The Case for Pragmatic Complexity

Although the worst effects of current emission won’t be felt for decades, the world has seen the early impacts of climate change such as the intensification of extreme weather events. However, international, national, and local governments are ill-prepared for its causes and effects. According to the UN’s International Organization for Migration, as many as 200 million people might need to leave their homes for climate-related reasons by 2050, but no legal framework exists to help these migrants relocate. Worse still, at the root of the problem, greenhouse gas emissions are not dropping commensurate with globally agreed-upon targets. These realities, compounded by the general paralysis of multilateral institutions and the growing geopolitical tension among major powers, paint a grim portrait of the future. 

Therefore, it is no surprise that many analysts and experts are advocating for more realistic and pragmatic approaches to climate change that emphasizes political viability.

Anatol Lieven, the author of the book Climate Change and the Nation State: The Realist Case, underscores climate change as a potentially existential threat to national security. He argues that strong and legitimate states, instead of international laws and agreements, remain central to any efforts to limit climate change because “none of the great advances in collective and individual welfare of the past century – social security and public-health systems among them – could have been achieved without the action of strong states.”

Less nationalistic and radical in his emphasis in the importance of nation-states, Stewart M. Patrick also calls for a new approach to world politics that treat the preservation of biosphere as “a core national interest and a central objective of national security policy.”

While Lieven and Patrick cites the failures of liberal internationalism and the current mode of political thinking respectively, Hal Harvey takes issue with the reality that “the targets of much climate activism are not the decision-makers.” For Harvey, a pragmatic and realistic strategy invariably involves examining the huge physical systems that emit carbon, identifying the genuine decision-makers in each sector, and figuring out how they operate and how to pressure them.

The idea of climate pragmatism isn’t at all novel. In a policy report sponsored by the Breakthrough Institute and released in 2011, a group of experts details an innovative strategy to restart global climate efforts after the collapse of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process. Firstly, Climate Pragmatism identifies the defects of the focus on international action through the United Nations and a single unifying, binding global treaty. In this regard, the authors correctly prognosticated the current predicament faced by the 2016 Paris Agreement, and I don’t doubt that they would have predicted the unilateral withdrawal of the United States from the agreement in 2019. Secondly, it promises to offer “a framework … that’s effectiveness, paradoxically, does not depend on any agreement about climate science or the risks posed by uncontrolled greenhouse gases.” In the United States, this framework seems to circumvent the partisan agenda on climate change by tying policy to immediate economic benefits, although, as some observers correctly point out, it is at best dubious that such incentives would deliver due expectations.

I find it important to clarify the meaning of Pragmatism as it first appeared in the 19th century, especially because it is often conflated with being practical. The pragmatist maxim states that “consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of those effects is the whole of our conception of the object.” In other words, a purely technical and rational decision process is inadequate because the social context in which the process takes place matters. In addition to the contextualization, Pragmatism is also sensitive to the need to bring different types of knowledge together and reflexive about the value inherent in knowledge production.

Combining true pragmatist process and the complexity theory, as proposed by Chris Ansell and Robert Geyer, may be conducive to the management of climate change on multiple fronts.

First, a deliberative inquiry into the values of different stakeholders clearly shows that states aren’t incentivized to take on more ambitious goals. For example, under the old framework of UNFCCC, developing countries have the incentive to use the rough concepts of “climate justice” and the “climate debt” owed by the industrialized nations to the world’s poorer populations as excuses to procure more foreign aids and lag behind in their climate goals. Moreover, any country has an incentive to rely on the emission reductions of others without making costly domestic reduction themselves, a kind of free-rider problem that significantly weakens the 2016 Paris Agreement.

These conflicts of values do not necessarily signifies the futility of international efforts, as argued by Lieven. Admittedly, it is certainly beneficial for states to recognize climate change as a threat to national security if it helps them to achieve climate goals, as for the various approaches outlined in the Climate Pragmatism. But these measures are not nearly as effective as a collaboratively defined climate goal.

Indeed, the framework of pragmatism suggests that collaboration is even more crucial when the values are diverse. Political leaders must emphasize the role of dialogue and conflict resolution as methods to facilitate new pathways towards managing the challenges. The aim of such international collaboration should be to incentivize most, if not all countries to work towards a climate goal, despite their diverse values. One potential solution is the idea of a Climate Club proposed by the Nobel-Prize-winning economist William Nordhaus. Simply put, only club members enjoy access to the club and its resources, and in turn must adhere to club rules. Non-members are excluded from the club benefits, and in some cases are penalized for not participating by a tariff based on the carbon content of imported goods, or a simple tariff on all imported goods. Although this approach decidedly faces major obstacles, a carbon-pricing club would have inclusionary rather than exclusionary aim, and would be pursuing the global good rather than only the self-interest of the members.

Second, the framework of pragmatism proposes that, as climate adaptation problems become more complex and context-specific, a top-down approach that incorporates detailed action plans will fail much more often than they will work. So, while it is important for an international agreement to outline the necessary climate goal, regional and local institutions should take active responsibility to probe unique solutions through an iterative and adaptive learning process.

Therefore, a bottom-up approach is warranted to building resilience at a local level. For example, the city of Quito, Ecuador launched an urban agricultural program in 2002 that promotes rooftop gardens. Green roofs can absorb heat in the summer and add insulation in the winter. For the residents below, they also provide fresh and nutritious food and, in many cases, a source of income. Such simple solutions can not only avoid the unnecessary bureaucracy within the political field, but also are flexible and less risky, thus well-suited to an interactive and adaptive process.

The pragmatic approach proposed above is best summed up through the slogan of “think globally, act locally.” During the process, this approach would be cognizant of the values of all stakeholders, and would favor solutions that serve as a strong incentive for all parties to take action.

Primary References

Atkinson, Rob, et al. Climate Pragmatism. The Hartwell Group, July 2011,

Ansell, Christopher, and Robert Geyer. “‘Pragmatic Complexity’ a New Foundation for Moving beyond ‘Evidence-Based Policy Making’?” Policy Studies, 2016, pp. 1–19., doi:10.1080/01442872.2016.1219033.

Dunn, W.N. (2018), Rediscovering Pragmatism and the Policy Sciences. Eur Policy Anal, 4: 13-22. doi:10.1002/epa2.1038

Bertram, Geoff. (2016). William Nordhaus’s climate club proposal: thinking globally about climate change economics. Policy Quarterly. 12. 10.26686/pq.v12i2.4597.

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