Is knowledge regarding the amount of carbon one emits in daily life a prerequisite for an effective private governance campaign for households?  What would a carbon literacy campaign look like? 

MV:  The carbon literacy of the public in the US and around the world varies a great deal, with some having a sophisticated understanding but many having little knowledge.  Shahzeen Attari and her colleagues have done great work on this, and they have found that people often overestimate visible forms of energy use and underestimate by many times their energy use from some household activities.  Similarly, our research team found that people think they should idle their cars for over four minutes if they want to save gas, when the right answer is ten to thirty seconds.  Over ten million tons of CO2 emissions are associated with this idling, an amount larger than several industrial sectors.  Addressing energy invisibility and correcting myths provide two areas of opportunity for private governance response, using information to drive behavior change without requiring altruism or support for climate mitigation.

MNM:  Are there/should there be limits (voluntary, moral, or otherwise) on the right of an individual to use and emit carbon?  How can the concept of limits on carbon usage gain currency?  

MV:  This is an important but complex issue, and we do not address it in this paper.  We do suggest a private climate registry as a way for people in this generation to tell future generations what they did in response to climate change.

MNM:  Should the government set a “Recommended Carbon Limit” similar to the FDA’s Recommended Daily Allowance?  Should consumers at least be advised by the government as to what a reasonable per person usage of carbon is? (Note: I just wrote a blog post on this topic  wp.me/p1yDzM-2R)

MV:  This is an interesting idea, but government action is not what we are focused on at this point.   The point of our Beyond Gridlock paper is that although there are many things government could do, most of them are not viable in the near term, and much of the population dismisses government as the messenger.  Yet we need to start bending down the carbon growth curve.  To analyze new initiatives, we suggest always accounting for the technical potential and behavioral plasticity of any action, as well as the policy plasticity of the initiatives that could induce behavior change.  A Recommended Carbon Limit probably scores well on the first two but not so well on the third.  Following the analysis we suggest in Beyond Gridlock, one approach would be for a well-respected private organization, not a government agency, to set a Recommended Carbon Limit.  That may be more viable in the near term and may allow the concept to be tested and shaped while government remains in gridlock.

MNM:  What single private governance initiative is the most exciting and has the most potential to make a significant impact? 

MV:  The increasing pressure on corporations to disclose the carbon emissions of their suppliers (often called “Scope 3” emissions) is an initiative that has a great deal of promise.  It has a large potential because a large share of all corporate emissions originate from suppliers, and if the buying firms demand carbon reductions from suppliers, the emissions reductions pressure can cross international borders to suppliers in other countries without any international agreement.  This is one of the few ways to create incentives for emissions reductions among small- and medium-sized companies in developed and developing countries.   We are also very excited about the idea of a private climate prediction market that would enable people to buy and sell predictions about the accuracy of the climate science and to say, “put your money where your mouth is” in climate debates.

MNM:  Many have written that the battle to prevent climate change is the equivalent for our generation of World War II, yet the level of complacency in this country is profound, even though 80% plus per the recent New York Times poll now understand that climate change is occurring and that it is man made.  What will it take to galvanize and mobilize the public to make the radical changes necessary to address the CO2 problem before it is too late?  Where do you see the leadership coming from? 

MV:  We think it is a mistake to assume that this mobilization must occur in the near term only through the traditional political processes that affect governments at the state, national, and international levels.  It is also a mistake to start with radical change.  When concern about a problem, such as climate change, is widespread but a low-priority preference for many people, the best response may be to try to buy time while a sufficient consensus develops and the barriers to government action are overcome.  We can achieve more than a billion tons of emissions reductions annually over the next decade by using private initiatives to address market failures and behavioral failures that are widespread around the globe.  The principal message of Beyond Gridlock is not that government action is not necessary but that it is a mistake to wait for the optimal government response.  Instead, we should be pursuing emissions reductions through public and private initiatives to buy time for a more comprehensive response.   The leadership to pursue a private climate governance strategy could come from advocacy group or corporate managers, philanthropists, or pundits, or it could emerge from people who are on the sidelines now but become motivated to do something about the issue.

MNM:  Where is your research and writing headed next in relation to carbon emission reduction strategies? 

MV:  We are continuing to identify new initiatives around the world that are reducing carbon emissions despite the government gridlock at the national and international levels.  Once you make the conceptual shift to understanding the role that private governance can play in reducing carbon emissions, it is remarkable how many examples you can see around the world, and how many new possibilities emerge.

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