Can Our Institutions Meet the Challenge of the Environmental Crisis?

At the very time when our rapidly-growing environmental crisis is becoming an urgent, multi-dimensional threat, many of the world’s governments are corrupt, dysfunctional and/or the captives of retrograde vested interests.  Does this pose an insurmountable obstacle, or are there workarounds and solutions that can be used to deal with this existential challenge?

The short answer is we don’t know.  Choose your cliché -- the signals are mixed; the jury is out; there’s both good news and bad news.  Consider just one of our daunting array of problems, global warming.  Some countries have taken the lead in converting from air-polluting fossil fuels to clean renewables.  Germany, for instance, has been aggressively converting to renewable energy since 2007.  In 2015, the renewable share of Germany’s total energy production was 33.9%, with a new target in its revised “Energiewende” (energy transition) policy of 60% by 2050.

On the other hand, China has been slow to join the revolution.  For decades, the Chinese added new coal-fired power plants at an ever-accelerating pace.  But China has now shifted gears and has rapidly become the world leader in installing renewable power.  While renewables were only 10% of its total output in 2016, it is now on the way to 20% by 2030.  China now manufactures 2/3 of the world’s solar panels and 1/2 of its wind turbines.   As for the U.S., our country has lagged with only 9.9% renewables in 2015.  We edged over 10% in 2017, just as the Trump Administration was backing out of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement and in various ways encouraging more fossil fuel production. 

Overall, the global total for renewables (excluding biomass like wood-burning) is currently only about 8%.  To avoid a calamitous increase in global temperatures, it has been estimated that we will need a 40-fold increase in renewables, starting yesterday.  Fortunately, the cost per kilowatt hour for solar and wind power has been plunging and is now, in many cases, significantly cheaper (sometimes only half the cost) of older fossil fuel installations.  The economics are now much more favorable.  Going forward we can expect an accelerating shift to renewables.  Electric vehicles (ev’s) have also reached a take-off point for capturing a larger share of the market.  Though currently only .2% of the global total, sales jumped 47% in the past year.  If this growth rate continues, some 80% of the cars on the road by 2030 could be ev’s.

But this is the “easy” part.  For one thing, weaning the world from the many industrial technologies that require lots of fossil fuels (from construction to pharmaceuticals, clothing, metallurgy, farming, and more) will be much more disruptive and costly.  More important, we do not yet have technological and market solutions (much less the political will) to solve many of the other “commons” problems we face – rising sea levels, acidification, oxygen loss, and plastics pollution in the oceans, the alarming decline in the world’s topsoil (a recent U.N. study estimated that, at the current loss-rate, it will all be gone in 60 years), an ominous decline in fresh water resources (due to reductions in the mountain snow packs that feed the world’s rivers, shrinking underground water aquifers, and water pollution in various countries), and, not least, the rapid depletion of fish stocks that feed roughly 1/3 of the global population.   Add to this the growing number of extreme weather events, and the word “crisis” may be an understatement.  And all this is exacerbated by the growing extremes of wealth and poverty in many countries, increasing the likelihood of social conflict and political turmoil over time.  As the old saying goes, when the pie gets smaller, the table manners change.  

So, what is the prognosis?  Our best hope may be to use the “polycentric” approach proposed by the Nobel political scientist Elinor Ostrom.  To quote from an article by Daniel Cole in the journal Nature, Climate Change:

“Decades of work conducted by researchers associated with the Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University have emphasized two chief advantages of polycentric approaches over [monolithic, top-down solutions]: they provide more opportunities for experimentation and learning to improve policies over time, and they increase communications and interactions — formal and informal, bilateral and multilateral — among parties to help build the mutual trust needed for increased cooperation. A wealth of theoretical, empirical and experimental evidence supports the polycentric approach.”

Equally important, a polycentric approach locates the solutions to our problems at the appropriate level(s) of governance – where the power lies for making changes.  This approach invites initiatives and coordinated action from many quarters – from concerned citizens to non-governmental organizations, the private sector, local communities and their governments, regional agencies, national-level governments and, of course, the United Nations and its various health and welfare agencies. 

Given the magnitude and scope of our global challenge, an “all-hands-on-deck” strategy will be needed.   It would be helpful if national governments developed coherent plans that provided incentives for changes and created appropriate regulatory regimes.  A global carbon tax, for example, would accelerate the shift to renewable energy.   Over time, we can only hope that retrograde or corrupt governments will either be reformed or that ways will be found to work around them.  Can there be any better model for this than how various states, organizations, and business firms in the U.S. have been pressing forward with the goal of transitioning our nation to renewable energy despite the strong headwinds from Washington?  It is a model that, above all, offers us hope.    





Peter Corning

Peter Corning is currently the Director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems in Seattle, Washington.  He was also a one-time science writer at Newsweek and a professor for many years in the Human Biology Program at Stanford University, along with holding a research appointment in Stanford’s Behavior Genetics Laboratory.  


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