YaleE360: Pielke’s "Iron Law" of Climate Policy

October 19, 2010 | Breakthrough Staff,

In an essay at YaleE360, Roger Pielke Jr., a Breakthrough Senior Fellow and author of the recently released book, "The Climate Fix," explains the "iron law of climate policy" and what it suggests about the way forward on national and international climate and energy policy.

Here's an excerpt from Pielke's essay:

When policies on emissions reductions collide with policies focused on economic growth, economic growth will win out every time. Climate policies should flow with the current of public opinion rather than against it, and efforts to sell the public on policies that will create short-term economic discomfort cannot succeed if that discomfort is perceived to be too great. Calls for asceticism and sacrifice are a nonstarter.

The "iron law" thus presents a boundary condition on policy design that is every bit as limiting as is the second law of thermodynamics, and it holds everywhere around the world, in rich and poor countries alike. It says that even if people are willing to bear some costs to reduce emissions (and experience shows that they are), they are willing to go only so far...

To succeed, any policies focused on decarbonizing economies will necessarily have to offer short-term benefits that are in some manner proportional to the short-term costs. In practice, this means that efforts to make dirty energy appreciably more expensive will face limited success.

The unavoidable reality is that policy makers and those they represent are committed to sustaining economic growth, bringing populations out of poverty, and expanding access to energy. Emissions reduction goals will not be achieved by policies that seek to stimulate innovation by constricting, much less by reducing, economic activity.

So if making the costs of energy appreciably more expensive is a nonstarter as a tool of decarbonization, what is the alternative? The alternative is to make clean energy cheaper.

As part of a way forward on climate policy, Pielke proposes a politically tolerable carbon price to fund the energy innovation critical to making clean energy cheaper than fossil fuels:

It is important to emphasize that the point of a modest carbon tax is not to change people's behavior, to restrict economic activity, or to price fossil fuels at a level higher than alternatives. The purpose of a low-carbon tax is to raise revenues for investments in innovation. To the extent that innovation is successful, leading to the displacement of fossil fuels, it will be more likely that the carbon price can be increased.



You can read the full essay, "A Positive Path for Meeting the Global Climate Challenge," at Yale environment360 here.

See Also: "Technology-First Climate Fix"

Read interviews with Pielke, Jr. and reviews of "The Climate Fix" here. The book is on sale now at a variety of book retailers.