Climate Policy: Points along the Spectrum

By Mark Edwards
Assistant Professor, School of Business, University of Western Australia
Posted on 17 December 2012
Filed under Culture, Politics

In a previous post, I noted that doubt about the efficacy of government intervention to address HICC may become as much a barrier to action as the denialist strategy of manufacturing doubt about the scientific basis of Human Induced Climate Change (HICC).

In this post I expand on that possibility by describing a few more features of the policy response spectrum.

Let’s consider some of the issues that will occur as realities force the need for a co-ordinated policy response to HICC. As we move along the policy response spectrum from inaction to action, we reach a number of interesting thresholds where shifts in policy positions emerge.  Referring to Figure 2 below, these thresholds points include:


A: This is the extreme denialist position which is typically anti-government, anti-regulation and ideologically opposed to government interventions of most kinds.  The influence of advocates of this  position has been discussed previously by Naomi Oreskes (Oreskes & Conway 2010) and others.

B: Moving further we come to the point where global warming is acknowledged but its anthropogenic cause is denied.  This end of the policy response spectrum maintains that warming is part of the natural cycle of global environmental change and that the recent increase in surface temperatures is not caused by human activity.  Attributing climate change to natural causes means that no policy response is required or even desirable because it will have no effect and consequently be a waste of resources that could be better channelled towards adapting to the impact of unavoidable climate change.

C: The next major threshold is where the scientific evidence for HICC is recognised but the policy response is driven by a market-oriented worldview.  At C a person completely accepts the science behind HICC but rejects government intervention in favour of allowing market forces to drive what changes need to occur. The market here is king and government intervention is seen as inefficient and ineffective because it results in unwarranted costs and unintended consequences that damage business, shrink profits and reduce a society’s economic capacity to do the things it needs to do. Government is seen as the problem not part of the solution.

D: Recognising the need for both government and markets to actively take steps to address HICC is the next key threshold along the policy response spectrum.  At D a person sees government intervention, business regulation and legislated policy as essential elements for guiding markets in the right direction.  Moreover, at D, markets and businesses are also regarded as important players in their own right and that markets can take leadership roles, create technological innovations and produce momentum for change that governments cannot emulate or control.  D is the threshold point where a balanced mix of climate change policy responses, both interventionist and market-based, is acknowledged. 

E: Next comes the position where government is seen as the arbiter of policy settings and that, while consultation with business and community is required, it is the role of government to set the legislative agenda for change.  E is the point at which a person says the implications of HICC are so significant that governments must not just send markets signals through taxation and carbon market mechanisms but must legislate for whole-of-system changes that force business and economic systems towards carbon neutrality.   

F: Moving still further along the spectrum we come to the point where markets are seen as the problem and not part of the solution.  Market forces are seen as completely inadequate for driving the shift towards carbon-neutral economies and that governments must unilaterally require systemic change.  Here the urgency of the climate change issue demands direct and even authoritarian government intervention to shift economies from fossil fuel energy sources to alternative energy systems.         

The ideological and worldview divide between interventionist and free market positions will shift across these different thresholds as the urgency and scale of adequate policy responses grows.  A few points can be made about the current situation in Australia and other countries using this spectrum.

  • The major battle over climate is/will not between those who deny and those who accept climate change but between those who want targeted and deliberate action and those who want to leave it to the market. 
  • At this point in Australia and in several other countries the battles lines in terms of the public debate still lie somewhere between thresholds B and C. 
  • The policy battle, however, is between points C and D - between those who want a mix of government, community and market lead action and those who want to leave it all up to market forces. 
  • Policies reliant on market forces are in contention with a more mixed policy response where the government role is formally acknowledged.  This being so, the greatest obstruction to proactive policy development and implementation will not come, and perhaps already does not come, from the denialist position on the spectrum (points A and B) but from those who acknowledge HICC while also advocating for free market solutions. 

I believe that it is from this quarter, from those who agree with HICC and, at the same time, deny the interventionist role of government, who present the biggest obstacle to taking the level of action required to seriously address the climate crisis.   

In the next post, I will explain the reasons underlying this hypothesis by considering the role of worldviews and ideologies.


 Oreskes, N & Conway, EM 2010, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handfull of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, Bloomsbury Press, New York.

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Comments 1 to 27:

  1. Watching the Deniers at 10:32 AM on 18 December, 2012

    A great article and really useful spectrum. One could map this not merely to Australia but to other the policy positions of other nations states.

    I'd suggest the United States would be mixed - at the Federal level would fall between A and B, while at the state level we see California and a few other states at B and C.

    Which countries would fall between D and E - China perhaps?

    I believe this is the most valuable point:

    "The policy battle, however, is between points C and D - between those who want a mix of government, community and market lead action and those who want to leave it all up to market forces..."

    The window for effective mitigation is rapidly shrinking as most major emitters languish in at the A to C end of the spectrum.

    It would be interesting to turn it into a matrix looking at the major emitters, GHG emissions and where they sit against spectrum.
  2. Dear "Watching the Deniers",

    Thanks for you comment. I agree on all counts:

    I agree that the spectrum could be applied to the debates in other countries and it might even be useful to represent the global state of affairs in HICC policy response.

    I also agree that the policy debates are situated at different points on the spectrum for different populations, e.g. general public, inhabitants of the blogosphere, academics, political parties would all differ as to where exactly the opposing sides of the policy debate currently reside.

    And I'm happy to see that you got the main point here that it's not the battle between the deniers and the realists that will decide the future of this issue but the battle between free market and mixed market worldviews. The more this gets raised the better. All the core worldviews and theior assumptions need to be surfaced to face these issues and critique them adequately (hence my interest in metatheoretical research).

    Finally, I actually did develop a few matrices plotting policy response against worldviews and so on. More and more this issue comes down to worldview and ideology. This is why the social scientists will play a much bigger role in this debate as the whole global mess continues to unfold.

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