Global Climate Politics and the Power of Leadership: An Interview with David Victor

David Victor

David Victor is a Professor of International Relations at the School of Global Policy & Strategy, UC San Diego. He is also the co-director of the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation, and Center for Global Transformation Endowed Chair in Innovation and Public Policy at the School. 

Since we have you here at the Centre, we wanted to start with a question on Germany.  Germany has just unveiled, in September 2019, a new ‘Climate Change Package’. The public response to it here has been largely negative. How would you evaluate the package from a policy-expert’s point of view?

I cannot speak yet on the details of Germany's climate change package. I think this is politically the central challenge for any government that is serious about climate. On one hand, the public wants to see swift action, and on the other, anyone who is concerned with cost and feasibility comes up with plans that are neither swift nor conspicuous. Deep decarbonization is really hard, but also long overdue. For too long we have been declaring bold goals with no vision for how to actually achieve them. So, what we have come to is inevitable: where people see the work done by a country that is arguably one of the world leaders in deep decarbonization, and see it as inadequate.

Popular opinion now, especially with Fridays for Future, is demanding more drastic steps from governments. What do you think the impact of Fridays for Future will be?

It’s hard to predict what Fridays for Future will finally do. It's still in its early stages, so you can predict that it will either create transformative dialogue around the world, or you can imagine that it will be forgotten. But there is no doubt that it is currently having a great impact.


Where would you say the ideal policy balance should be?

There is no doubt about the science, which shows that impacts of climate change will continue to grow in the near future, and it will get more extreme. I live in California, and as we are talking, my state is quite literally on fire. Some of that is related to underlying climate conditions the state faces. In Europe too, heat waves are occurring more frequently than before. This tells me that the public will become increasingly focused on the issue of climate. And that will put a lot of pressure on governments.  But you asked about what the balance is- I think the balance is what can actually get done. Politicians who are known to announce things will also make bold announcements. Politicians who actually do things will do things that never seem bold enough. And I think the latter is much more important than the former. But it is in some sense a recipe for perennial political trouble—a perennial feeling that what’s being announced is always bolder than what’s being done.


There is also a lot of pessimism surrounding the US’ current climate policies. How would you assess the situation?

That Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement is not a surprise. He had said he would do it. The decision makes no rational sense, because the Paris Agreement did not put any binding requirements on the US. However, while may not makes sense to a rational analyst, politically it makes sense to him and his electoral base, which is a significant part of the public—a segment of the public fired up about politics for lots of reasons, including the fear that elites and the global economy have left them behind.  They believe he delivers on his promises and frankly, for his electoral base, he has delivered—he has lowered taxes (mostly for rich people) and appointed judges.  He cannot win re-election without his base being fired up and turning out to vote, so he will keep doing what he is doing.  Against that extreme policy, advocates for climate policy have been fired up as well—working mainly at the state level.  So climate policy has become wrapped up in the larger political polarization of the country. 


How much do you think climate as an issue would affect the coming presidential elections?

So, it's possible that climate will figure prominently because it is so polarizing and thus politically energizing.  But it's important to recognize that even for the Democrats, climate is not the central issue. We have had multiple Presidential debates now with almost no climate related questions, and with much more attention to jobs, to healthcare, tax policy and other topics. Climate is still not one of the issues that everyone is paying daily attention to. That's a huge difference between the USA and Europe. For a variety of reasons, sustained attention to climate is truly at the center of politics in central and western Europe. It isn’t in most of the US. 


In that context, how would you rate the Green New Deal?

Nobody actually knows what the Green New Deal (GND) really is, and that's its genius. There's a light version of it, with policies aimed at lower carbon emissions, investing in electric power transmission, new technologies, more research and development across the board for energy. This I am completely in favour of. Then there is a heavier version, which is all of the above but accelerated, and with more radical interventions to address a wider array of social inequalities—housing, historical injustices, etc.  The abstractness of GND is why so many people are in favour of it, even as it's hard to see concrete legislation on GND. Because the moment you make it concrete, the universal support will become non-universal. A similar GND discussion is happening in Europe, and it may move faster than the US discussion because there is more consensus on the need for green investment. It will be interesting to see if the language of the GND, now taking practical shape perhaps in Europe, will reverberate back in the US in some ways to make concrete policy changes, because the impetus for political change on this is much higher here.


We did have a slightly provocative question for you: if you had to convince the climate change deniers in one line, what would you tell them?

Well, in one line, I would say, "the problem is serious". But the larger question is, how do you convince the deniers. And the answer is, you don't. There is a need to rethink our political strategy. We need to recognize that much of climate denialism today is motivated reasoning, because the consequences of connecting the dots may be monumental to the deniers. They fear that accepting the logic of climate change could result in closure of industries in which they have huge vested interests. A lot of climate opposition is based on party identification in the US—Republicans, especially extremist Republicans, have opposed serious climate policy partly on the logic that markets should be allowed to regulate themselves and state intervention to cut emissions would be costly.  We need to recognize that that's not the audience we need to try to change—because those communities, right now, are dug in. What needs to change is the centrist political space—in part by changing facts on the ground.  By showing that deep decarbonization is feasible, that it generates winners (and some losers) and that it isn’t as costly and disruptive as feared is a mechanism for building more centrist support.  This is the big difference between the US and its European counterparts. Here, in Europe, it is much at the center of the politics, including that of center-right parties, who you’d think would be skeptical but have in fact embraced climate as a core concern. That’s not true in the US. 


Your work recommends working with individual nations on their priorities, in order to tackle climate change issues. To end on a more positive note, which nations would you say are doing the best at it currently?

Well, I think one of the ironies in this is that the places that are actually doing the best are the small places. Some examples are California, though we are not a country, Denmark, Norway (although Norway like Germany is struggling with some very particular problems including transportation emissions), and the UK, where big reduction has been because of the shift to natural gas. So, a lot of places are actually making a big effort. The problem is that those tend to be a small fraction of global emissions. The problem with global emissions and politics is that the more you do to control emissions, the less relevant you become.


Could you elaborate on what you mean by that?

I mean, that when you are a country that actually reduces emissions, your share of the global total goes down. And the whole game here is that these leaders- like Germany, Norway, the UK, Denmark, and Ireland with the Irish Grid, these leaders need to look at leadership not through the lens of how much they are doing for the planet in comparison to others, but in terms of followership. Everything you do with a leader on the climate problem needs to be evaluated through the question of whether your leadership raises the odds that others are going to do something similar.

Read also: David Victor, in the New York Times, on the COP in Madrid and climate leadership


And wouldn’t that also have to be incentivized on an international stage in some concrete ways?

Yes. So, we don’t really know just how much incentive is needed. If the new technologies turn out to be vastly superior, the incentives would have to be smaller. If the new technologies are more expensive—for example, how green steel is more expensive than conventional steel based on thermodynamics and engineering—then international cooperation initially would be about improving those technologies in these leader countries and markets.  Then it would shift to the next phase—of creating the incentives so that “followers” would more readily adopt these new technologies.  If the new technologies and business practices are more costly than incumbents then active incentives will be needed—like coordinated regulatory requirements, carbon taxes, trade measures.  All those active measures will need international coordination as well—and coordination that involves lots of countries. 

Read also: The latest report on this by the Energy Transmission Commission on this, released at the COP 25 in Madrid, with David Victor as the lead author.


So, despite some countries doing well, this is a grim reflection of the situation we are in.

It is a grim problem. But to really see the positives, there are some sectors where things are getting better, like in electrical power, for example. One of the most powerful results from big energy models, such as those reviewed by the IPCC, is that an economy that decarbonizes is an economy that electrifies. And, luckily, the one sector in the economy that is offering reliable good news is the electrical power sector. That tells me that we will probably be looking at rapid electrification, and the faster that happens (to a point) the more the economy as a whole decarbonizes.  That logic can be taken too far, of course, because many applications will be very costly to electrify.  But electrification is the real engine of progress right now.  So, if you are looking for a positive note to end the discussion, this is a pivotal sector to the issue where we have a lot of good news.


An interview by Mouli Banerjee and Hannah Grüttgen.


Communications Team


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