Energy & Climate Change

Energy & Climate Change - Christian Maximilian Stadler

In 1996, Professor Kenneth H. Keller, at that time professor at the Hubert Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, published an article titled “Unpackaging the Environment” that detailed the steady rise of the environmentalist movement since the 1960s and proposed that the entire “concept of the environment” needed to be reformulated.1 Exactly 20 years after publication, Professor Keller was available to talk with me about his work. This paper therefore represents a summary of the original piece and offers an updated perspective and critical evaluation of the developments ever since. 

The article’s general theme is that the term “environment” has become too extensive and overburdened by moving “from the periphery to stage center,” and under these circumstances it is no longer possible to set effective policies. The wide range of interpretations can be seen in the number of areas where the umbrella term “environment” is now applied. These include international trade negotiations like NAFTA with vague environmental side agreements, multinational companies including environmental issues in their strategic planning, and major international conferences like the Montreal Convention 1987 and Earth Summit in Rio 1992. In addition to the generally broader usage of the term, certain policymakers have also begun to link the term with national security concerns, in order to advance their specific agenda. In doing so, the lines have become further blurred and the “environment” has become inseparable from other issues. Consequently, the success of enacted policies has been modest, and they have not been able to correctly address the multitude of problems for which they were intended. In order to remedy this problem and further the “spotty progress,” Keller elaborates, under eleven subheadings, on the emergence of environmentalism and offers his assessment of how to solve the dilemma. In the section below, the most important subheadings have been summarized in order to prepare for the subsequent discussion. 

The author dates the rise of the environmental movement to the 1960s and 70s when influential books like The Silent Spring (1962) by Rachel Carson or Small is Beautiful (1972) by E.F. Schumacher raised concerns about the use of pesticides and obtrusive technologies. Initially these fears were value-driven and located at the brink of society. Advancements in technology and a multitude of sophisticated measurements finally expanded the “rubric of the environment” and resulted in the inception of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970. Globally, population growth and energy consumption have continued to increase at staggering rates, causing a debate between the “North” and “South” as to whom is ultimately responsible for solving the problem of global warming. While the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio (1992) brought hope, the lack of follow-through and the over-broadened closing document “Agenda 21,” with 14 chapters and hundreds of subsections, hindered any meaningful progress. 

Starting with the subheading “Decoupling the Issues,” the author suggests that by dividing the “environmental problématique,” responsibility can be spread over multiple actors and ultimately this can allow us to gain the necessary flexibility in order to assign problems to the closest policy area. 

A categorization according to geography, cause, effect, time horizon, and relative importance in terms of national interest, accelerates policy-making and opens the door for meaningful progress. 

The new taxonomy exemplifies that some environmental problems are not very urgent due to their long time horizon, but are absolutely vital for the survival of mankind. This insight demonstrates that the responsibility for solving climate change cannot be assigned to a massive, highly organized, and hierarchical organization with well-established chains of command, like the military, but rather it has to be tackled on an international level, with a team of highly-trained and experienced diplomats. 

The article’s conclusion stresses that a “one size fits all” approach needs to be avoided at all costs. Only a set of micro-strategies for each individual problem can be successful in the long run and overcome the broad but shallow public concern about the environment. 

While discussing his piece and events of the past 20 years in the environmental realm, Keller argues that the article is – quite shockingly as he admits – still very much up to date. 

Nevertheless, he thinks that the unpackaging of the environment has not yet been successful.2 

While the urgency and severity of environmental problems like climate change has increased considerably, Keller believes that more can be done and that the Paris Agreement (2015) is a big step forward in this direction. By utilizing an individualized approach to setting Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), his article’s plea appears to have finally found resonance amongst policymakers. This is an improvement from earlier agreements like the Kyoto Protocol (1997), which he argues steered in the wrong direction by deploying a simple “one size fits all” approach and giving out the general target for developed countries to decrease GHG emissions by five percent below 1990 levels. Asked about whether the environment has emancipated itself from other topics and whether it can now be considered its own matter when formulating policies and evaluating projects, he makes a differentiation between Europe and the United States. In his opinion it is still way too easy in the United States to override environmental concerns by quoting cost increases. Europe, on the other hand, has adopted much more stringent rules in support for environmental concerns.3