What's stopping U.S. climate policies from working effectively?

January 30, 2024

The United States recently passed major climate change laws, such as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (IRA), and the CHIPS and Science Act, which allocate funding with a goal of expanding energy-transition initiatives. Analysts suggest new investments could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 40% below 2005 levels by 2030. New analysis co-authored by Kaitlin Raimi, published in Nature Climate Change, argues that these estimates are overly optimistic because they fail to consider how issues with supply, demand, and polarization could decrease the effectiveness of these laws.

“These historic laws could determine the future of U.S. climate change policy,” said Raimi. “Their success could ignite a spark in the American people to broadly adopt sustainable energy, while their failure could breed distrust in the ability of future federal government-supported investments to address climate change. Our analysis offers several ways social science can help meet the goals of this legislation and foster future climate action”

The authors identify several places where technical, social, or political barriers could hamper the success of these laws. For example, achieving renewable energy goals requires new electricity transmission to come online quickly, but that is driven by infrastructure development and labor capacity. The authors also emphasize how the complexities of permitting and historical injustices could hinder the uptake of incentives included in the legislation, particularly in rural towns and disadvantaged communities. They highlight how social science research has found that training and recruitment programs targeted at disadvantaged communities can reduce both labor shortages and chronic unemployment and underemployment.

Financial incentives designed to boost consumer demand for EVs, heat pumps, rooftop solar and other low-carbon technologies are complex and take time to realize. They write, “Although financial incentives matter, social science has shown that the changeability (plasticity) of adopting and maintaining new behaviors is also sensitive to many other factors. Sociopolitical identities and attentional myopia, for example, can affect consumer demand in ways that are difficult to predict from incentives alone, and some behaviors are more plastic than others.”

In addition to well-crafted financial incentives, the researchers suggest simple informational interventions to help consumers and the industry professionals who interface with them for vehicle and home purchases to consider long-term benefits, reduce their concerns about risks, and ultimately to change their behaviors.

Additionally, the authors emphasized how political polarization of the U.S. could interfere with the effectiveness and stability of climate legislation. Polls show high bipartisan support for climate legislation, but disagreement on solutions. They suggest further study on legislation design or communication about the laws could mitigate political factors.

You can read the article here: “Supply, demand and polarization challenges facing US climate policies” in the Journal Nature Climate Change.