Study: Short-term Climate Goals Needed
Long-term climate change policy in the United States and abroad is likely to change very slowly, warns a researcher who calls for stronger short-term goals to reduce carbon emissions, according to a study published in Decision Analysis, a journal of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences.
Mort Webster, Ph.D., assistant professor for engineering systems at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published the article, "Incorporating Path Dependence into Decision Analytical Methods: An Application to Global Climate Change Policy."
From 2006 until earlier this year, Webster was a visiting assistant professor in the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and in the university's Department of Earth, Atmosphere and Planetary Sciences.
Webster writes that climate policy decisions are normally made as sequential decisions over time under uncertainty – given the magnitude of uncertainty in both economic and scientific processes, the decades-to-centuries time scale of the phenomenon, and the ability to reduce uncertainty and revise decisions along the way.
Although staging climate change policy decisions over time would seem to make sense, he points out that the tendency of U.S. and international policy to change extremely slowly requires front-loading the painful decisions.
Applying decision analysis in the context of idealized government decision makers over a century raises the question of how to deal with the fact that political systems tend to exhibit "path dependency," a force that makes large policy shifts difficult and rare, and limits most decisions to small incremental changes.
In his paper, he argues that consideration of path dependence in the context of climate policy justifies greater near-term emissions reductions in what amounts to a hedging strategy.
Countering those who say the dust should settle before committing to big decisions, he points out that when a decision will be irreversible – as is likely the case in climate policy – delaying the decision is probably not the best option, according to research in decision analysis.
Decision making in public policy, he writes, is complicated by the reluctance of leaders to reverse course after they have made important policy choices.
"A large-scale international policy issue such as climate change is especially vulnerable to path dependencies. If significant global emissions reductions are required in the long-run, this will be an extremely difficult problem to coordinate across nations," he writes.