In 1986, global nuclear weapons stockpiles peaked at nearly 70,000 warheads. By the beginning of 2013, there were just over 17,000, with only 4,400 kept operational. This dramatic reduction was the fruit of a negotiation process that began in the late 1940s. In spite of incredible tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, negotiators were able to make progress once they focused on building trust with small, pragmatic steps, rather than starting with the complete elimination of all weapons.
Waiting for a comprehensive global deal on climate change could delay action long enough that serious, irreversible damage will occur, said Bell. Less ambitious agreements could create meaningful returns while building the trust needed for larger agreements, while small but widespread consumer-level changes could begin making an impact on energy use, said Weber. This approach could provide a valuable model for addressing global climate change, said Ruth Greenspan Bell at the Wilson Center on June 24. Instead of a “silver bullet” – a comprehensive international treaty – Bell and fellow panelists, Elke Weber of Columbia University and Sherri Goodman of the CNA Corporation, said the climate community ought to consider “silver buckshot.”
Lessons From the Nuclear Age
Bell, a public policy scholar at the Wilson Center and visiting scholar at theEnvironmental Law Institute, highlighted the striking similarities between climate negotiations and the early days of nuclear weapons negotiations.
Like their nuclear-weapons counterparts in the 1940s and 1950s, climate negotiators today are confronted with a potentially existential challenge, have lofty goals, and are focused on working through the United Nations. Similarly, they have also failed to yield quick results.
Bell suggested that governments “separate out specific elements that can be ripe fruit for resolution,” such as agreements on greenhouse gas monitoring and reporting, rather than comprehensive adaptation and mitigation.
“Setting up a different framework means the parties involved can be flexible enough to respond to unexpected opportunities that come up along the way,” said Bell. She contrasted this with the “lumbering UNFCCC process, with its huge bureaucracy,” which can make it harder to focus on opportunities rather than roadblocks.
On more significant issues, agreements between a limited numbers of states can build norms and institutions that gradually accrue additional members, she said. The Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed in 1958 by only 18 countries, but today has near universal participation. The pledge by 49 Least-Developed Countries in April 2013 to reduce carbon emissions could be a similar start for climate change.
Important progress can also be made without treaties formally coming into force, Bell said. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization, for example, has not yet been fully established, but its preparatory commission has been building a worldwide network of sensors that has already provided valuable data on nuclear tests.
How Do You Incentivize Change?
A similar change in mindset could affect individual decisions, said Elke Weber. “There are no single solutions” to climate change, she said, but there are many smaller technologies that could be adopted at a much more rapid pace.
Many energy-efficient technologies, such as compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs), offer higher upfront costs but then pay for themselves over the lifetime of the device. In spite of both the environmental and economic benefits, uptake of such options has been remarkably slow. Weber noted that in her home country of Germany, consumers began hoarding the old-fashioned, less efficient incandescent bulbs in the face of a European Union ban.
Making CFLs the default option in new construction and renovation, however, greatly increased their use. In a study conducted by her colleagues, it was found the usage of incandescent bulbs dropped by half if consumers were presented with CFLs as the default option. It doesn’t take “any choice or autonomy off the table,” she said, but still has a tremendous impact.
Marketing and labeling can also be important. Weber performed a study in which participants were given a choice between buying a normal plane ticket or one with an added carbon fee that was labeled as either a tax or an offset. Participants were significantly more likely to accept the fee when it was labeled an offset.
Rewarding Good Behavior
Speaking from her experience as Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Environmental Security from 1993 to 2001, Sherri Goodman said that such observations about behavior change can play out at the institutional level as well.
Goodman also found that default choices and a lack of incentives could undermine the Pentagon’s efficiency goals just as they do with consumers. During her tenure, there were many mandates for the military to adopt alternative fuel non-combat vehicles and to reduce energy use. However, the military’s accounting practices neither accounted for the full price of fuel in long-term planning decisions nor penalized or rewarded commanders based on the efficiency goals. Although the United States was not (and is still not) a signatory, after the Kyoto Protocol came into force in 1997, Goodman said that she recognized that the military would have to manage its emissions at some point. Highlighting the environmental benefits of efficiency was ineffective in the mission-oriented Pentagon, but the benefits of cutting costs and reducing supply lines resonated with military leaders. For instance, she sponsored a study in 2001 that called for “more capable warfighting through reduced fuel burden.”
“Many of these tools, most of which were around when I was in DOD in the 90s, are very good,” Goodman said, “but if you don’t have the penalty for not using them, then often you default to, ‘I’ll just stick to my incandescent bulb.’”
The Power of Incrementalism
“Complex problem-solving requires skillful incrementalism,” said Bell. By taking advantage of many small opportunities, the climate community may be able to get around some of the political deadlock that seems to riddle the path towards major change.
Small changes to incentive structures can cascade into major behavior changes, said Weber. And a more flexible approach than the current UN Framework Convention on Climate Change would allow more creative solutions to be explored by all countries, said Bell. “We have been a little [too] focused on getting big silver bullets out there without thinking about the multiple ways we can and should address these issues [and] being more realistic about the kind of challenges we face.” For example, Goodman pointed out that beyond treaties, the most important single step to addressing climate change might be to ensure women and girls can attend school. “Once women are educated they will make decisions about fertility,” she said, and lower fertility rates contribute to lower population growth rates. As documented in the Population Action International film Weathering Change, women who are empowered are more resilient during times of need.
Drafted by Benjamin Dills and edited by Schuyler Null
- Director of Population, Environmental Security, and Resilience, Wilson Center
- President and CEO, Consortium for Ocean Leadership
- Public Policy Fellow
- Jerome A. Chazen Professor of International Business and Co-Director of the Center for the Decision Sciences, Columbia University