The Technocratic Approach to Climate Change, Explained

Solar Panels - Technocratic Approach to Climate Change

The scope of the climate crisis and the growing impacts from a warming world are drawing together an increasingly diverse set of people working to address this existential threat. The experts, advocates, and groups within this widening community approach climate change from different perspectives. These perspectives include groups looking at climate through a faith, equity, economic development, protecting frontline communities, public health, national security, labor, or conservation lens – and therefore espouse different arguments for how to achieve the shared goal of mitigating climate change. 
One prominent argument backed by the National Academies of Science – call it the societal approach – is that climate policy must acknowledge the historic injustices perpetuated by the extractive industries, confront the interlocking systems of oppression that magnify the fossil fuel industry’s political power, and widen the climate advocacy tent to include the communities most impacted by fossil fuels. Without doing so, these advocates argue, climate policy will fail to overcome political opposition or, even worse, exacerbate pre-existing inequities. 

Another argument – call it the technocratic approach – focuses on identifying and acting on the most efficient pathways to decarbonization without remedying societal injustices. Treating climate change like an engineering or economic problem, supporters of this argument take a market-driven, sectoral approach to climate change, figuring out where climate pollution is coming from and recommending policies to reduce emissions from these sources on specific timelines. The goal of these climate policies – fuel efficiency standards, renewable energy tax credits or generation targets, cap and trade, and energy efficiency standards – is to drive down emissions.

Why some advocate for a technocratic approach to solving climate change

A technocratic or engineering-type approach to solving climate change is based on the idea that any complex problem can be broken down into distinct and manageable parts. This approach defines the problem in technical terms, i.e. as GHG emissions, and provides a blueprint for addressing those emissions. While the scope of change must ultimately be significant, the implementation of change is often slow and incremental. This is especially true at the federal level where the political potential for sweeping change is rare. Politicians are often focused on preserving the status quo and spending their political capital on their constituents instead of controversial policy, even if that policy results in long-term benefits. The technocratic approach focuses on securing the immediate winnable gains, codifying new policy, and then using those policies as leverage to secure further gains down the road.

Each incremental step toward reducing emissions can help create the conditions that lead to systemic change. Policy targeted at reducing emissions from passenger vehicles, for example, has pushed automakers to make electric vehicles. As transportation electrifies, oil company revenues will continue to drop, diminishing their political power that has been a major barrier to systemic change in the U.S. and creating incentives for electric utilities to align with decarbonization policy. Similarly, early requirements and subsidies for solar power drove an increase in manufacturing and deployment that, in turn, drove prices dramatically downward, setting in motion further deployment.

A cohesive, society-wide approach to climate policy still needs to adapt to the different dynamics of each sector of emissions. The major sources of climate pollution: transportation, buildings, industry, and electricity generation, are intertwined but remain distinct, having unique ecosystems of business models, market dynamics, experts and regulators. Climate policy – including economic drivers like tax credits or emissions markets – has succeeded in reducing emissions and scaling climate solutions by recognizing these differences and tailoring to individual markets without trying to tackle the entire climate problem at once.

Findings that support a technocratic approach

As clean technology costs have fallen and become more widely deployed, the economic case for a low-cost transition to an economy powered by clean electricity has grown stronger. Research from economists, engineers, and political scientists has demonstrated how it’s not just possible to decarbonize with existing technology, but that it’s also worth doing from economic, public health, and environmental perspectives. 

For example, a report from Rewiring America examined what it would take for every U.S. household to fully decarbonize. The researchers found that not only is this goal achievable with current technology, but the shift could save Americans money and create 25 million jobs over the next 15 years. The Rewiring authors found that it’s possible to eliminate 70 to 80 percent of U.S. carbon emissions by 2035 with little-to-no carbon capture and sequestration. 

In addition, the 2035 Report from researchers at UC Berkeley found that the U.S. can deliver 90 percent clean, carbon-free electricity nationwide by 2035, at no extra cost to consumers and without the need for new fossil fuel plants. The American Lung Association found that transitioning to electric transportation would prevent more than 416,000 lost workdays per year, a public health benefit valued at over $72 billion. And Rocky Mountain Institute found that clean energy is cost-competitive with new natural gas power plants while providing the same grid reliability services.

These forecasted benefits are coming into focus by what is being witnessed today in the energy transition. At the end of 2019, nearly 3.4 million Americans worked in clean energy. That’s more than the number of people employed as registered nurses, and just shy of those working as school teachers. Wind technicians and solar installers are the fastest-growing jobs in the country and in 2019, the clean energy industry accounted for more than half of the entire energy sector’s job growth. The industry added more than 70,000 jobs at a 2.2 percent growth rate – a faster pace than the U.S. workforce as a whole. Over the last five years, the clean energy industry added jobs 70 percent faster than the overall economy.

Recent studies have also exemplified how technocratic approaches can overlap with an intersectional approach, broadening their scope to address the need for societal solutions alongside sectoral emissions cuts. The aforementioned 2035 Report from UC Berkeley, for example, was accompanied by policy recommendations to maximize social benefits like public health and climate impacts, and analysis commissioned by the We Mean Business coalition found that a federal stimulus package focused on low-carbon investments, including wind and solar energy, could generate one million more jobs than a traditional recovery plan

Other experts, from World Bank economists to the head of the International Energy Agency and

nonprofit leaders have made the case for investing in clean energy as part of any recovery packages aimed at addressing the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the U.S., economists and academics, national security experts, and clean energy advocates are among the voices calling for clean energy considerations to be integrated into economic relief plans, and these approaches indicate how a technocratic policy framework can create wider societal benefits. 

Political rationale of a technocratic approach to solving climate change

Building a bipartisan consensus on climate change may be becoming more difficult, as Democrats and Republicans have increasingly divergent views of the role government has in solving problems like climate change. The avenues forward for bipartisan federal climate policy are narrow, arguably limited to legislation aimed at addressing pollution from a sector, or part of a sector.

Building a multi-issue coalition can be challenging. In a sectoral approach, different coalitions can be assembled on a sector-by-sector basis, providing many more political solutions.  However, assembling one coalition that can agree on all the solutions in one comprehensive package can be extremely difficult. Further, such wide-ranging coalitions can more easily be divided by wedge issues. For example, extractive industries often highlight social justice issues in bad faith to block progress on climate change. Moreover, many conservatives reject appeals to racial, gender and economic justice, so if attempts to build bipartisan policy lead with issues of justice, it could alienate those (largely white and affluent) audiences while also giving ammunition to the conservative standby argument that anything progressives offer is just a “ruse to install socialism in the U.S.”

Because renewable energy costs have declined so rapidly, making them cheaper in many cases than fossil fuels, some people advocate for simply harnessing the market to unleash the technology needed to solve climate change. This could be especially successful in reducing emissions if externalities are priced into carbon emissions, though an economy-wide price on emissions would lead to a contentious political fight that could be  avoided by the narrower, sector-by-sector emissions reduction technocratic approach. 

Criticisms of a technocratic approach to solving climate change

Those opposed to the technocratic approach argue that decisions that ignore systemic inequities will only perpetuate them, causing more harm to vulnerable communities. Further, opponents argue that a technocratic approach fails to address the root causes of climate change, which is a political problem, not a technological one. The technology to address climate change already exists, yet fossil fuels are so entrenched in transportation and energy systems that they incentivize people to continue using fossil energy because it is perceived to be cheaper, more available, and more familiar. These systems have matured over the course of a century, giving the extractive industries a monopoly over transportation fuel and energy production

The systems of injustice, critics of the technocratic approach argue, operate to maintain the status quo, including the current fossil fuel regime. If these systems are never addressed, neither will emissions because the system of oppression that is responsible for creating the climate crisis will continue. 

Also, the political coalitions needed to change how the transportation and energy sectors operate are broader than the current political power of the climate movement. The priorities of labor, social justice, and other movements merged with the climate movement could achieve a comprehensive solution that generates more political support. A failure to widen the climate tent could prevent climate activists from generating enough political will for the systemic changes they see needed to address the problem at scale. Recent research finds that combining  climate, economic and social policy builds support for climate action in the U.S. 

The technocratic argument for climate action is also critiqued by arguing clean technologies need to be deployed in a more inclusive, sustainable way to make them a lasting solution. Climate activists and experts argue that climate solutions need to foster a large, diverse workforce of well-paying jobs that has the backing of labor and community groups. The climate movement cannot ignore why fossil fuel jobs have been so attractive to so many. The extractive industries have historically employed millions of people, and local businesses boom around oil and gas fields, supporting indirect jobs through the restaurants needed to feed workers, schools to educate their children, and healthcare services to treat their sick. The clean economy needs to generate the same amount of support and attraction, if not more, to truly supplant the oil and gas economy in the U.S.

Moreover, technocratic solutions like cap and trade systems, emissions markets, or carbon pricing can do little to address local community pollution impacts without explicit attention to counteract unintended negative consequences. For example, by allowing for the purchase of carbon offsets as a way to abate emissions, a polluter may continue to contribute to local pollution while still succeeding in their carbon reduction goals. Even an ideal carbon price scenario could do nothing to address “Cancer Alley” if companies are allowed to reduce their emissions by planting trees in the Southeast U.S. or providing people with solar cookstoves, while continuing to operate refineries in frontline communities. These sort of technocratic schemes, opponents argue, sacrifice local communities and fail to properly and equitably address the climate crisis.

Solving climate change requires technocratic, economic solutions and solutions that address wider societal problems

The climate community is increasingly folding the technocratic and societal approaches together, recognizing that people are the foundation for climate change solutions. The Green New Deal seeks to deliver on environmental justice by prioritizing frontline communities while addressing the emissions of industries across sectors of the economy, and President Biden has also committed to addressing systemic racism through abating climate pollution. 

Several states have also enacted or proposed legislation that strengthens existing civil rights laws and establishes new environmental justice protections. New Jersey, for example, passed a landmark environmental justice law that allows state regulators to deny permits for facilities that would have too large of an environmental and public health impact in overburdened communities, California enacted a tiered rebate for electric vehicles that gives lower earners more money off the cost of a new car compared to higher earners, and Massachusetts has limited their state rebate for electric vehicles to cars costing under $50,000. 

As climate policy continues to unfold in this new era, we are likely to see both technocratic and societal arguments gain traction. Read more about how climate change relates to social justice issues with our backgrounder here.