An important source of public support for environmental regulation are evidences of the harms caused by the inadequacy of regulation.  Expansions of environment regulation have typically been driven by crises or highly visible policy failures, such as oil spills, smog, cancer clusters, and the deterioration of scenic beauty or valued ecosystems. Even when such risks are not visible, such as those associated with skin cancer due to ozone depletion or air pollutants with adverse health impacts, the public has been persuaded that these harms were sufficiently credible to justify the need for additional regulation.

Until recently the environmental impacts of climate change did not fall into this category. Its risks were more apparent to scientists and policy advocates than the general public.  Now, however, the actual impacts of climate change have become much more visible. More extreme weather conditions, much warmer weather, warmer and rising sea levels, water shortages and forest fires, have now persuaded significant segments of the American public that the harms caused by rising levels of greenhouse gases are already occurring.

However, while this may be a necessary condition for the public backing of climate change regulation, it not necessarily a sufficient condition. For public support for environmental regulation is also predicated on its ability to ameliorate the harms caused by the lack of adequate regulation. Thus if more environmental laws are enacted, public health will be improved, the air and water will be cleaner, nature will be better protected etc. Many of these results have in fact occurred. The measurable and often visible improvements in air and water quality, nature protection and public health over the last half century and have often been critical to their political backing.

Unfortunately, no such positive outcomes are likely to result from regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Regardless of the policies enacted by any political jurisdictional in the United States,  the environmental harms caused by climate change will persist and grow. For example, California could meet all its ambitious GHG emissions reduction goals and still the state will experience, rising sea levels, increased forest fires, and severe water shortages.  sea levels, etc. Even global compliance with the terms of the Paris Accord will at best, slow down the rate of deterioration of the eco-sphere.  In short, while its harms of not regulating GHG emissions have become increasingly apparent, the benefits of enacting such regulations remain elusive. It is precisely the lack of any visible impacts  – at least in the foreseeable future – that distinguishes regulations reducing GHG emissions from all other environmental regulations.

An important implication of this analysis is that if we are to maximize their political support, climate change regulations must be designed to also confer more immediate or short-term public benefits.  Fortunately, many policies that reduce GHG emissions do also confer other benefits. Thus renewable energy is cleaner, safer, often less expensive. It also creates business opportunities; hence its political backing in some Republican dominated states. Making appliances and homes more energy efficient saves consumers money. Vehicles that are more fuel efficient also improve local air quality.  Electric cars are also much less polluting. Prominently featuring their non-climate change benefits can broaden  public support for policies that also reduce GHG emissions To put it perhaps too starkly; we should attempt to design regulations to reduce GHG emissions that make political and economic sense even if our fears about the harms of global climate change prove to be misinformed or exaggerated.


David Vogel

University of California Berkeley