by Brandon Martinez | Spring 2018

Several studies have found that a majority of Americans want their government to address the problems of climate change (Tingley and Tomz 2014, 7; Nace 2017), including a 61 percent that “think climate change is an issue and the government ought to do something to confront it” (Nace 2017). The federal government has made few responses. The Obama administration did plan to implement policy, like stricter emissions standards under the Paris Climate Agreement. The downside to this strategy is that it had to circumvent Congress, and now President Trump has a unilateral ability and a desire to reverse these decisions (Lecture 4, February 13). 


The question is, then, why a problem of national concern would fail to produce significant action from a democratic federal government. In other words, what might impede a democratic institution like Congress from addressing climate change today? This essay argues that any action on climate policy would directly threaten valuable informal institutions of mutual toleration and forbearance in Congress by threatening fundamental beliefs in both parties; and that, as of now, both parties have chosen to prioritize these institutions, leading them to under-utilize the formal powers they have. It begins with evidence that the government’s formal channels for making policy are at any time secondary to its informal rules. This is because they cannot secure the same level of trust from institutional actors as norms can. Then, it contends that Congress, in an effort to keep informal institutions intact, and to preserve its trust and legitimacy with the public, has shelved the now-divisive issue of climate change policy. Finally, it concludes that only changes in party dynamics now would produce measurable progress toward mitigating climate change at the national level. 


A major aspect of government work is ensuring that a unit of governance (the nation in Congress’ case) can coerce its citizens into contributing resources for collective goods. These situations signify collective action problems, in that the costs of a decision burden individuals while the benefits only materialize with a high level of cooperation (Ostrom 2010, 551). Without some level of coercion- or, alternately, accountability- one might assume that society would always underprovide collective goods, because people would lack the means to trust that everyone will bear the individual costs for the total net benefit (Ostrom 2010, 551). Reducing carbon emissions embodies this dilemma exactly, because the short-term opportunity costs for individuals (lower electricity use, reduced productivity, etc.) incentivize people to ignore the long-run collective benefits of a cleaner environment. By the logic of collective action problems, then, one would expect the US Congress to take on this challenge. It has the precedence for creating new environmental standards in the US through legislation like the Clean Air and Clean Water Act; and it is the only governing body designed to account for interests of the population and of different states. 


Of course, this arrangement only works if Congress maintains credibility, meaning that individual Congressmen and the public believe the government is legitimate enough to coerce actions from people. In the government, where individuals have the power to implement widely-different notions of society, actors typically construct institutions so they can preserve enough trust to repeatedly cooperate. For the purpose of this essay, the term “institutions” can signify “rules (or sets of rules) that structure social interaction by shaping and constraining actors’ behavior” (Lecture 2, January 30). Rules can be formal, meaning they are written and recorded, like the fact that Congress has a bicameral legislative structure. They can also be informal, meaning the rules are created and enforced without a law, like the tradition of the two-term presidency in the 19th century or the Senate filibuster (Lecture 2, January 30). Many of these so-called “norms” could be transformed into legislation, which occurred with presidential term limits through the 23rd Amendment. Still, they are mostly not, because the action itself is less important than the trust and prudence it implies for all the actors in a system. The filibuster, for example, allows senators to delay votes on legislation indefinitely, which in the extreme can be wielded to shut down the government and prevent any laws from passing. However, Levitsky and Ziblatt (2018) note that, to preserve the chance to make future legislation, members of the Senate have historically used the tool sparingly, as a measure of last resort (135). 


Formal institutions cannot signal this measure of good faith from all parties, because they are oftentimes tools for political actors to have and use power. For instance, Congress can impeach the President at any time for “high Crimes and Misdemeanors,” and that discretion would not reassure the president’s party that it can trust the opposition to not use it if it gained the legislative majority. Formal rule end cooperation because they allow actors in the system to punish those who disobey, making them too coercive to foster cooperation. Informal rules, by contrast, allow political rivals to display good faith, because it shows that they are not willing to use tools at their disposal to seek short-term advantages or undermine their opponents. While formal rules are important because they affect the balance of power in government, norms are the only way to ensure the powerful govern prudently. Without norms, legislators would lose the trust they need to govern alongside political opponents, and would give the public reason to doubt the government’s credibility, too. 


In particular, much of the reason the US sustains democracy comes from two norms Levitsky and Ziblatt coined: mutual toleration and forbearance. The authors explain mutual toleration as “the idea that as long as…rivals play by constitutional rules, [actors] accept they have an equal right to exist, compete for power, and govern” (Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018, 102). This certainly is not an easy norm to develop, as it involves both courtesy and for legislators who always have the power to radically change the policies of the country to show restraint (Levitsky and Ziblatt, 134). Theoretically, mutual toleration is possible anywhere. Axelrod (2006) demonstrates that, so long as cooperative individuals can start interacting with each other frequently enough (as in Congress), then cooperation can emerge among egoists, even in a world of defection (68). Still, a key component of this is that actors (in this case, legislators) believe other actors (opponents) are going to play the “game” repeatedly for a significantly-long time (Axelrod 2006, 59). 


This connects with Levitsky and Ziblatt’s idea of forbearance, which they regard as a necessary willingness among officials to avoid “actions that, while respecting the letter of the law, obviously violate its spirit” (Axelrod 2006, 106). If American politicians believe democratic institutions are less important than defeating the other party, then the likelihood of a continued relationship with them will diminish (Axelrod 2006, 60), and they will be more willing to “defect” with short-term strategies and hardball tactics. In the US, Levitsky and Ziblatt document that, in fact, this has been occurring more frequently over time. They cite the GOP’s refusal to negotiate to prevent a government shutdown and to give President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee a hearing as examples (Levitsky and Ziblatt, 150, 166). They warn that, should these norms continue to lose value in Congress, the US will no longer have the tools of restraint to stop authoritarians from rendering formal institutions useless or eroding the public’s trust in democracy (Levitsky and Ziblatt, 187-191).  


The issue for handling problems of climate change, then, is that both parties fundamentally disagree about the problem. Republican lawmakers have either expressed doubt that climate change exists-like President Trump, for example, tweeting his belief that climate change is a myth concocted by Chinese leaders to hurt American economic growth (Trump 2012)- or that emission rate reductions would create too much economic loss or government overreach to be worth it. Democrats, on the other hand, have continued to follow the scientific consensus that climate change exists and is significantly man-made (Lecture 4, February 13). In response, they have advocated for environmental regulations that they believe will limit these man-made contributions. These positions are irreconcilable: since the policies stem from radically-different beliefs about the problem (i.e. existence versus non-existence), any action from either side is tantamount to that party disregarding the other side’s worldview.

The result, therefore, is that however large the natural and physical consequences of climate change may be, members of Congress now believe the political consequences of making a decision would be far worse. Granted, the politics around the issue would be different if the voters who support unconditional action on limiting emissions, said to be in the majority (Tingley and Tomz 2014, 9) chose to punish Republicans at the polls for not supporting that idea. Nonetheless, now the positions are so fundamentally opposed that, were one side to pass a bill without the other’s support, that party would lack mutual toleration. Climate change mitigation now resembles the divisiveness civil and voting rights held in the 19th century, in that each party feels threatened by the other’s views; and, similarly, both sides have removed the issue from the agenda to remove that threat (Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018, 124). Mutual tolerance also encourages forbearance, and this might lead Congressmen to reason that a vote on climate change policy would violate the “spirit” of majority rule, namely that majorities should not wield their power to threaten minority interests. Were a party to use its majority for a vote, it would likely provoke retaliation once that party lost power. As noted already, forbearance is arguably in decline in the US, so a level of restraint on this issue among others may prevent a further deterioration of relations between the parties. 


Support for this argument comes from an instance when the parties acted unrestrainedly, and learned the hard way that they would have to respect their differences of opinion and policy. In 2015, President Obama bypassed Congress with a memorandum that instructed agencies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018, 164). The response was swift and severe: Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appealed to states to ignore the law, undermining the President’s legitimacy and authority (Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018, 164). Rather than McConnell’s move inciting another round of retaliation from both parties, however, it put an end to it. It seems paradoxical that retaliation restored norms to a policy arena, until one recalls a central goal of forbearance: to cooperate in the future. 


Axelrod (2006) abstracts from the US context in his computer tournament to pit strategies for the Prisoners’ Dilemma (a type of collective action problem) against each other. He demonstrates that the winner “Tit for Tat,” a strategy which starts by cooperating and mirrors the other player the rest of the time (Axelrod 2006, 31), is in part successful because it has a willingness to forgive other players- that is, it has a propensity to resume cooperating after a defection (Axelrod 2006, 38). Although McConnell’s retaliation did punish the Obama administration’s “defection” on the norm of shelving the emissions issue, the element of forgiveness allowed both sides to restart the relationship and focus on future areas of cooperation. Norms, though shaken by a breach in mutual toleration, remain intact. 


With an abundance of evidence linking human activity and a rise in global temperatures, and as citizens of the third-highest-emitting country by quantity (Lecture 4, February 14), many Americans have expected the federal government to take the role of the external, rule-enforcing authority (Ostrom 2010, 551). After all, if climate change is as severe as the scientific community and much of the public perceives it to be, then Republican lawmakers’ resistance to solving the problem will only make the problem worse. However, this essay has shown that, in order to maintain norms of mutual toleration and forbearance, Congress has refused to create new laws to solve any real problem that may exist. 


Until a common understanding of the problem exists, then, or some issue in the environmental area emerges on which both parties can compromise and give support, no sustainable decisions will occur in the near future. This finding has several implications. First, it suggests that emissions mitigation policy has been passed in other countries because a stable, large majority of the political elite have chosen to name man-made emissions as the cause of climate change. In other words, collective action problems are only unresolvable (from a policy perspective) insofar as democratic leaders cannot agree on any aspect of defining the problem. Second, it affirms that the US does still have functioning informal institutions, and that they are fairly resilient to violations. Because institutional actors seem to forgive each other for one-shot mistakes, it will likely take more defections for the mutual toleration that exists today to decline in the policy area even more. Concessions and a willingness to ignore the problem may hurt the efficacy of government in one function, but they ultimately save the government’s ability to solve collective action problems and provide public goods.


[1] Axelrod, Robert. The Evolution of Cooperation: Revised Edition. (2006) New York: Basic. pp. 1-87, 109-191

[2] Betchel, Michael M., and Kenneth F. Scheve. “Mass support for global climate agreements depends on institutional design.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110.34 (2014): 344-368.

[3] Enos, Ryan. “Climate Change.” Lecture 4, Government 97, Cambridge, February 13, 2018.

[4] Enos, Ryan. “Populism and Authoritarianism.” Lecture 2, Government 97, Cambridge, January 30, 2018.

[5] Levitsky, Steven and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. (2018) New York: Crown. 

[6] Nace, Trevor. “Majority of Americans Want the Government to Fight Climate Change.” Forbes, October 4, 2017. 

[7] Ostrom, Elinor. “Polycentric systems for coping with collective action and global environmental change.” Global Environmental Change 20.4 (2010): 550-557.

[8] Tingley, Dustin, and Michael Tomz. “Conditional cooperation and climate change.” Comparative Political Studies 47.3 (2014): 1-25.

[9] Trump, Donald. “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” November 6, 2012, 11:15 AM.

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