Five theories of change on global climate politics

With no prospect of a serious global climate deal any time soon, what’s likely to be the main driver of change on climate politics? I think there are basically five main storylines on this, each with their own tribes of adherents.

1) The ‘one last push’ tribe. This tribe argues that nothing short of a global deal based on binding targets and timetables will cut the mustard. But it also doesn’t think that ‘big bang’ approaches can work either. So by default it argues for what you might call a ‘muscular incrementalism’ based on the steady, hard work of assembling political coalitions to make progress and open up political space, one step at a time. Membership of this tribe remains the default among EU governments; the UK’s John Ashton is an articulate proponent of this view.

2) The ‘technology competition’ tribe. This lot reckon that the main driver of change will be countries competing with each other to secure shares of massive future clean technology markets. Look at the fact that the US is taking China to the WTO for renewable energy subsidies, they say: US competitiveness concerns will drive development of its low carbon sector in a way environmental policy never could. The Breakthrough Institute and IPPR’s Political Climate blog are good examples of this view.

3) The ‘tooling up for a zero sum world’ tribe. This tribe – widespread among militaries and national security communities – thinks climate change is a problem, but don’t focus much on how to tackle it. Instead, they’re focused on how to cope with a world of climate impacts and intensifying competition for scarce resources like oil, land, food and water. That focus could help to boost low carbon technologies, when they contribute to energy independence or other national security goals. But equally, it could also drive heavy investment in less sustainable options – like tar sands, shale gas, 1st generation biofuel or liquids from coal.

4) The ‘new designs for living’ tribe. This crowd often don’t have much faith in the capacity of policy elites to get to grips with climate change; instead, they reckon the changes that matter will come from the bottom up – think permaculture and small scale renewables. This tribe draws together people focused on climate change with those more focused on peak oil, but their basic approach is pretty similar. The transition towns folk are a great example.

5) The ‘using shocks intelligently’ tribe. Finally, I think we’re seeing the beginnings of a tribe that seek to deal with the lack of political space for action on climate by being ready for shocks – extreme weather events etc. – and using the political windows of opportunity that open up (usually suddenly and only briefly) in their wake. I’ve been tending towards this theory of change for a while now, as it’s the only way I can see that we’ll get the political space for the comprehensive global approach that I think is needed; Paul Gilding’s book The Great Disruptionis also very much in this space.

These tribes aren’t mutually exclusive, and I think the more we can draw from all of them, the better. But I also think it’s useful if, in debates about where climate policy should go next, we’re also open about our assumptions on what will make change happen.