A large blue iceberg floating in a body of water, symbolizing the urgent need for policy responses to climate change.

Moshe Moar (Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

Jale Tosun (Heidelberg University)

Andrew Jordan (University of East Anglia)

Existing scholarship has paid a lot of attention to how climate concerns are addressed by policy-makers. We know that international processes such as globalization or transnational communication matter as much as national processes such as competition among political parties and the role of veto players. Yet our knowledge is limited in terms of proportionality of climate policy decisions. That said, against what standards should scholars in public policy judge over- or under-reactions?

We address climate change since this area is particularly likely to produce over- and under-reactions. Over-reactions are, for example, likely if the public’s risk perception forces policy-makers to come up with policy solutions. By the same token, under-reactions can be expected because of the (scientific) uncertainty about whether and when climate change will hit individual countries. Given the limited knowledge about the nature of policy over- or under-production in the case of climate governance, we propose to pay more attention to this research area.

With regard to the policy dimension, over- or under-reactions both entail a series of potential problems, which warrant attention. Over-reactions are likely to produce policy alternatives that are too ambitious and, when implemented, are likely to be affected by non-compliance or problems with regard to monitoring and enforcement. Another problem concerns the excessive use of resources in the case of over-reactions, which then are not available for other projects. Furthermore, in a globalized world trade, partners favoring less stringent standards are likely to challenge climate policy responses which they deem too ambitious and potentially harmful for their economic interests. Conversely, under-reactions could induce the public to lose trust in policy-makers, which in the long-run can lower the state actors’ capacity for both environmental governance and climate governance.

Despite great efforts at the national and international level, policy-makers have until today failed to adopt policies and measures capable of effectively mitigating climate change and keeping global warming below critical thresholds. Yet, at the same time, increasingly ambitious climate targets have been formulated and are continuously being reaffirmed or even tightened. When, in 2010, policy-makers adopted the goal to limit global warming to a maximum of 2° Celsius despite the previous failure of the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit to adopt a binding successor to the Kyoto Protocol, the gap between goals and regulatory action became more than obvious. Thus, measured by its own goals, climate policy-making can be characterized as a form of chronic policy under-reaction. Instead of reacting to this mismatch by either lowering the mitigation target or strengthening climate policies, policy-makers are increasingly pressuring policy advisors to modify their climate scenarios in such a way that reaching the 2°C target remains theoretically in reach, despite inadequate policies.

As one of the contributors to the special section – Helge Jörgens – argues in his paper, the previously dominant approach of “evidence-based policy-making” is gradually giving way to what could be termed “policy-based evidence making”. While the former represented an attempt by policymakers to achieve proportionate policy responses, the latter establishes a “story of proportionality” which can be “sold” to the public in order to conceal or legitimate policy under-reaction.

This blog is a summary of the focus of an INOGOV-funded workshop. Research from this workshop will be published in a forthcoming Special Issue in the Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning.

Photo credit: David/Flickr

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