Three Purposes of Climate Policy

Renewable energy standards. Electric car infrastructure investments. Carbon pricing (of so many kinds). Fracking bans. Building retrofits. Transit build-outs. Bike infrastructure. Tele-commuting incentives. Food waste reduction incentives. Organics composting programs. Land use planning. Terrestrial carbon sequestration investment. Stormwater system upgrades. Resilience planning. Research funding – for new technologies, new processes, better buildings.

Just this partial list of potential climate policies is dizzying, and making sense of it all is overwhelming. In trying to make sense of climate policy, I’ve started to think of climate policy fulfilling three overarching purposes. First, stop making the problem worse. Second, get the world we live in ready for the world that is coming. Third, get better at dealing with climate change. Let’s look at these purposes more closely.

Stop making the climate problem worse

The first purpose of climate policy is the most obvious and well-known. We need to stop making the problem worse and reduce carbon emissions to zero. These policies, called mitigation policies, are varied, but they fit into a few categories.

There are policies that reduce the demand for and use of fossil fuels. The idea here is to make everything more efficient, electrify everything, and drive fossil fuels out of the electricity system. The result is carbon-free energy powering the economy. This approach can be thought of across sectors from buildings to transportation.

In transportation, for example, people can be moved around more efficiently (from an energy perspective) with good urban planning, transit and bike infrastructure, and more fuel-efficient cars. Transit systems and cars can both be powered by electricity, and over time the electric system can transition to carbon-free power.

There are also supply-side policies aimed at cutting off the supply of fossil fuels. Supply-side policies include banning fracking or stopping construction of fossil fuel infrastructure like pipelines.

Some policies and practices can reduce and reverse emissions by changing land use. A big chunk of carbon emissions come from land use change, whether it’s from cutting down big forests or releasing carbon stored in soil, and policies can help reverse these changes and even make land use a contributor to reducing emissions by putting carbon back into plants and soil.

In addition to these broad categories, there are also important things that don’t quite fit. Some of the big ones are near the top of the list for Project Drawdown. These include making sure refrigerants are managed correctly, support for family planning, and reducing food waste.

Get our world ready for the world that is coming

People are already seeing the effects of climate change around the world. Every few days seems to bring a new record rainfall, hurricane or typhoon, glacial melt, or heat wave. And even if records aren’t being set, extreme weather events are becoming more common.

These increasing extremes mean a key part of climate policy is getting buildings, neighborhoods, communities, states, nations, and the world ready for the strain climate change will increasingly put on both built and natural infrastructure systems. These kinds of policies are called adaptation or resilience policies.

People experience climate extremes mediated through both the built and natural infrastructure around them.

Photo by Chromatograph on Unsplash

An important part of adaptation policies is recognizing people don’t experience the increasingly extreme weather brought by climate change directly. Rather, people experience climate extremes mediated through both the built and natural infrastructure around them. Flooding happens when natural drainage or stormwater systems get overwhelmed. Oceanside houses might see more storm surge flooding if they are not built on stilts. The record-setting heat wave in Paris last month was made much harder because the vast majority of residences are not equipped with air-conditioning. Climate change is already pushing infrastructure over the edge of its ability to protect human health and well-being, especially in lower-resourced countries and communities. Proactively addressing this challenge is a core purpose of climate policy.

Get better at dealing with climate change

The third purpose of climate policy reflects one of the most challenging things about climate change: that the unsettling changes already occurring are not simply going to stop and normalize. Instead of arriving at a “new normal” at some point in the future, the baseline of extreme weather will continue to shift as the climate continues to change.

Climate change will bring an increasing flow of novel, complex, and large-scale changes that societies will need to manage and adjust to. Therefore, an essential purpose of climate policy is to help people better deal with change, uncertainty, and extremes.

What might the kinds of policies that help people navigate climate change actually look like?

These climate policies would make sure people have the knowledge, information, and resources they need to deal with climate change.

Examples of policies to make sure people have the knowledge and information needed to address climate change are varied, and they do not always directly relate to climate change.

Policies that help people get better at dealing with climate change are things like significant public investments in research on climate impacts and solutions as well as policy commitments to making and keeping all relevant climate data public. Local engagement with lower-resourced communities to build relationship and share relevant, tailored information around what’s coming, from hurricanes to heat risks is another example. Climate change as part of school curriculum would help kids and families make sense of what is happening in a changing climate. And university extension services should increasingly taking on climate as part of their mission to put knowledge to use in educating whole communities.

An example of making sure people have the resources needed to deal with climate change include policies to reduce inequality and reweave fraying. While these policies may not look climate-related on the surface, they matter. Individual families need resources, from financial to social, to be resilient in the face of climate-related economic shocks like storms. And social bonds and common purpose in community are important resources to help the whole societies navigate fast-paced change and increasing extreme weather.

A good example here are policies to reduce wealth inequality. Historic levels of inequality are already straining individual families as well as the social fabric of countries around the world. Without concerted effort to reduce this inequality, the strain of climate change threatens to rip these communities beyond repair, leading to things like violence and, ultimately, migration.

Leadership for democracy and climate

This third purpose of climate policy – policies that help us get better at dealing with it – may be as much about public leadership as it is about actual policy. As the world accelerates into a climate changed future, the ability to find and lift up the cultural narratives that help people make sense of what’s happening will be an increasingly valuable skill for leaders. These stories are essential for a culture, and the people in it, to navigate change in ways that hold together democracies and the communities that depend on them.

What kinds of leadership and policies do you see helping us navigate the climate transition we’re in?

2 thoughts on “Three Purposes of Climate Policy

  1. This is excellent framing, especially for someone (like me!) who’s trying to figure out where to start getting an education on climate change and climate policies. I think sometimes that folks knowledgeable about and active in the climate movement may not realize how difficult it is for those outside it to get grounded, since the issues are so complex and politically charged. It’s as if the climate movement needs an on-boarding process! One that isn’t Twitter!

    A couple of things I noticed that you might want to correct (I hope you don’t mind): there is a repeated word (“coming coming”) in the second paragraph; and in the third paragraph under “Get our world ready” you have a note to yourself to include a link about a/c in Paris. This might work: … not specifically about Paris but makes some related points.

    Thanks for your efforts here; will keep tuning in…. 🙂

    1. Thanks for the comment! I am trying to be both useful to people new to climate conversations and folks who have been here for awhile. I’ve also fixed the typos. I even had someone edit this before I posted, so frustrating to have the little mistakes. Looking forward to future conversation.

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