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Environment Magazine September/October 2008

September-October 2009

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U.S. Energy Policy: Overcoming Barriers to Action

The issue of global climate change was identified decades ago. In fact, it was first noted in the media in the 1930s, when a prolonged period of warm weather demanded explanation, yet interest in the matter disappeared as cooler temperatures returned. For the past decade, most experts have accepted climate change as a fact, making the issue difficult to ignore—yet many politicians, and the voters who elect them, have done exactly that. Scientists, policymakers, and others have come up with good ideas to address climate change and other energy issues including oil, transportation, and electricity policies; carbon capture and storage; and the generation of innovative energy solutions; many of the core aspects of these ideas were developed long ago. However, predictable cognitive, organizational, and political barriers prevent us from addressing energy problems despite clearly identified courses of action.

This article borrows from the “predictable surprises” framework that Harvard Business School professor Michael Watkins and I developed to explain the human failure to act in time to prevent catastrophes. It also borrows ideas from a paper on cognitive barriers to addressing climate change. To focus the discussion, I treat climate change as the exemplar energy-related problem, but the ideas presented here are relevant to the enactment of wise policies across a range of issues, some of which I also discuss to demonstrate the dynamics of these barriers.

As an example of the human failure to act in time to prevent foreseeable catastrophes, Watkins and I argue that U.S. leaders had ample warning to act in time to prevent the events of September 11. We note that the U.S. government knew that Islamic terrorists were willing to become martyrs for their cause and that their hatred and aggression toward the United States had increased throughout the 1990s. The American government knew that terrorists had bombed the World Trade Center in 1993, hijacked an Air France airplane in 1994 and attempted to turn it into a missile aimed at the Eiffel Tower, and attempted to simultaneously hijack 11 U.S. commercial airplanes over the Pacific Ocean in 1995. High-ranking government officials also knew that it was easy for passengers armed with small weapons to board commercial airplanes. In fact, this information was presented in many Government Accountability Office reports and was identified by then–Vice President Al Gore’s special commission on aviation security in 1996. Together, this information created what we called a predictable surprise, or a failure to act in time. Watkins and I argue that the failure to act in time is an unfortunately typical pattern of human behavior, one that can also be seen in the persistent failure to solve the problem of auditor independence, which contributed to the collapse of Enron, Arthur Andersen, and many other firms at the start of the millennium.

Just as our government did not know how many planes the terrorists would take over on September 11 or what their targets would be, we do not know which energy crisis looms largest or which will hit first. We can be confident, however, that many energy issues will continue to grow and that large-scale disasters will occur if we fail to act in time.

The creation and implementation of wise policy recommendations require us to anticipate resistance to change and develop strategies that can overcome these barriers. Why don’t wise leaders follow through when the expected benefits of action far outweigh the expected costs from a long-term perspective? People typically respond to this question with a single explanation, a key error when explaining events. This tendency to identify only one cause holds true for social problems ranging from poverty to homelessness to teenage pregnancy. Ann McGill of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business illustrates this cognitive bias by noting that people have argued endlessly over whether teenage promiscuity or lack of birth control causes teenage pregnancy, when the obvious answer is that both cause the problem. Similarly, many people seek to identify one cause of climate change when it is abundantly clear that there are multiple causes.

Enacting legislation to act in time to solve energy problems requires surmounting cognitive, organizational, and political barriers to change. Efforts targeted at just one level of response will allow crucial barriers to persist. As an example, many well-intentioned organizations focus on identifying the political barriers to enacting stronger campaign finance reform in the United States. Such efforts overlook the fact that the issue of campaign finance reform is insufficiently salient in the minds of the public, for systematic and predictable reasons. True improvements in campaign financing will require changing the way citizens think about the topic and changing the political system that continually fights against meaningful reform. And, as explored later, current campaign financing plays a role in the political barriers to change in the realm of energy.

Drawing on this broad approach to reduce barriers to solving complex problems, the remainder of the article outlines three types of barriers—cognitive, organizational, and political—that confront the enactment of wise energy recommendations. The final section moves from the identification of barriers to highlight strategies for overcoming them.

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