Framings of the Decarbonization Problem: Some Alternatives, Nordhaus, Yglesias and the Hartwell Paper

Many of the “framings of the decarbonization argument” are implicit and not explicit.  So I thought I’d mention a few I ran across, one that Rebecca Watson put in a comment yesterday, and open it up to others.  As I tell people about spiritual things… you get to pick your own path.. same thing with framings, everyone gets to pick their own framing.   A test of success is whether your framing is more successful at leading to carbon reduction in the real world.  To do that, it could be argued that the best framing would lead to building coalitions that are successful at moving the decarbonizing ball down the field.  All ultimately political (at all governmental levels), and not particularly moral, judgments. To “work for” climate change can be posed as a moral question (by Pope Francis and many others), but deciding what proportion of what energy source to use, where, in the short and mid-term, is not as clear or easy to moralize about.  Especially, as many have pointed out,  when developing countries, who lack energy today, need energy in the short and mid-term.  Apologies for how long this post is, but I thought more examples would be better. Everyone is welcome to add their own favorite framing in the comments.  You can also mix and match framings and potential solutions.

(1) Here’s an interesting framing  by Ted Nordhaus, in Issues in Science and Technology,  in which he wonders why people who believe climate change is urgent and apocalyptic don’t go bigger.. in terms of choosing to socialize key infrastructure.

Missing from this frame is the notion that abundant, cheap, clean energy and the low carbon infrastructure and technology necessary to provide it is a public good. Historically, nations have provided these sorts of goods directly and governments have done just that for public goods as diverse as national defense, public health, scientific research, and clean and abundant water. In these cases, government agencies don’t incentivize or mandate that private firms build, say, modern water and sewage systems; rather, they either build them themselves or contract with firms to build them. But in either case, it is government that specs the system, procures its various elements, coordinates construction and operations, and finances construction directly from the public purse. The same has been broadly true, to a greater and lesser extent, of road, transit, and yes, electrical systems in most parts of the world.

The most successful clean energy initiatives in modern history followed this public-led model, not any of the three policy models that have dominated climate policy-making. France decarbonized 80% of its electrical system through the state-led deployment of nuclear energy. Sweden did the same through a combination of nuclear and hydroelectric dams. Brazil achieved similar levels primarily by building dams.

Nuclear advocates often highlight the cases of France and Sweden, while everyone else ignores them. But the prominent role that dams have played suggests that there are lessons for climate mitigation efforts that go well beyond the benefits of nuclear energy. What all three cases have in common is the direct public procurement of large, centralized infrastructure to provide clean energy to residential, commercial, and industrial users in large, modern economies.

Treating climate change as a public infrastructure challenge, not a private market failure, brings a range of advantages that pricing and regulation cannot provide. It enables long time horizons that private investors are unlikely to tolerate; planning and coordination across sectors of the economy to integrate technology, infrastructure, and institutions necessary to achieve deep decarbonization; and low-cost public finance that could make the price of the energy and climate transition far more manageable. And assuming a reasonably progressive tax system, it would arguably do so in a manner at least as straightforward and equitable as cap-and-trade or carbon taxes that aim at “correcting” market failures.

I’d add that giving money to projects may be more useful than to give money to a variety of workers disagreeing about accounting practices.  In a sense, white collar workers can’t solve a blue collar problem.

Sidenote: given the Ukraine invasion,the below excerpt sounds different. He imagines that Jay Inslee is elected President based on his climate policies, and takes a series of steps to fix climate change, including national carbon rationing.

A month after his inauguration, Inslee traveled to meet with European allies. There, he announced his plan to convert NATO to a global climate mitigation and relief force. NATO and its wealthy members would directly finance the construction of low carbon infrastructure across the globe. Like the Marshall plan that rebuilt Europe, NATO would provide long-term, low-interest loans for developing economies to purchase and deploy clean energy technology. NATO forces would also lead relief efforts to rebuild after natural disasters and resettle refugees in regions less vulnerable to climate change. “It doesn’t matter whether you are black, white, or brown, American, Indian, or Chinese,” Inslee thundered at the end of the NATO meetings. “We are all Earthlings now, with a common challenge and a common destiny.” As Inslee boarded Air Force One, en route to meet his Indian and Chinese counterparts, the battle to stop catastrophic climate change had finally been joined.

Coincidentally, today I read this article in The Intercept about invoking the Defense Production Act.

Several senators sent President Joe Biden a letter on Wednesday asking him to use authorities such as those contained in the Defense Production Act, which significantly expands the president’s authority to unilaterally alter domestic manufacturing policy in times of crisis, to “support and increase manufacturing capacity and supply chain security for technologies that reduce fossil fuel demand and fuel costs, such as electric heat pumps, efficient electric appliances, renewable energy generation and storage, and other clean technologies.”

It doesn’t mention mining, though, of interest to TSW readers, since mining is an issue on federal lands.  Seems like a potential problem, though, since you can’t manufacture without raw materials. And the letter is big on manufacturing heat pumps but not so big on paying people to swap them out.  Or the electric infrastructure to bear those new loads.  When marijuana was legalized in Colorado, electric substations needed to be beefed is a story about some of that.   I think we need more engineers (a la concepts like “critical path”) at the broader scale (how are we to decarbonize short medium and long-term), and perhaps a Pragmatic Bipartisan Decarbonization political coalition.

(2) Here’s a Matthew Yglesias framing that Rebecca Watson sent in:

A recent article by Matthew Yglesias, founder of Vox, writer at Atlantic, Bloomberg, in his “SlowBoring” newsletter has an interesting perspective on this question. He suggests that the Sunrise Movement [like Jane Fonda] frames the climate argument in the wrong way “and that has generated strategic and tactical failures…” They start from three ill-founded premises: 1. there is a latent desire among the mass public for sweeping change to address climate concerns, 2) this desire for change is being held back by an elite cabal of special interests, mainly fossil fuel companies, who wield power through campaign contributions, 3. “Due to the corrupting influence of fossil fuel money, not only do Republicans take bad stances on climate-related issues but so do Democrats…” which leads to the conclusion that a “broad grassroots movement that can push the political system… is needed. Yglesias’ argument is that this is backwards and he points to some interesting polling data and the evidence of the bi-partisan climate provisions in the 2020-21 Omnibus. “But their contents reveal that the progressive theory of climate politics is fundamentally backward — bipartisan deal-making behind closed doors is not dominated by fossil fuel interests and does not feature moderate Democrats selling out to join with Republicans to promote dirty energy. On the contrary, Democrats consistently prioritize climate in these negotiations and some Republicans are sometimes willing to make concessions.” He adds, “[t]he reason the climate has a fighting chance is that people who care about this issue have disproportionate power in the system. But to fully take advantage of that dynamic, climate activists need a correct analysis of the situation.” Worth the read.

Here’s the link, and Yglesias has other interesting ones on energy.


(3) In 2009, a group of climate experts thought the framing was wrong, and published their views in the Hartwell Paper.

Without a fundamental re-framing of the issue, new mandates will not be granted for any fresh courses of action, even good ones. So, to rebuild climate policy and to restore trust in expert organisations, the framing must change and change radically.

the Paper advocates a radical reframing – an inverting – of approach: accepting that decarbonisation will only be achieved successfully as a benefit contingent upon other goals which are politically attractive and relentlessly pragmatic.

The aim of this paper has been to reframe the climate issue around matters of human dignity. Not just because that is noble or nice or necessary – although all of those reasons – but because it is likely to be more effective than the approach of framing around human sinfulness—which has just failed. Securing access to low-cost energy for all, including the very poor, is  truly and literally liberating. Building resilience to surprise and to extremes of weather is a practical expression of true global solidarity. Improving the quality of the air that people breathe is an undeniable public good. Such a reorientation requires a radical rethinking and then a reordering of the climate policy agenda


Reframing the climate issue in this manner also means giving up the idea that all manner of other policy goals can be attained by grinding them onto a sparkling, myriad-faceted gem of global carbon policy which then dazzles so mesmerically that it carries all before it. It does not and it did not. Instead, the all-inclusive “Kyoto” type of climate policy as it had become by late 2009, needs to be broken up into separate issues again, each addressed on its merits and each in its own ways. Adaptation, forests, biodiversity, air quality, equity and the many other disparate agendas that have been attached to the climate issue must again stand on their own. We believe that this will, in many cases, make the possibility of political action more likely than has been the circumstance in recent years when carbon policy was asked to pull the whole load of our aspirations for a better future

I think that this is important (unbundling)- to give stakeholders, practitioners and non-climate academics back their former domain that they know and work in, but this idea doesn’t seem to have gone very far.

I also thought at the time that many are attracted to the framing of “human sinfulness” and that remains powerful in some quarters today.  But it’s a choice of some to frame it that way.  Many other framings, as we have seen, are currently on the table.


6 thoughts on “Framings of the Decarbonization Problem: Some Alternatives, Nordhaus, Yglesias and the Hartwell Paper”

  1. There is a very substantial body of scholarship pointing to domination of energy policy by fossil fuel interests across multiple venues over several decades. There may be exceptions, but this is hardly just a political talking point, its something which has been demonstrated repeatedly. A good entry point into this literature is Leah Stokes’ recent book “Short Circuiting Policy” Incidentally, Stokes’ work is also quite supportive of the broad set of frames you cite from the Hartwell Paper.

    • Thanks Forrest! I guess my point is that if it’s going on now… it sure looks funny as coal plants are being shut down, wind and solar are being subsidized and so on.

      But the fact is.. the world is basically running on fossil fuels right now. It is going to be difficult and technical to switch everything off and move it to something better (that has fewer environmental/national security impacts). If there had been a better cheaper alternative “over several decades” that filled all these needs, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Not to speak of those of us who can’t afford electric cars and heat pumps. And may not be able to for the next ten years. And while power companies are asking regulators to raise rates for the electric power they want to require appliance buyers to use.

      I think if people had been more honest about the difficulty (technical people talking not the intelligentsia) and less enthused about bashing partisanly (both sides) we would be much farther down the road. Fossil fuels people.. some of their leadership used to pursue their interests. That had negative policy impacts… so????? How long are we going to punish them? Because policy in DC or Denver doesn’t seem to be in their favor.
      Meanwhile the retiree grapevine says that BLM folks are getting pressured to approve solar projects because of the political clout of the industry.
      And so the world turns…

  2. Too bad that “unbundling” concept never got any real traction. If anything, there are far more unrelated issues commonly bundled with climate change now than there were in 2009.

    It’s extremely common now to see prominent politicians insisting that in order to solve climate change we have to abolish capitalism, achieve racial equity, implement universal healthcare, etc. etc. Basically every left wing political agenda item is now inextricably linked to solving climate change, at least according to their own rhetoric. The practical effect of this is that success has been defined such that in order to “solve” climate change, we need to not only radically alter the fundamental organizing principle of our entire society, but need to somehow achieve agreement on all of the most divisive social issues in American politics at a time when hyper-partisanship is at an all time high and Americans basically can’t agree on anything. Yeah…..good luck with that.

    • Patrick.. I’d say not only that, but we need to get the Africans and Indians to do what we tell them (and not what we do). when you think about the Hartwell framing.. let’s get cheap (cleaner) power to everyone and work up from there… it’s pretty attractive.
      But that would put power into the hands of the innovators and the technologists.

      On the positive side the infrastructure bill had lots of money for new technologies and so I think folks are coming around.

  3. Fission (nuclear) energy is not an answer to climate change. It’s very expensive to construct and the lag time to production is too long. We hear all kinds of horror stories why wind, solar, geothermal, etc. will fall short of meeting power needs. Few people understand energy grids and how inefficient they are during hot summer weather. Follow the money, especially the HUGE subsidies doled out to fossil and nuclear energy compared to so-called green energy.

    Here’s another perspective from Dr. Amory Lovins:


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