Beyond Politics Changes Climate Change Conversation



NASHVILLE, TN – Discussions about environmentalism often focus exclusively on the government, politicizing the issues, and often end in fruitless argument. Tired of watching debates run in circles while the situation worsened,  Michael Vandenbergh and Jonathan Gilligan began research 15 years ago to confirm their belief that the private sector holds the potential to affect serious progress in the battle against climate change. The result is Beyond Politics: A Private Governance Response to Climate Change, a book designed to shift the conversation away from political deadlock.  Beyond Politics draws on law, policy, social science, and climate science to demonstrate how private initiatives are already bypassing government inaction in the US and around the globe.

Michael Vandenbergh is a leading environmental law scholar whose research explores innovative ways to avoid the gridlock that has dominated national and international environmental law and policy over the last several decades. Vandenbergh began his legal career as a clerk to Judge Edward R. Becker of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. He has served as Environmental Protection Agency chief of staff and as a partner in the Washington, D.C. office of Latham & Watkins, a global law firm. Since joining the law faculty at Vanderbilt University, his research has tackled the gridlock problem by examining the roles of private environmental governance and behavioral science-based approaches to environmental law and policy.

Jonathan Gilligan is Associate Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences and Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Vanderbilt University. His teaching and research focuses on drawing connections between human behavior and the environment to understand how people’s decisions and actions affect the environment, and how the changing environment affects their quality of life. He is a member of the Vanderbilt Institute for Energy and Environment and the Vanderbilt Initiative for Smart-City Operations Research, and is a founding member of the Erdos Institute for Collaborative Research, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship.




About the Book

In an interview Michael and Jonathan can discuss:

  • The importance of focusing on the private sector’s response to climate change
  • Will private sector action on climate change just displace government action?
  • The role that private sector action plays in ultimately solving climate change problem



“Beyond Politics:
The Private Governance Response to Climate Change”
Michael P. Vandenbergh & Jonathan M. Gilligan | 11/30/2017 | Cambridge University Press
ISBN 13: 978-1316632482 | Paperback $29.99
ISBN 13: 978-1107181229 | Hardback $89.99



An Interview with Michael Vandenbergh and Jonathan Gilligan

PressKitAuthorPhotoVandenberghHow did you two start working on this project together?
We started working together around 2004 on a project studying how Evangelical Christians in the American South were thinking about and responding to environmental problems. In the course of this project, we met with and talked at length with many people who were deeply politically conservative and who also felt a strong moral obligation to care for the environment as a way of respecting and honoring God’s creation. During the course of this work, we spent two years meeting together every week or two for lengthy discussions and each of us powerfully influenced the other.

Jonathan taught Mike about global warming and convinced him that it was by far the most important environmental problem facing humanity.

Mike taught Jonathan that a surprisingly large fraction of pollution, including greenhouse gases, originated with things that individuals and households do that can’t be practically regulated by the government, and that even for big business and industry, private governance can have powerful effects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and can do so even without government regulation.

PressKitAuthorPhotoGilliganWhat are conversations concerning climate change in the scientific community starting to look like?
Within the scientific community, there is very broad and strong agreement among scientists that there is overwhelming evidence that human activity is changing the climate by emitting greenhouse gases, and that these changes are very likely to cause serious damage to the global economy and to people’s quality of life around the world. While these basic ideas are solidly established at a global level, scientists have much less confidence in their ability to predict exactly how and when climate change will affect specific places. Current trends in research involve some scientists working on improving the detailed understanding of climate in order to improve the ability to predict specific regional and local impacts of climate change while other scientists work on studying how people can both limit the severity of climate change and also adapt to a changing climate, so changes in temperature, rainfall, and sea level will not have as great an impact of economic activity, health, and quality of life.

Among lawyers and policymakers, the issues are much more divisive.  We find that experts who support doing something about climate change too often assume that government must the actor and that anything short of a complete solution is not worth pursuing.  In the process, they often overlook the role that the private sector – whether corporations, civic or religious organizations, or households – can play in buying time for public opinion to catch up to the climate science.

Is a private sector response something that moderates, conservatives and libertarians can find attractive?
Yes, a private sector response is something that moderates, conservatives and libertarians – and people across the political spectrum – can agree on. Two thirds of the American population think that big government is the biggest threat facing the country, so if responding to climate change seems to require a big government response, it is easy to see why they might be reluctant to accept the climate science. If liberals, conservatives, and libertarians can say, “Let’s put our disagreements about big government aside and ask whether there is a useful role for the private sector right now,” then they should be able to support private sector climate actions. For liberals, private governance can bypass political gridlock and reduce greenhouse gases quickly. For conservatives and libertarians, successful private sector action can show how big government regulation is not the only answer to environmental problems and can reduce the ultimate scale and intrusiveness of the government climate response. If private governance proves wildly successful, then it can convince both households and private businesses that they too can reduce their greenhouse gas emissions without breaking the bank or having to give up their comfortable lives (which everyone will like), and it can also reduce pressure for intrusive regulations (which conservatives and libertarians will like).

Is it plausible that private actions can achieve a billion tons of carbon reductions each year over the next decade?
Yes. We have carefully analyzed the potential for households to voluntarily reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and are confident that in the U.S. alone, practical incentives and marketing can inexpensively reduce household emissions by almost half a billion tons per year through purely voluntary actions. If we consider the additional potential for savings by households in Canada, Australia, Europe, and other parts of the world, we are very confident that well over half a billion tons per year of emissions reduction are very possible from the household sector alone. It is much more difficult to quantify the potential for emissions reduction by the business sector, but we have collected examples from many corporate initiatives and programs operated by nongovernmental not-for-profit organizations, which have produced substantial reductions in emissions, and several studies over the last several years have concluded that the potential from the private sector is in the billions of tons. Although we cannot provide a conclusive, detailed analysis comparable to our household analysis, we are confident that there are ready opportunities for well over half a billion tons per year of emissions reduction from the corporate sector. In this book, we focus on the figure of one billion tons per year of emissions reductions as a very cautious, conservative estimate, and we believe that there is a good change that much larger reductions may be possible, once people begin to look for them more energetically.

Who should act in response to this book?  What should they do?
The most important action that all readers of this book can take is to take the conceptual leap from assuming that only governments can respond to climate change to understanding that private organizations of all types, and even households, can play an important role.  Once this conceptual shift occurred for us, we began to see for the first time the breadth and depth of the private climate governance actions that are going on around the world and we began to think of new ways in which private organizations and individuals can act. We are confident that readers of this book, once they make the conceptual leap, will do so as well.
We hope to this book speaks to scholars, business and advocacy group managers, philanthropists, policymakers and anyone interested in climate change.

For scholars, shifting the focus from “What can government do?” regarding climate change to “What can any organization do?” can produce multiple productive new lines of theoretical and empirical inquiry.
For business managers in firms that are already taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint, the book demonstrates the importance of existing efficiency and climate activities and points to many new approaches underway across multiple sectors.

– For business managers in firms that have not taken initial steps on climate change, the book demonstrates the value of doing so and the reputational and other risks of delaying action.

– For philanthropists and managers of environmental advocacy organizations that are focused on pushing governments to act but are worried about the prospects for success, the book identifies a parallel track that may be far more important now than ever before.  For those who are already engaged in private climate initiatives, the book provides ideas about new areas for expansion and where to place priorities in existing efforts.

– For those philanthropists and managers who are conservative or libertarian, the book provides a way to respond to the possibility that the climate scientists are correct without abandoning core values.

– For the managers of religious, civic and cultural organizations, the book demonstrates the importance of viewing your organization as a source of emissions, not just as part of the effort to induce governments to act, and it provides ideas drawn from what other organizations have already done.

– For policymakers who are motivated to do something about climate change, the book identifies a variety of ways in which government can enhance the prospects of the most promising private initiatives.

Last, but certainly not least, for the general public the book demonstrates the importance of household actions and identifies dozens of specific steps that individuals can take to contribute to the fight against climate change.
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