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Imagine Melanie

Written by Jonathan Fisk, SoGES 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Political Science

Imagine Melanie - she lives in Colorado at the base of the Rocky Mountains and is greatly concerned about climate change. Yet, she is not quite sure what to believe. Is it a myth – as many people she looks up to and respects have said? Is it real and if so is it really being caused by human activity? And, even if Melanie decides that climate change is indeed real and that fellow humans are to blame – what can she do? A political ‘sciencey’ answer would point out that energy and environmental issues exist in the context of complex labyrinth of geopolitics, formal and informal institutions and a collection of stakeholders from multi-national corporations to individuals. Additionally, within this ‘web’ is the proliferation of new technologies that make it possible to reduce uncertainty, identify nascent and growing challenges and even beginning the process of addressing ecological problems.

To strip away the jargon – what the preceding means is that Melanie faces a bumpy and stressful road strewn with arguments and difficult decisions. And, it is likely that Melanie will be torn because environmental issues are tough, they likely require Melanie to change her behavior and routines, they will tug at her core values, many of which are at stake and considered legitimate. It is also apparent to her that no one governing body (institutions) exists that can completely solve contemporary environmental issues like climate change.

Suppose Melanie decides she wants to address climate change. The institutional landscape she would confront ‘encourages’ conflict because it allows Melanie but also those who may disagree with her, multiple opportunities to debate and shape public policy. In this context – supporters of climate science may convince their city to take action but may struggle in their Statehouse. And, because power is so decentralized - if she loses in the Statehouse, she could try to work with members of Congress or wait until there is a new governor. The flip side is – so can her opponents.  Think of it this way – both she and her opponents can lobby 535 members of Congress, hundreds of bureaucratic agencies, 50 state governments and thousands of local governments.  Because of the structure and design of the U.S. political system, political power cannot be consolidated to the degree necessary for Melanie to just work with her city, state or member of Congress – so she can shop around and find the most receptive audience or institution.

Federal-state-local environmental roles and powers often change, which contributes to ‘fluid' and shifting legal boundaries and understandings of problems – this may lead to additional disputes. Again, consider poor Melanie – while she might believe that climate change can be solved through technology, others would argue that climate change is not real or that her solution does not go far enough – likely leading to additional disagreements. The potential for conflict does not end here. Even after laws are written – the language is often ambiguous, leading reasonable people to disagree on how goals may be achieved, the tools to be used and whether such goals will lead to new and unforeseen consequences.

Melanie may also encounter all sorts of conflicts about climate change because, as an issue, it involves key ideological debates. In short, her support for climate change related policies may depend on whether she is a Republican or Democrat – with Democrats increasingly supporting climate change science and Republicans more likely to believe the opposite.

Core values may also be at stake – concern over electricity costs, renewable power, good jobs and protecting the planet can pull Melanie, her opponents and even governments in multiple and conflicting directions. Bracketing off partisan debates, climate change, like many new environmental challenges, is also more likely to produce conflicts because it is no longer about distributing money. Rather, climate change may mean shifting to renewable (and more expensive) power, living in a walkable neighborhood rather than typical  suburbs, giving up one’s car in favor of public transportation, recycling or not engaging in as much consumption.  In other words, many new environmental policies are regulatory, which means that goods and services may be eliminated or altered, and certain behaviors: required or restricted. To return to political science jargon, conflict is likely because costs are acute (directly placed on the individual, firm or government) and the benefits diffuse i.e. (intergenerational and global).

What does all this mean for Melanie? Environmental conflict is likely inevitable– as the stakes are high., She will likely feel conflicted between protecting the planet, ensuring public health, sustaining biodiversity, heating her home and fueling her car, while also the ensuring that the economy continues to grow.  And, she may also disagree with others as to how to achieve and/or measure those goals.  She, moreover, will have multiple opportunities to interact with political institutions and disagree with stakeholders (who – in terms of numbers is increasing). And, when she loses the argument with one institution and she can go to another to continue to pursue her desired change. What this all means is that conflict is the new normal relative to environmental politics.

 

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