AMERICAN HISTORY MAY OFFER some critically important lessons for current-day policymakers grappling with the political hurdles standing in the way of addressing global climate change.  A new article authored by Harvard Kennedy School associate professor Joseph Aldy highlights three specific cases in which similar political hurdles were overcome, resulting in successful public policy solutions to very significant social problems. 

Mobilizing Political Action on Behalf of Future Generations” is published in the Spring 2016 edition of the Future of Children.

“The failure to mobilize sufficient effort to combat climate change reflects the difficult political economy (that is, the interplay between politics and economics) that characterizes the problem,” Aldy writes. “Moreover, the distribution of climate change policy’s benefits and costs varies across space and time, as well as among various political constituencies and special interests.”

Aldy points to the conflict of interests held by “incumbent firms” -- those with firmly entrenched economic interests in fossil fuel industries -- compared to those held by “insurgent firms” – those companies that are investing in new clean technologies.  

To identify parallels through history, Aldy examined the circumstances behind the successful implementation of three major public policies in the United States – the 1935 Social Security Act, the 1956 Interstate Highway Act, and the 1970 Clean Air Act Amendments.

“Those policies differ from climate change policy in important ways, but they nonetheless offer lessons. For example, designing climate policy to deliver broad, near-term benefits could help overcome some of the political opposition. To do so might require linking climate change with other issues, or linking various interest groups,” Aldy writes.

“We might also win support from incumbent firms by finding ways to compensate them for their losses under climate change policy, or use policy to help turn insurgent firms into incumbents with political influence of their own. Finally, we might account for and exploit the veto points and opportunities embedded in our existing political institutions.”

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