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Why don’t people engage climate change? Problem 4: Political-economic context

Saturday, November 7th, 2009


Prerequisite posts:

People often disengage from environmental issues because of a sense of disenfranchisement:  “What kind of difference can I make?  Not much, so why bother?  We need big changes and soon.  The power to do this is controlled by politicians, who are influenced (financially and otherwise) by Big Business often intent on blocking change.”

In a series of provocative articles in Energy Policy1, Gregory Unruh posed two questions to help us unravel forces at the root of this problem:

  • If [renewable energy] technologies exist, are cost effective, and help minimize climate-forcing emissions, why aren’t they diffusing more rapidly?
  • Furthermore, why aren’t government policies to promote them, about which there is substantial scientific and social consensus, more aggressive or effective?

The answer he suggests is carbon lock in.  What is it? How has it become major inertia to change by reinforcing power structures in society, business, and politics?

Automobile-based transportation is a great example of carbon lock in.  Let’s start at the level of an individual business firm and then scale up to the entire world:

a business –> technology –> society–social norms and institutions –> society–public institutions  –> globalized society

(1) An individual business (e.g., a car manufacturer)

When the automobile was being invented at the dawn of the 20th Century, there were three engine technology options:  electric, gasoline internal combustion, and steam.  A confluence of forces pushed gas engines over the top.  Horse troughs were closed to steam engine use in 1895. The discovery of the U.S.’s first major oil discovery in Texas (the Spindletop gusher in Beaumont, TX) provided light crude oil that could be refined into gasoline (earlier, heavy oils were mainly used as lubricants or refined into kerosene).2 This flooded the market with cheap gasoline.  In addition, Henry Ford’s assembly line was gearing up with the gas engine, dramatically reducing vehicle prices and fueling mass appeal.  The rest is history.

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So what happens once this new technology became the industry standard? Unruh (2000) suggests several outcomes:

  • There is a massive industry shake out and consolidation. At one point in the late 1890′s there were more than 1900 firms making more than 3200 kinds of car.  Now we just know the Big 3.
  • There is a shift from product creation to process innovation.
  • “Core competencies” are put into place that define competitive advantage.
  • Organizational silos of specialization appear, and rules of thumb become standard operating procedure.

Unruh (2000) goes on to identify several problems with this in terms of how it begins to lock us into a particular mode of production that’s hard to change:

  • The focus of the business is on existing competencies, not on alternatives that could make their products obsolete.
  • Focus is on constant, incremental improvement (how many times do we hear ads for “new and improved”?).
  • The business reinvests profits, reinforcing the dominant design competencies.
  • When projects are durable, this can lead to lasting or irreversible impacts.  This is why people oppose the new siting of coal-based power plants—they live for 50 or more years.
  • All of this creates lock-in, and large firms rarely become sources of innovation.
  • The incumbent industries only postpone their eventual obsolescence.

(2) A technology (e.g., transportation system)

In addition to the rise of the gasoline engine-based auto industry, a number of additional industries sprung up to accommodate the growing popularity of personal automobiles.  And with them came the service economy and standards for how things are designed, all of which create further lock in:

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These interlinkages are a significant source of resistance to change.  An industry is unlikely to innovate unless it is sure that all of the necessary associated industries are willing and able to accommodate the change.

(3) Society–social norms and institutions

Eventually, social norms and institutions are structured around the emerging technology, helping to further reinforce lock in throughout our daily lives:

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(4) Society–public institutions

Local and national governments respond to civil society and business.  They have the power to influence policy, including subsidies and pollution regulation, that can either change or reinforce the dominant business paradigm. They are also heavily influenced by lobbyists and corporate donations.

All of this creates the “iron triangle” among politicians, special interests, and bureaucracy.  The military-industrial complex is one example.  Agribusiness is another.  And the fossil-fuel based economy is another.  As Will Rogers once quipped, “We have the best Congress money can buy.”

Unruh calls this overall system of lock in the “Techno-institutional Complex (TIC).

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(5) Globalized society

When nations like China and India begin developing, there are a number of political and economic influences that affect developmental trajectories:

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As Unruh (2006) suggests, each developing nation is influenced by the TICs of developed nations.  Also, the World bank and International Monetary Fund impose financial restrictions (such as structural adjustments) and encourage traditional ways of developing.

There has been a longstanding discussion about the need for developing countries to leapfrog the developed world by installing, from the beginning, things like smart grids and renewable energy production.  However, as Unruh (2006) points out

  • Energy technologies currently available for transfer are in the hands of transnational giants whose core competencies lie in the traditional fossil fuel industry.
  • The rapid industrialization model often adopted by countries like China copies transportation and energy industries in the developed world.
  • Leapfrogging technology transfer to the developing world at a large enough scale to have a significant impact will require a major financial investment from industrialized countries, which have yet to commit at this level.
  • All of these things reinforce a global carbon lock in, even though we know that better technologies exist.

Bottom line:

  • Engaging climate warming is not simply a matter of education (problem 1), finding better messaging (problem 2), or convincing people to change their behaviors or values (problem 3).  Even with all of that, change is incredibly difficult because it requires more than shifts in individual lifestyles—in some cases, we’re demanding that the entire TIC change.  There are few historical precedents for doing this.
  • Part of this challenge arises because of the complexity and interdependency of our social-political-economic institutions.
  • However, some of the challenge also comes from immense amounts of money and power that flow between deeply entrenched politicians and special interests.

Related posts:

1Unruh References:

  • Unruh, G. (2000) Understanding carbon lock-in. Energy Policy 28:817-830.
  • Unruh, G. (2002) Escaping carbon lock-in. Energy Policy 30:317-325.
  • Unruh, G. (2006) Globalizing carbon lock-in. Energy Policy 34:1185-1197.

2Little, A. (2009) Power Trip. Harper Collins


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6 Responses to “Why don’t people engage climate change? Problem 4: Political-economic context”

  1. robert says:

    I immediately thought of this post when I heard a portion of this segment on Living On Earth: God’s Green Earth

    I often wonder what goes on in people’s religious minds, what their drive is to believe in the mythologies. This simple segment about religion, marketing, and human psychology was very interesting. Since I was making pizza at home with family, etc… I could not digest the entire piece but was struck with this passage:


    YOUNG: Hmmm, carbon sinners.

    PALMER: Carbon sinners. They are very good at making us feel guilty they’re very good at fear. The trouble is they’re not very good at hope, salvation, liberation, redemption, and they’re appallingly bad at celebrating.

    YOUNG: Well, I got to say when you talk about climate change it’s hard to see cause for celebration in this. I mean it’s a pretty gloomy outlook.

    (ARC /Richard Stonehouse)

    PALMER: Well, it is and it isn’t. You see, if there is nothing to celebrate, why would you bother? And the faiths are the oldest institutions in the world – they know more about how human psychology works than any other organization, which is why they’ve outlived every dynasty, every empire, they’ve outlived Communism pretty much, they’ve outlived the League of Nations, and as we gently point out to our colleagues in the UN, they will outlive the UN.

    Now, how do they do this? They do this because they know that you can ask people to fast and you can ask them to repent, and then you feast. You have to fast and feast. If all you tell people they can do is fast, they give up. You’ve got to give people hope.



  2. [...] Problem 4—Political-economic context:   The enormous inertia built into techno-institutional complexes and the huge sums of power and money exchanged by politicians and the fossil fuel industry ensure that there will be constituencies at the highest levels of government who deny warming and fight mitigation. [...]

  3. Phil says:

    It’s an interesting point that’s at the heart of the debate about environmentalism and climate warming messaging right now. To what extent should hope be a central message? This is the argument that Schellenberger and Nordhaus have made—people need to be inspired and hopeful. Paul Hawken has said (and I’m paraphrasing here because I can’t remember exactly) that if you’re not pessimistic, then you’re not in tune with what science is saying, but if you’re not hopeful, then you’re not looking at all of the great ideas and capacity for change that people are generating.

    One might argue that it’s a fine line. It’s good to identify solutions that engender real hope—and then pursue them. On the other hand, it may not be useful if a sense of hope is conflated with the ease of accomplishing this task. Hope does not mean easy. It’s going to be hard work transitioning to a decarbonized economy. So it seems like we need a spirit of persistence and hopefulness….and a reminder of Hawken’s two-sided coin.

  4. [...] If Al Gore and others are correct that we already have available the kinds of renewable energy technology needed to decarbonize the economy, why is it taking so long to do so?  As we saw in an earlier post, part of the answer is carbon lock in resulting from our modern political economy. [...]

  5. [...] I’m pretty pessimistic these days.  I’m not sure if anything short of a severe economic energy shock that hits ordinary people hard—similar to what we saw in 2006-2007—will bring us to a tipping point.  If the U.S. returns to $4-5/gallon gasoline and home heating oil, we will start seeing environmentalists, security hawks, the energy independence crowd, green jobs advocates, and everyday citizens realign once again.  Only then will there be a coalition large and loud enough to force Washington take on the political-economic might of the fossil fuel industry and their lobbyists. [...]

  6. [...] also shouldn’t be surprised that money and political power are defining the narrative at the moment.   In my opinion, the only force large enough to overcome entrenched [...]


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