Climate change – a Realist approach

Dr Robin Gaster

Dr. Robin Gaster

I am now fully engaged on the challenge of climate change. There is overwhelming evidence that climate change is real, and that human activity has had and will have a profound effect on our climate.

Over the past few years, I have developed what I call a Realist approach.  This approach is explained in more detail in an artticle I wrote with Rob Atkinson, but the basic pillars are these:

  1. Climate change is real, it is a major challenge, and human activity strongly influences climate change. Realists are not climate deniers.
  2. Climate change is global and requires global solutions. Eliminating emissions in the rich countries will not be enough.
  3. Shame and blame won’t work. We would all like to be greener, but we won’t stop driving, flying, or eating meat. And expecting people in low-income countries to give up first world aspirations is both a pathway to failure and fundamentally immoral.
  4. Forced transitions through regulatory mandates will fail politically. They have no chance in poor countries with other pressing priorities (e.g. food, housing, electricity), and won’t be sustainable in rich countries either. Backlash is already very visible in the UK, US, and much of Europe.
  5. All policy mechanisms will be needed. Realists have no ideological commitment to “market forces” or against regulation or subsidies. What matters is what works to solve specific problems. Market forces offer the most powerful lever for speedy change at the necessary global level, if clean technologies can be developed that are cost and performance competitive with dirty ones.
  6. Innovation will be critical. We absolutely do NOT “have all the tech we need,” not at the right price. And market forces alone won’t be enough here: Private investors capture too little of the social benefit from innovations and are often too impatient, while slower-moving incumbents have huge advantages and plenty of incentive to slow down change. So we will need much more government funding across the entire product development cycle, from basic research to scaleup.
  7. Government resources are finite, so policy must be both effective and efficient. Prioritization and trade-offs are not just inevitable, they are mandatory. Simply maximizing emission reduction without sustainable economics and sufficient political support won’t work.
  8. Government capacity to support innovation must improve. That innovation-oriented strategy requires an appetite for risk, a capacity to assess risk, mechanisms to distribute risk, the courage to act, and an acceptance that failures are inevitable. Those capabilities are hard to develop but nonetheless necessary.
  9. Information must flow freely. Market-oriented strategies in particular will need constant monitoring and often adjustment. Expecting to get it right immediately is ridiculous, so strong feedback loops must be built in. The existing consensus that protects both government agencies and corporate secrecy must be replaced by transparency as the default option. Understanding failure is indeed the first step to success – but that’s possible only with full transparency.
  10. Within the Realist framework, technology, politics, and markets connect to illuminate pathways through the green transition, ensuring that hope does not replace analysis and thus avoiding expensive and time-consuming dead ends. We need plans for specific technologies, in defined target markets, that address local geographies and communities; plans that are also subject to deep and continuous scrutiny. That is the core capability that can drive an effective green transition.

It’s hard to make green policy in our highly polarized environment. So it’s tempting to just sign up for anything that could possibly move the needle on decarbonization. But that’s not how we will find our way to a decarbonized world. A Realist climate policy can be both enormously ambitious and sufficiently skeptical at the same time. It will need to be.