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Why aren’t U.S. climate policies effective?

In an effort to combat climate change and its associated consequences, the United States has enacted several ambitious federal laws and climate policies, including the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) passed in 2022 and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) of 2021.

These laws aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote renewable energy development.

While some analyses suggest that these policies could bring about a reduction in emissions by more than 40% below 2005 levels by 2030, researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder and their collaborators suggest caution in interpreting these estimates.

According to their study, various factors, such as consumer decision-making and political polarization, may influence the effectiveness of these laws.

Importance of climate policies and legislation

Leaf Van Boven, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at CU Boulder, emphasizes that the passage of these laws signifies a crucial moment for America.

“America stands at a pivotal moment with the passage of its ambitious climate legislation,” said Van Boven. “The nation’s ability to unite behind these transformative policies will either ignite a sustainable energy revolution or fumble into the familiar deadlock of political discord.” 

One critical aspect of implementation lies in the speed and scale of renewable energy infrastructure projects.

The researchers caution that the effectiveness of these policies heavily relies on the timely construction and expansion of renewable energy projects.

Currently, the process for obtaining permits for power transmission projects in the U.S. takes an average of six to eight years.

Climate policy implementation challenges

Matt Burgess is a co-author of the study and a fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research and Environmental Sciences (CIRES).

He warns that without significant improvements in the speed of expanding the power transmission network, up to 80% of the IRA’s potential emissions reductions could be lost.

“If it takes six to eight years to get a permit for a power line and even longer to get a utility-scale solar project approved, we might have almost no shovels in the ground in many key areas by 2035, when we’re supposed to have already made significant progress,” Burgess said. 

Influence of political polarization

The researchers also highlight the potential impact of political polarization on the effectiveness of these climate policies.

If these laws become overly polarized and face opposition from the next Congress or local governments, their intended benefits may be compromised.

To address this challenge, the researchers propose reframing these laws to reduce their association with climate policies.

By adopting alternative narratives, it may be possible to mitigate political polarization and increase the likelihood of effective implementation.

Elections and climate change

The team of researchers conducted a separate study, published by C-SEF, which examined the role of climate change in voters’ decision-making during the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.

The findings indicated that views on climate change significantly influenced voters’ choices. They concluded that the climate issue likely played a role in the 2020 election outcome, emphasizing the relevance of this topic for politicians and advocates ahead of the 2024 election cycle.

“This is obviously information that politicians and advocates across the political spectrum will want to know, heading into the 2024 election cycle,” said Burgess.

“Beyond that, we don’t see it as our job as researchers to editorialize. How to reduce political polarization of climate change is one of the questions our research group is most interested in currently, and this provides some insight,” Burgess concluded.

Future of U.S. climate policy

In summary, while the U.S. government’s recent climate legislation has the potential to bring about significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the researchers at UC Boulder caution against overly optimistic estimates.

The effective deployment of investments, the timely construction of renewable energy projects, and the mitigation of political polarization are key factors that will determine the success of these climate policies.

By considering these challenges and implementing potential solutions, the U.S. can continue its progress towards a sustainable, low-carbon future.

The full study was published in the journal Nature Climate Change.


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