Monday, February 22, 2010

Climate Hard, Health Care Easy

I'm not talking here about the where we are now debate on health care reform between Jonathan Chait and Andrew Sprung (Chait's right!), but about the big picture differences between the politics of health care reform and the politics of climate change legislation.   And, as depressing as it must be for those who want both, it's pretty clear to me that climate is a much tougher. 

I'm following up on a column by Robert Frank and a post by Mark Kleiman, both of whom have explanations from cognitive psychology for why climate change legislation seems to be going nowhere.  Frank suggests that the potential harm from global warning doesn't sufficiently tug at our emotions, while Kleiman opts for our tendency to overvalue the dangers of action compared to the dangers of inaction.  While these explanations may both be accurate (and certainly the underlying cognitive biases are real, although I'm not convinced -- cute polar bears! -- that the former really is at work here), I think the main explanation is simpler, and alas for proponents of change pretty depressing.  

In fact, climate change strikes me as a classic "democracies are bad at this" situation.  Two big problems.  First, democracies are generally not thought to be good at focusing on problems with tangible, short-term costs and intangible, long-term benefits (and avoiding disaster, it seems to me, counts as an intangible benefit).  Second, the short-term costs are apparently going to be localized, affecting particular industries and regions, while the benefits are mostly general (those owning beachfront property notwithstanding).  And that's not even including the global collective action problem, in which each nation has an incentive to free ride which others do the hard work.

Compared to that, health care reform is easy.  There's a natural constituency, and while there are also natural opponents, in principle (and, it seems this year, in reality) those opponents should be open to compromise.  What's prevented universal health care from being a reality over the years has mainly been the difficulty of doing anything in the American Madisonian system, and then some bad luck (had Ted -- or for that matter Bobby -- Kennedy been elected president in 1976, odds are that Congress would have passed health care reform in 1977.  Indeed, if Mo Udall or Birch Bayh had been elected president in 1976, there's a good chance it would have happened in 1977). 

The way that things like climate change get done is either for the long-term intangible benefits to change, or at least seem to change, to a crisis (Polsby's definition of a crisis: everyone agrees that something has to be done), or for clever pols to figure out a way to rejigger the issue to produce some short-term, tangible benefits.  That's why climate change becomes climate/energy, and why proponents of a bill spend so much time talking about clean energy jobs.  But it's a very tough road, and I think it's going to be pretty hard to get there, at least in this Congress.  I guess the backup question for the policy wonks is whether incremental stuff if actually worthwhile or not. 

Sorry, supporters of legislation, I told you it wasn't very cheerful.


  1. These are especially tough times for passing climate change legislation. The environment tends to be a "luxury good" issue -- people worry about it when they are comfortable and have their more immediate needs met. That's not the case now.

  2. Obama tried doing the "green jobs" sell, but it clearly can't beat the default perception people have of it.

    I can see why, because even though I'm enviro myself, I didn't buy the green jobs argument. Methinks too many of those jobs are temporary or replace an existing not-green job. I like all the benefits from doing it, I just don't buy the jobs one.

  3. With climate change, the concept "Global Warming" has to be paired with the public's physical perception of contemporaneous local warming -- James Hanson's appearance before Congress during a heat wave was very successful at gaining support, where the siting of the Copenhagen conference in December in Denmark was simply stupid. Successful passage of climate change legislation should be timed to coincide with the hurricane season - September - and hopefully with a heat wave in Washington.


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