kupers5_Rudzhan NagievGetty Images_sustainabilityworld Rudzhan Nagiev/Getty Images

How the Pandemic Can Revolutionize Climate Policy

Policymakers should not throw up their hands in despair because climate policy is too complicated. Rather, they need to look beyond mainstream economics and engage with people who understand complex systems, in the same way that they listen to epidemiologists and doctors during a pandemic.

AMSTERDAM – Economists have long dominated climate-policy debates, but have scant results to show for it. As with the ongoing global fight against the coronavirus pandemic, our best hope for tackling the climate crisis may instead lie with systems science. By better understanding how networks function, we can design policies that harness them for the common good.

Today, much of climate policy is concerned with identifying desirable centralized interventions, such as closing coal plants or boosting energy efficiency. While such measures could work in principle, they have largely failed to deliver sufficient change, and not at the speed that nature requires. Other economists, meanwhile, simply advocate letting markets drive climate innovation. Meanwhile, greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions have risen again as locked-down economies have reopened.

Because of the pandemic, however, terms like contagion rate and social distancing, previously limited to systems-science circles, are now in everyday use. Moreover, it is abundantly clear that no single top-down intervention will eliminate the coronavirus directly. Until a vaccine arrives, all governments can do is change the virus’s context so that the pandemic runs out of steam. A similar systems-driven approach should also characterize climate policy.

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