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Why itTwo fires, two continents, same year. Left: Tambo Complex fire near Victoria, Australia, Jan.18, 2020. (Photo: Clay Stephens/ Bureau of Land Management, National Interagency Fire Center.) Smoke from the Bobcat Fire, Angeles National Forest, Sep. 18, 2020. (Photo: USFS.) Public domain courtesy of Flickr.

Why it's so difficult to address climate change

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By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

A new undergraduate course in fall quarter 2020, “The Political Economy of Climate Change,” will examine the challenges of mitigating climate change.

UCLA International Institute, September 22, 2020 — Over the past year, unmistakable events associated with climate change have occurred with startling frequency.

Wildfires in Australia in January killed an estimated 3 billion animals. Severe flooding occurred in Michigan and other parts of the Midwest in May, and in U.S. coastal cities on the Gulf of Mexico in recent days. The last intact glacier ice shelf in Canada collapsed at the end of July. The melting of Greenland’s ice sheet was deemed irreversible, and the largest cause of sea-level rise, by scientists in August. Wildfires in the U.S., with multiple enormous conflagrations on the West Coast, burned 7 million acres of land by mid-September.

To help students understand why it is so difficult to take political action to address climate change, UCLA political scientist Michael Ross is offering a new international development studies (IDS) course this fall, “The Political Economy of Climate Change.” Designed and taught by Ross, the course focuses the challenges of mitigating climate change, with a concentration on energy use.

Professor Michael Ross. (Photo: UCLA International Institute.) Ross has taught previous iterations of the course on a smaller scale, but fall quarter marks the first time it will be offered as a large-scale lecture class. Student response has been enthusiastic: as of publication, registration for the course stood at 229 students.*

A longstanding International Institute faculty member, Ross has been teaching in its IDS and Southeast Asian studies programs since the early 2000s. His expertise lies in the political economy of the timber industry in Southeast Asia and of the global fossil fuel industry. His influential book, “The Oil Curse: How Petroleum Wealth Shapes the Development of Nations” (Princeton, 2012), has been translated into Russian, Arabic, Portuguese and Japanese.

The UCLA professor’s most recent scholarly articles focus on the intersection of fossil fuel resources, economic development and governance, such as “What Drives Successful Economic Diversification in Resource-Rich Countries?” (with Addisu A. Lashitew and Eric Werker), World Bank Research Observer (2020), and “Kleptocracy and Tax Evasion under Resource Abundance,” (with Hamid Mohtadi, Uchechukwu Jarrett and Stefan Ruediger), Politics and Economics (2019).

In addition to scholarly research, Ross is also committed to social action. He currently serves on the advisory boards of the the Natural Resources Governance Institute and the Payne Institute, and is both co-founder and steering committee member of the Project on Resources and Governance. The latter initiative pairs scholars and activists to find solutions to governance problems in resource-rich countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia.

Climate change: Facts and surprises

“Climate change comes from the collective weight of all our economic activities around the world,” comments Ross. “The richer we are, the more we consume and the more we emit. This also makes carbon emissions radically unequal: the world’s richest one percent emits about twice as much as poorest 50 percent.”

The political economy of the problem lies in the interests and motivations of large economic actors, first and foremost, the fossil fuel industry. Ross helps his students explore these interests and how the industry works to protect its interests, and often blocks the adoption of greener technologies.

“I try to give students a deeper appreciation for the reasons why this is such a difficult problem to address politically — that it isn't a matter of 'stupid politicians' not getting it,” explains Ross.

“This is a problem unlike like anything ever faced before by governments. It has very long-term consequences and there is a great deal of confusion about what those consequences will be and who will bear them,” he explains. While no one country can make changes sufficient to turn the tide of climate change, international cooperation on the issue remains difficult.

The long-term perspective needed by governments is further complicated by the fact that the constituents who will bear the most severe costs of inaction today have yet to be born, observes Ross. In the U.S., he adds, additional challenges to addressing climate change include the invisibility of the electrical grid system to most citizens and the ways in which utility companies, acting in their own self-interest, contribute to climate change. Not to mention the fact that U.S. political parties are more polarized on the issue of climate change than even gun control or abortion.

Ross cites three “head-spinning” moments in the course that challenge students’ preconceptions. “They come in expecting to be lectured for infractions against the environment in their lifestyle choices,” he says, but learn that individual actions to combat climate change have only a small impact.” In fact, he says, the idea of the primacy of individual responsibility and lifestyle in addressing climate change is often pushed by fossil fuel companies in a way that obscures the need for large-scale policy changes.

The second shock to students is learning that among energy alternatives and their hazards, nuclear power has a surprisingly good record: it is responsible for the fewest deaths. Lastly, students learn about geo-engineering arguments for large-scale interventions to mitigate global warming. While it often makes students uncomfortable, Ross argues that because climate action is so urgent, no policy options should be “taken off the table.”

Positive developments

Ross believes recent major developments over the past two years herald a new political era in the fight against climate change.

Generational change has produced mass popular mobilization worldwide in favor of addressing climate change, a positive change in political activism. And the cost of fossil-fuel alternatives has now decreased to the point where in most parts of the world, it is now cheaper to replace coal- and gas- turbine power generators with wind and solar technologies.

At a moment when global warming is affecting people’s lives on a daily basis, Ross notes that climate change activists also seem to have finally found a winning public message in the Green New Deal, with its promises of job creation and large-scale economic investments in alternative energy infrastructure.

Previous policy ideas, such as the carbon tax, proved unpopular with the general public due to their intimation of higher costs and consumer sacrifice, he explains. By contrast, the Green New Deal combines the appeal of a positive moral agenda with investments that would generate immediate economic benefits. That approach, he notes, may be able to bridge the political divide on the topic between Republicans and Democrats in the U.S.

Photos of Professor Ross teaching in 2019 by Yuri Sakakibara,UCLA International Institute.

*This article was updated to reflect the total number of registered students as of 2:00 p.m. on Sep. 20, 2020.